Legislators close in on transportation, provider fee deals

Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, points to the board Monday he has been using in negotiations with House Democrats over details on his measure to bring money to transportation projects and rural hospitals.

DENVER — Lawmakers are close but not quite there on an agreement to issue bonds for transportation projects and taking the hospital provider fee out from under revenue caps mandated by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.

But the bill to do all that has become somewhat of a Christmas tree that now includes such ornaments as marijuana taxes and Medicaid co-pays.

The measure, SB267, started out as an alternative to placing a question on the fall ballot to raise sales taxes to fund transportation needs, issuing bonds for road projects and averting deep cuts to rural hospitals by making the state’s hospital provider fee program a stand-alone, state-run enterprise. Doing so frees up millions of dollars in the state’s budget.

On Monday, lawmakers who introduced the measure announced that they had reached agreement on the major points of the bill. It now calls for issuing $1.8 billion in bonds for infrastructure needs — most of which would go toward transportation and at least a quarter to rural counties — and lowering the TABOR revenue cap by $200 million.

Initially, the bill called for lowering the cap by $670 million, something that was placed in the bill to counter the multimillion raise in the cap that would have occurred by taking the provider fee, a program to fund health care needs for the poor, out from under TABOR’s revenue limits.

While it has taken months for lawmakers to agree on all that, negotiations broke down late last week over other issues that have since emerged. They include:

■ Raising co-payments for Medicaid patients as a way of lowering the state’s health care costs.

■ Giving businesses some relief on the business personal property taxes they pay to local governments.

■ Raising the marijuana excise tax to 15 percent to help fund K-12 education.

■ Protecting the homestead property tax exemption for seniors and veterans.

■ Increasing funding to rural schools by $30 million.

■ Placing a 3 percent cap on how much money the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing can spend on administering the provider fee program.

The measure would not require voter approval. The voters have already approved a 15 percent cap on marijuana excise taxes, which currently is set at 12.9 percent.

Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, who introduced the bill in the Senate with Minority Leader Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, said he needs those items in the bill to help sell the measure to his Republican colleagues, many of whom have long opposed enterprising the provider fee on grounds it cuts into TABOR refunds.

He said his main goal has always been to bring money to transportation projects, and to protect rural hospitals from closing after this year’s state budget lowered the provider fee by $264 million — $528 million with the lost 50 percent federal match. That reduction means hospitals will see a lot less money from payments they receive from the fee program, jeopardizing smaller, rural hospitals’ ability to stay afloat.

“We’re working through some of these because all the pieces don’t always fit right,” Sonnenberg said. “I’m not giving up. The last day we can actually do this is Monday (three days before the 2017 session ends). If I don’t have it done by Monday, I guess that’s when I give up.”

Meanwhile, Majority Leader KC Becker, D-Boulder, who is the House sponsor of the bill along with Rep. Jon Becker, R-Sterling, confirmed she has agreed to the larger points of the bill, but balked when the co-pay issue came up, saying that came out of nowhere.

“I was surprised late in the game with one issue, Medicaid co-pays, that is absolutely something we haven’t agreed to,” she said. “At one point during one of our negotiations with the four principal sponsors on this, they brought it up, and I said, ‘I don’t even know what you guys are talking about.’ That is a big deal. It is no trifling matter. It’s not something we can just insert and think it’s not going to have an impact. It will impact people.”

Guzman agreed, saying the co-pay issue came up late in negotiations, and isn’t something that she’s agreed to, either.

Regardless, Sonnenberg said both sides will continue to negotiate on the issue because ultimately they have to sell the entire package, however decorated it may become, to the 96 other lawmakers in the Colorado Legislature.

“I think we’re fearful,” Sonnenberg said. “They’re fearful of what their caucus is going to say because they’ve had to move a long ways, and I’m fearful of what my caucus is going to say because I had to move a long ways.

“I’m guessing there’s still going to be a little more yelling and a little more screaming to solve this.”


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