060921 Colorado Capitol

In this file photo, the Colorado State Capitol is pictured on the final day of the legislative session on June 8, 2021, in Denver.

It can take years in office for a lot of politicians to mature when it comes to spending the public’s money. For the handful of Colorado lawmakers appointed to the state legislature’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, the transformation takes only days.

Lawmakers who were hardly known as penny pinchers before sitting on the panel learned quickly there are no free lunches.

“We don't have (the) federal funds to really help us close the gap this year. What that means is we're going have to prioritize, and prioritizing sounds easy, but it's really, really, really hard because everything is a priority,” Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, D-Arvada, told our news affiliate Colorado Politics in an interview covering her new duties as budget committee chair.

New committee member and state Rep. Shannon Bird, D-Westminster, was all about basics in another recent Colorado Politics profile.

“To the extent we invest in different programs, we undercut the state's ability to invest in responsibilities like K-12 education or maintaining capital infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, which are the foundation to the future. People are still driving cars; we suffer when basic infrastructure isn't maintained,” Bird said, coming across as almost Republican.

Even state Rep. Emily Sirota, D-Denver — one of the Capitol’s most unabashed advocates of more government and programs — has been singing a different tune since her recent appointment to the committee.

“We are heading into challenging budget times in the coming fiscal years,” she said. “…I won’t have to do the convincing of my colleagues. The money just isn’t there. So hopefully everyone’s got plenty of bill ideas that don’t cost the state money.”

Perhaps it’s no surprise. Committee members must play a pivotal role reining in the expectations of politically ambitious colleagues who are only too happy to grow government on the taxpayer’s dime. The JBC is sometimes the last line of defense against runaway spending.

There are other safeguards against overspending, of course. Notably, the state constitution’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. There’s also the legal requirement to balance the state budget each year. Yet, the JBC’s budget-drafting authority can have a sobering influence on lawmakers who might otherwise spend like drunken sailors on leave.

The six committee members essentially are sequestered in a building across from the Capitol and given a dollar figure by the state’s economists. They’re told all the state does or plans to do has to fit into that number. It’s the budget’s bottom line. Sure, the Governor’s Office has some input with a proposed budget of its own, but it’s the JBC that writes the real deal.

What’s downright remarkable is the impact of handing the purse strings to lawmakers who now have to tell the rest of the legislature, “We’d better spend it wisely.”

That’s especially consequential following an election in which Democrats not only continue to wield all the levers of power in state government but also now hold a veto-proof legislative majority. The party is not known for caution in controlling the public purse.

To be sure, the state budget has grown dramatically over the past couple of decades, despite the guardrails.

Yet, given only so much money to work with — TABOR limits spending increases even in good years — it does indeed come down to priorities, as the JBC members more or less agree.

Will the new Democratic super-majority spend it on bread and butter or waste it on fluff? It may come down to the JBC to hold the line.

Denver Gazette Editorial Board

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