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State House Gives Initial Nod to Budget

After a lengthy and at times heated debate that went late into the evening Wednesday, house lawmakers gave initial approval of the state's  $18 billion budget.  The so-called "long bill" has already cleared the state senate but it has faced opposition in the house from some Democrats still weary of deep cuts to education.

The budget also cuts state employee benefits, and restores several business tax cuts. Speaker of the House Frank McNulty (R-Highlands Ranch) said it’s the first budget he’s voted for in his five years at the legislature.

"One of the most important things we can do is pass a budget that’s honest and responsible," McNulty said. "We will not pass a budget on money we don’t have."

After weeks of tense negotiations, legislative leaders in both parties reached a compromise on the budget that also appears to pass muster of Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper.  Republicans won a few concessions to keep a higher rainy day fund and restore a sales tax exemption for agriculture products and
software sales.

Representative Brian DelGrosso (R-Loveland) said those exemptions save businesses money.

"You have to pay an accountant to say this money goes back to here and there and everywhere, you have to pay somebody to write the checks." DelGrosso said.  "It’s not free for me to collect taxes for the state of Colorado."

Democrats aren't buying that.

"I’m so tired of the implication that our businesses are so put upon," said Rep. Lois Court (D-Denver). 
"They are beneficiaries of living in a civil society."

Court and some other Democrats want to put that money into education instead of reimbursing businesses.

Democrats in the senate were able to restore some of the millions of dollars in education cuts originally proposed by the governor. But some in the house think they’re still too deep.

Rep. Judy Solano (D-Brighton) said she can’t stomach a $250 million hit to K through 12 schools.

"We have the gall to come up here and say we support public education and kids," Solano said. "The public watching knows that’s not true, if we’re really supporting kids like we say we are, this budget
would look different."

Earlier in the day Wednesday, Democrats also offered about two dozen amendments to try and restore money for Medicaid programs, corrections and education. Every one failed.

House Majority Leader Amy Stephens (R-Monument) urged Democrats to get on board with the budget like their counterparts in the senate.

"How about yes to balancing the budget, how about yes to doing the tough work, How about yes that it’s tough to lead," Stephens asked.

Stephens accused the minority party of introducing too many amendments and being the party of no, which set off a series of partisan back and forth's between the two parties on the floor.

Rep. Mark Ferrandino (D-Denver) noted that when many Republicans were in the minority in the past few years they voted against budget after budget, while offering dozens of their own amendments.

"Let's not talk about making the tough decisions because for years we’ve made tough decisions while the other party just said no to everything," Ferrandino said.

The budget bill still needs a final vote in the house, which could come Thursday.

Bente Birkeland has been reporting on state legislative issues for KUNC and Rocky Mountain Community Radio since 2006. Originally, from Minnesota, Bente likes to hike and ski in her spare time. She keeps track of state politics throughout the year but is especially busy during the annual legislative session from January through early May.