Joint Budget Committee

Members of the Colorado legislature's Joint Budget Committee are, top row from left, Rep. Daneya Esgar of Pueblo (chair), Sen. Dominick Moreno of Commerce City (vice chair), Rep. Kim Ransom of Douglas County, Sen. Bob Rankin of Carbondale, Rep. Julie McCluskie of Dillon and Sen. Ranchel Zenzinger of Arvada.

After a delay of several days, the Colorado House has begun debate on the Long Appropriations Bill, the 2020-21 state budget.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have submitted at least 70 amendments to House Bill 1360, with 64 of them coming from House Republicans. Rep. Dave Williams, a Colorado Springs Republican, has his name on 25 amendments. He explained to the House Tuesday morning that he's trying to protect seniors and the senior homestead property tax exemption.

That's $163.6 million in general fund dollars. That comes from the portion of the state budget that's been hit hardest by revenue declines, and where the Joint budget Committee had to cut $3.3 billion.

The homestead exemption is in the Colorado constitution, but the law allows lawmakers to suspend it in times of financial crisis, which last happened during the Great Recession a decade ago. At that time, lawmakers suspended the exemption for three years.

The JBC's two Republicans, Sen. Bob Rankin of Carbondale and Rep. Kim Ransom of Littleton, both voted against suspending the exemption. However, Rankin said he has wanted for years to reform the program to make it "means-tested." 

That's backed up by the Colorado Fiscal Institute, which reported in 2019 that: 

  • About half of older Coloradans don’t qualify for the exemption, either because they rent or because they haven’t lived in their homes for more than 10 years.
  • The exemption disproportionately benefits white homeowners over homeowners of other races.
  • Those who qualify for the exemption are slightly less likely to be experiencing poverty than all older Coloradans.

Those who qualify must be 65 years or older, be in their homes for at least 10 years, and receive a property tax exemption equivalent to 50% of the first $200,000 in actual value of the primary residence. But those property taxes must be repaid, once the homeowner no longer lives in that residence.

The lack of a unanimous vote meant the JBC wouldn't offer a bill, but that doesn't prohibit individual members from doing so, and that was the concern raised by Williams Tuesday. 

JBC Chair Rep. Daneya Esgar, a Pueblo Democrat, told the House the exemption funding "is in the budget" and that "they" wouldn't do a bill on it, implying the JBC wouldn't sponsor it.

Williams challenged the Democratic JBC members to state plainly that there wouldn't be a late bill on suspending the exemption. Neither Esgar nor Rep. Julie McCluskie of Dillon responded. Williams said their silence meant "the majority probably is going to suspend the homestead exemption and some seniors could lose their homes."

Those comments came during a discussion of one of Williams' 25 amendments, one that would cut all funding for the Colorado State Fair, which raised the hackles of both Esgar and Rep. Bri Buentello, also a Pueblo Democrat.

During the debate, she tweeted "Leave it to a rep from Colorado Springs to totally devalue the #Pueblo #StateFair + try to mansplain the value of this annual #agriculture #tradition to the Chairwoman of the Joint Budget Committee and a Rep on the #ruralaffairs committee."

It became clear, however, that rural lawmakers, including Republicans, weren't crazy about it. Rep. Richard Holtorf of Akron told lawmakers "I cannot support the amendment as written." Holtorf pointed out he had participated in the state fair as a youth, even winning awards.

The GOP's most conservative lawmakers also went after popular targets such as family planning, sex education and the state's civil rights commission, with amendments that intended to strip the funding from those programs. Rep. Shane Sandridge, a Colorado Springs Republican, said that sex education should be provided by parents.

But Rep. Susan Lontine, a Denver Democrat, pointed out that funding for the sex education curriculum had already been cut and that students needed medically and scientifically-accurate sex education. Republicans also targeted the Healthy Kids Survey, a frequent target in budget debates. The bi-annual survey is administered by the state Department of Public Health and Environment and asks middle and high school students about drug use, suicide, sexual behavior and other health issues. 

The governor's airplane also came up for cuts. Polis is a wealthy man, owns his own plane and doesn't need the state to pay for a state plane, Sandridge said.

Esgar, in asking for a "no" vote, pointed out that the state's five airplanes are owned by the Department of Public Safety, not the governor's office, and have been recently put to use during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Rep. Kerry Tipper, a Lakewood Democrat, said she found it difficult to have a discussion about defunding the civil rights commission while people in Denver and nationwide are protesting the death of George Floyd, the black man who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer who put his knee into Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes. "It's the absolute wrong time to gut the commission," she said. 

The final amendment, also offered by Williams, was to cut from state agencies enough to fully fund the homestead property tax exemption, sticking to his claim that Democrats will offer a late bill to suspend the program. "I'd be happy to withdraw this amendment if I could be assured there isn't going to be a late bill" going after the exemption.

Other than asking for a "no" vote," Democrats did not make that assurance.

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