The year was 2000 and a Boulder lawmaker stood in front of his colleagues in the Colorado House of Representatives and implored them to make proposed tax cuts temporary instead of permanent.
Democrat Todd Saliman, a member of the Joint Budget Committee, pointed to Colorado’s history of booms and busts. If the economy tanked, he said, the legislature would have to ask the voters for a tax increase, a tough, tough sell, particularly in tough times.
It was hard to envision that happening. Colorado was on a roll.
National news crews had flocked to Denver in the 1990s to tell the story of good times in the Centennial state. Huge crowds attended Rockies baseball games at Mile High Stadium while Coors Field was under construction nearby. Growth in Douglas County exploded, making it consistently one of the fastest-growing counties in the country.
The days of downtown Denver office vacancy rates hovering near 30 percent and unemployment in Pueblo at 20 percent seemed much longer than a decade ago.
It was all so wonderful, until it wasn’t.
Of course the boom/bust cycle occurred, forcing the six lawmakers who served on the Joint Budget Committee during those times to cut programs they knew were necessary to make Colorado a better state.
“It was emotionally draining,” recalled former House Speaker Mark Ferrandino. “It was always, ‘What’s the least worst choice you can make?’ because you have to make a lot of painful choices.”
And now, here we go again, but this time it’s so, so, so, so much worse.
The economy typically bounces back from a stock market crash or another kind of economic downturn.
But so much is unknown during this pandemic. Restaurants and bars have been shuttered and some likely won’t be reopening. Unemployment claims are at an all-time high. And as stay-at-home orders lift, the question remains whether a second wave of deaths will hit Colorado. So far, there is no vaccination for the coronavirus, and it’s unclear when one will be developed.
The situation is so much different than Gov. Jared Polis’ first year in office in 2019. With Democrats controlling the governor’s mansion, the House and the Senate, lawmakers funded pet programs, including Polis’ dream of all-day kindergarten.
This year they were looking to pass a bill creating a public option for health insurance in Colorado, but then the coronavirus crisis hit. That measure was put on hold.
The legislature cleared out of the Capitol in March but the Joint Budget Committee returned earlier this month — sitting 6 feet apart and mostly wearing masks — to try to figure out where to make massive cuts because of a predicted $3.3 billion shortfall. Yes, billion.
The discussions were so painful that some JBC staffers were reduced to tears, as were those who listened to the discussions online.
Lobbyist Benjamin Waters posted on Facebook on May 6 that “this is the exact moment my heart absolutely shattered during this pandemic.”
“Sitting in my office across the street from the Capitol listening to fiscal analysts present options to the Joint Budget Committee on cutting $3 billion from a $30 billion state budget,” he said. “And one of those amazing tough-as-nails analysts who we work with to protect extremely vulnerable populations choked up knowing that years of work to make our state a better place is going up in flames due to circumstances well beyond our control.
“And I just want to give her a hug. But I can’t.”
Among those who commented on Waters’ post was former lawmaker Brad Young, a Lamar Republican.
“Very difficult times,” Young wrote. “Much worse than we had to deal with during previous downturns.”
Young served on the Joint Budget Committee from 2000 to 2004. One of his colleagues on the panel was Saliman.
The booming economy slowed in 2000 and then the following year 9/11 hit, which reduced tourism. Then came the dot-com bust. Falling revenues combined with permanent tax cuts enacted in 1999 and 2000 meant lawmakers had to cut the budget instead of figuring out what to do with all that money.
Young said what really hurt were cuts to Medicaid, including a breast cancer treatment program. The state made national news after lawmakers decided to end Medicaid benefits for legal immigrants, including Russians who had survived World War II.
Democrat Penfield Tate of Denver began serving on the JBC in 2001.
“It’s one thing to have debates over how to appropriate money, but it’s a far different conversation when you have no money and you have to make cuts,” Tate said. “Every item in the budget is important to someone.”
At the start of the 2004 session, lawmakers announced they would have to cut millions more from the already bare-bones budget, which could lead to closing state parks, cutting health care for the poor and curtailing spending at state colleges.
"I predict it will be the worst budget year the state has ever seen," said Sen. Dave Owen, R-Greeley, then vice chairman of the Joint Budget Committee.
Nope. Those were yet to come.
Colorado would recover, although signs popped up of problems to come. Shortly before Democrat Bill Ritter was elected governor in 2006, housing prices fell for the first time in 11 years. Many believed the market would recover.
The Colorado legislature in the 2007 and 2008 sessions increased funding for vulnerable and uninsured populations, including mental health services, and higher ed got more money. But the economic picture grew grimmer over the summer and fall of 2008, with talk of bank bailouts, problems in the mortgage industry and the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy.
The stock market crashed on Sept. 28.
Ferrandino, a Denver Democrat who served on the Joint Budget Committee at the time, said the initial impact was bearable because lawmakers moved cash funds around and received federal recovery act money. After that, it was a nightmare. Lawmakers, for example, didn’t fully fund K-12 education. Rural school districts in particular suffered from what was known as the “negative factor” as they failed to receive the money they needed.
“It was tough but you don’t have a choice but to balance the budget,” Ferrandino said.
And that’s what lawmakers are going to try to do when they go back into session Tuesday.
Already a consortium of groups has urged Polis and lawmakers to save programs from budget cuts by applying a "three-pronged approach,” including a temporary tax increase, using federal coronavirus aid and tapping into state budget reserves to fill budget gaps.
The decisions are never easy and they are particularly tough for members of the Joint Budget Committee, composed of three senators and three representatives.
The senators are Democrats Dominick Moreno of Commerce City and Rachel Zenzinger of Arvada, and Republican Bob Rankin of Carbondale. The representatives are Democrats Daneya Esgar of Pueblo and Julie McCluskie of Dillon, and Republican Kim Ransom of Douglas County.
They deserve our prayers and gratitude.