This past fall I worked with a number of conservation groups to support efforts to provide better funding for the Water Quality Control Division. Because of changing regulations, increased growth, and huge increases in oil and gas developments in a short period of time the Division simply cannot keep up with the issues it is tasked with addressing. A number of ideas to help address the staffing needs at the Division were floated and ultimately discarded, and other sources typically available including using general funds (funds available to the General Assembly for their allocation to state programs) are also out of the question this year as there just isn’t enough in the General Fund to cover all costs of state programs (the state faces cutting $2 Billion in 2009-2010 fiscal years).
This year the needs of the Division — along with the needs of many other programs state-wide — are on hold. This means slower response time in dealing with potential water contamination events and a lack of enforcement and monitoring on oil and gas operations near our drinking water. So what does water quality funding have to do with cooking a bird?
In Colorado we deal with a number of complicated and often controversial provisions locked into statute and our constitution. These provisions, include: the Tax Payer Bill of Rights (TABOR), Amendment-23, and Arveschoug-Bird, among others. If you follow any of them for even a short amount of time, you may soon find your head spinning. Combining these provisions, some intended to protect state funding of programs and other aimed at limiting our use of state funds, create a fiscal knot that we struggle with on an annual basis. Often higher education and health care funding are at the core of these struggles, but the fiscal constraints on our budgets also have deep impacts on conservation issues in Colorado. Admittedly these are not the sexiest issues of the day, but for for those of us who willingly submit to the punishment of following these issues, this year is an exciting year at the State Legislature.
Senator John Morse (D- Colorado Springs) and Representative Don Morastica (R-Berthud) have introduced Senate Bill 228, which would address the Arveschoug-Bird provision we are currently limited by. Arveschoug-Bird (commonly called “the 6 percent”), passed in 1991, prevents Colorado from making smart decisions based on key priorities, current economic conditions, and Coloradans’ needs. It requires governing by formula, rather than by needs and priorities. Instead of prioritizing health care, education or perhaps funding for the Water Quality Control Division as needed in Colorado, the Legislature is handcuffed by an arbitrary fiscal formula. Read more about the origin of the 6 percent, how it works, and how eliminating it will benefit Colorado here.
If we don’t eliminate the 6 percent provision, general fund cuts made now will effectively be permanent. When the economy recovers, and the one-time federal stimulus goes away, other states will restore their investments, while the ratchet effect of the 6 percent provision will keep Colorado at recession-level spending. In Colorado, we’ve entrenched out state budget process in a web of formulas, and in tough financial times like these, we are making harder and harder decisions. While eliminating the 6 percent will in no way fix our budget shortages, it will allow us to make choices based on our needs rather than on an outdated fiscal formula.
So far more than forty organizations have endorsed the legislation (including CEC), as have lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, and former Senator Mike Bird even says it should go. The bill has passed the Senate Finance Committee and will next be heard on the floor of the Senate. If you want to get involved your legislators and Governor Ritter need to hear from you that it’s time to cook the bird!
Take a moment to read more about how you can help untie this knot. Fixing the 6 percent this year will not provide immediate relief, it will however help us stop digging the hole we are in deeper. And ultimately it will mean that our state can prioritize things like keeping our drinking water clean as we allocate our state funds.