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.

If the wheels of government turn slowly, then right now they’re skidding sideways down an Eastern Plains blacktop for Democrats’ progressive agenda.

People are still looking to state government to pony up more dollars for new ideas and noble causes, and for the life of me, I don’t know why. What is the part people aren't yet getting about $3.3 billion in cuts, roughly a quarter of the state's operating budget, caused by the economic collapse that was caused by a global catastrophe?

In a few months' time, Gov. Jared Polis has gone from Daddy Warbucks to Uncle Empty Pockets.

Folks seem to think there's a secret pot of money somewhere to fund their causes, however, just as others think the governor is conspiring to wreck the state's economy just to bring down President Trump. Neither makes sense.

Yet, to each of us, our cause or conspiracy is special and true, despite evidence otherwise.

About 20 years ago I asked my friend Marty Wiseman at the John C. Stennis Institute of Government why Mississippi had such a long history of shaking its fist at conventional political wisdom.

Voters had just decided, overwhelmingly, to keep the Confederate battle flag in the upper left corner of the state flag. The argument for change was that companies would never locate to a Mississippi that clings to its confederate past. Old times there are not forgotten. Two decades later the Magnolia State continues to have one of the most stagnant economies in the country.

“Sometimes, even when you know you’re licked, there’s nobility in fighting the great lost cause,” Marty explained, channeling Atticus Finch.

Colorado is a state of noble people who are dealing with the budget and arguing over the safest ways to restart the economy.

State government is begging, too.

On May 14, Senate Democrats created an online petition and sent a letter to Congress asking for a federal rescue.  

House and Senate Democrats sent a letter to Congress asking for relief, as well.

“With a severe budget shortfall, we are doing everything we can to protect education and critical health-and-safety services,” said Rep. Daneya Esgar, a Pueblo Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee. “We have spent the last several weeks reviewing options for how we can balance the budget responsibly, and it’s clear that without more federal aid, our state will see heartbreaking cuts to essential services. We need our leaders in Washington to come together and support our communities through this crisis.”

In her newsletter to constituents, Democratic Sen. Faith Winter of Westminster warned that fiscal winter is coming.

“The extent of the cuts we have to make is going to be painful and hurt people,” she wrote.

Lawmakers appear destined to consider a temporary tax. Rumors of a special session have circulated, and Monday 135 groups on the left jointly asked lawmakers for just that. The also asked that they use state reserves and federal dollars to "forge a more equitable path forward for children, Colorado’s rural areas, elder citizens, people with disabilities and communities of color particularly hurt by the ongoing crisis."

The fights over shrinking coffers don’t end in Denver.

Outdoor industry advocates held a conference call May 15 to talk about the importance of restoring the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the pot of money for public lands filled by oil and gas lease dollars. President Trump sought to slash the fund by 97% to reduce the size of government, in the wake of tax cuts.

In March, before the pandemic roof fell in, Trump called for Congress to fully fund it again.

LWCF funding has long been a fight for Colorado, a state rich in public lands and national treasures. Now the rescue is complicated by competing priorities.

Colorado Sens. Cory Gardner, a Republican, and Michael Bennet, a Democrat, have been the chief proponents for reauthorizing the LWCF, with mixed results.

In February, U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse, a freshman Democrat from Boulder County, pushed against the president's budget cuts. 

“The President’s budget request completely ignores the climate crisis and the needs of working families," Neguse said. "His proposal eliminates NOAA’s Climate Competitive Research program, reducing support for high priority climate science and adaptation efforts that are essential to combating the climate crisis." 

Last week, Neguse was on a call with other Democrats seeking federal relief for local governments to pay for critical services, including essential workers, firefighters and police.

Lori Buck, the mayor of Fruita, led the telephone conversation among outdoor advocates. She called public lands a stimulus that shows results for the local businesses.

The Trust for Public Land estimates that for every dollar that goes into the LWCF, the economy earns four, she noted. 

“When you look at the stimulus options available to Congress, LWCF is going to provide one of the highest returns on investments," Buck said, "and these projects are uplifting, they feel good, they give people a sense of place and pride and most of them are shovel-ready."

Every great idea comes with a price tag, however, and a lot of these requests will remain more a wish than a reality until we know how far and how deep we have to go to get out of this crisis.

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