Last Friday, Gov. John Hickenlooper had a message for the standing-room-only crowd at Cheyenne Mountain Resort: The state budget has to be fixed. Now.
If it isn’t, the consequences could be ever-more-congested roads, less money for education and fewer companies choosing Colorado over other states that can pay for infrastructure upgrades.
There’s a plan, Hickenlooper told the crowd, but it isn’t necessarily politically popular. A single fund is pushing the state above limits legislated under the Taxpayers Bill of Rights — the hospital provider fee, which was started after legislators determined the latest TABOR formula.
The state managed the budget under the formula, determined by the state’s growth of population and rate of inflation. At least until the hospital provider fee came along.
Started as a way to help hospitals pay for crushing debts from uncompensated care, equaling millions in Colorado, the provider fee is a per-bed charge hospitals pay the state in order to obtain federal matching funds for low-income health care. Some argue it’s a tax and belongs in TABOR calculations.
Not so, says Hickenlooper. It’s a fee, he insists, and is never included in the general fund. It needs to be removed or the state’s budget thicket will only get worse, and fewer items can be funded to keep Colorado’s economy in the top tier of the nation.
“We rank at the bottom in terms of education funding,” he said. “It says something about our schools and our students that we rank in the top 15 for outcomes, even with that. But we should be in the top five for outcomes.”
He pointed to Utah, an economic development competitor. That state invested in its transportation, with its major interstate highway expanded and combined with high-speed rail, linking its major cities and providing a major economic development draw.
Moving the hospital provider fee from TABOR calculations would solve the budget issue, freeing up money to finish widening Interstate 25 between Denver and Colorado Springs, easing traffic congestion created as more people from the northern city move to El Paso County, drawn by cheaper housing prices and a lower cost of living.
Currently, the bulk of the state’s transportation budget goes only to maintain existing roads, and there’s little money left over for investments of other kinds.
Don’t think it’s as bad as all that? Fine, the governor said.
“My door is open,” he told the audience. “I’ll listen to any solution you have. This needs to be fixed. And it needs to be fixed now. Have a better idea? Let me know.”
Removing the hospital provider fee could be done with a mere legislative fix, not requiring anything more than a vote in the General Assembly.
The state’s future depends on ending its fiscal quagmire — and it is time for Colorado Springs residents to take a stand. Call legislators and tell them to fix the budget, improve roads and education for future generations of Coloradans. This move won’t open the door to higher taxes, only allow more flexibility for the state to take care of services the residents of Colorado demand of it.
Call legislators and tell them to act. Or if you have a better idea to solve the budget crisis, call the governor.