A bill that would send hundreds of millions of dollars to Colorado’s rural schools faces an uncertain future after party leaders in both legislative chambers Thursday accused each other of not negotiating in good faith.
The multifaceted bill is one of the most complicated of the session. It would send money to rural hospitals, roads and schools. But if lawmakers fail to resolve their differences, hospitals would face severe cuts — forcing some in rural areas to close altogether.
What makes Senate Bill 267 so controversial is that the cornerstone of the bill would redesignate a fee collected by the state that helps pay for Medicaid.
The money the state collects from hospital patients is funneled to the state’s general operating budget. The state’s constitution limits how much that pot of money can grow each year. The bill would redirect the hospital fee to an enterprise account that isn’t subject to that constitutional provision.
Democrats have wanted to redesignate the hospital fee since 2015. They believe reclassifying the fee would elevate some budgetary pressures that have forced schools and other state services to be underfunded. Republicans have staunchly opposed the change. They’ve said it would violate the constitution and the will of voters.
State Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, a Sterling Republican, changed his mind this year after seeing the potential cuts to rural hospitals. He introduced the bill with state Sen. Lucia Guzman, a Denver Democrat, and state Reps. K.C. Becker, a Boulder Democrat, and Jon Becker, a Fort Morgan Republican.
The bill was always a long shot. There are plenty of provisions neither chamber liked. And it would potentially take a coalition of both parties to pass the bill
But a disagreement over whether the state should lower its spending gap in tandem with redesignating the fee has thrown negotiations into further peril.
Early Thursday, Sonnenberg told reporters he was done negotiating with Democrats. He signaled he would kill the bill that was scheduled for a second hearing later in the morning. While he backed away from his threat, he took shots at Democrats.
“We didn’t kill it,” he told Chalkbeat after sparing the bill. “I’m not ready to give up. But I’m close.”
Sonnenberg said he believes he’s given Democrats more than he should, increasing the amount he’d cap government spending at. But that hasn’t been enough for them, he said.
“I want to save hospitals,” he said. “They want more tax dollars.”
Democrats said they’re concerned the bill as written would trigger another round of budget cuts to all government services, including schools
“It puts our budget in problem territory in no time at all,” said Becker, the Boulder Democrat.
“The numbers just don’t add up,” said Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat.
House Democrats said they’re hoping to restart negotiations soon and will offer “creative solutions.”
Senate Bill 267 is scheduled for another hearing Tuesday.
“We are still holding out hope for rural schools,” said Michelle Murphy, executive director of the Rural Alliance, which represents the state’s rural schools. “We’re grateful to Sen. Sonnenberg and the bill’s other sponsors for their leadership and efforts to bring critical resources to rural communities.”