A Front-Row Seat to a Very Long Bill: Colorado's Annual Exercise to Balance the Budget

Most bills in Colorado are pretty short. Proposals can often be summed up in a few pages, and after skimming the text you may be left thinking “That’s it?”. Occasionally, legislators must slog through longer bills, such as the newly introduced Senate Bill 267 (a plan to address the Hospital Provider Fee question, among other changes), which weighs in at 57 pages.

But each year, there’s no contest for the longest of them all — the state budget. So while Senate Bill 254 takes center stage at the legislature for the next two weeks, it will be referred to at the capitol by a refreshingly simple moniker: the Long Bill.

The Senate takes up the bill first. Here are several questions to keep in mind during the budget debate, which begins in earnest today:

Will concern over the financial sustainability of rural hospitals affect legislators’ votes?

The Long Bill depends upon a serious cut to hospitals through the Hospital Provider Fee. (The cuts would be in a separate bill, SB 256.) At $264 million, the reduction in the provider fee – which would cancel out the state’s TABOR refund obligation – is bigger than the $195 million cut called for in Governor Hickenlooper’s early budget request.

Hospitals and their lobbyists will fight hard against this proposal, and legislators may be especially concerned with the loss of funding for rural hospitals that are barely staying afloat as is. Will that concern be enough for lawmakers to withhold their support from the full budget, which must be approved by the Senate and then the House? Sen. Larry Crowder has been adamant in his support for his rural district’s facilities, and others seem uneasy. A new bill might offer a way out. More on that below.

Will health-related items left out of the budget make it back in?

Several notable health-related programs do not have funding in the Long Bill after the Joint Budget Committee (JBC) deadlocked 3-3 on whether to include them. (A tie in the JBC means that an item fails.) It remains to be seen whether legislators in both chambers would agree to add them back in when the full Senate amends the bill this week or the House next week.

The Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, which has asked middle and high school students about a variety of risk behaviors since 1991, would need $745,000 as well as bipartisan support. The state insurance exchange, Connect for Health Colorado, is hoping for a continuation of federal matching dollars for its work determining eligibility for the Medicaid and Child Health Plan Plus (CHP+) programs, which was rejected by the JBC. And the committee did not approve $44,000 in funding for a reporting system for medical aid in dying in Colorado, which must happen in order for the practice — approved overwhelmingly by voters as Proposition 106 last November — to be tracked.

How much of the budget picture will be determined outside of the Long Bill?

While SB 254 outlines the state’s budget plan for the upcoming fiscal year, other bills would have a major impact on state coffers if passed. First is SB 267, which was introduced Monday afternoon and is, in short, a big deal. This bill would change the Hospital Provider Fee to an enterprise fund (and therefore save hospitals from the cuts noted above), which has been a top priority for Democrats. In return, it offers a laundry list of concessions to Republicans, such as securing $100 million for a large-scale transportation bond and $150 million for capital construction. Perhaps most notably, the bill includes a two percent across-the-board cut to all departments’ budgets and lowers the state’s TABOR cap by $670 million (roughly the amount of the provider fee). Its first hearing, in the Senate Finance Committee, is expected the week of April 3.

There’s also the bipartisan transportation funding proposal, House Bill 1242, which could be this session’s landmark legislation. The bill backed by the Senate President and Speaker of the House would raise almost $700 million per year through a sales tax increase, but voters would have to approve it in November even if it passes the legislature. Other bills would have smaller but not inconsequential impacts, such as House Bill 1235, which would extend insurance subsidies to qualified households between 400 and 500 percent of the poverty level – and which comes with a $13.2 million price tag. And the JBC has yet to decide how to allocate more than $30 million from the Marijuana Tax Cash Fund, which they plan to revisit on April 11 once the budget debate has passed.

Check back for an update on how the $26.8 billion budget proposal and other bills fare in the legislature.