Panel, Gessler face showdown over budget
DENVER — The Legislature’s powerful Joint Budget Committee is demanding that Secretary of State Scott Gessler appear before it to explain what he plans to do about a budget deficit he created.
The six-member panel and Gessler’s office got into a to-do last week over his annual budget request that has escalated to some name-calling.
The bipartisan panel that drafts the state’s annual spending plan voted unanimously to have Gessler appear by Feb. 17 to discuss the matter.
“It’s not going to be a friendly conversation,” said Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen. “You know it’s going to be very contentious and it’s going to get into other issues that actually do not pertain to the budget.”
At issue is Gessler’s decision last year to cut business filing fees, which was a move that, in part, was designed to deal with a $7 million budget surplus that was far higher than state law allows his office to maintain. But rather than turn that money over to the Legislature’s general fund as lawmakers had asked, Gessler ordered the cut in business filing fees, which lowered his surplus by $3.5 million.
Subsequent to that, Gessler’s office discovered that it was faced with increased costs to comply with an election reform measure approved by state lawmakers during last year’s session, a law Gessler continues to argue against.
Gessler’s office, which by law is entirely cash funded, now is asking for general fund money to cover his deficit.
The JBC members aren’t happy about that, saying they warned Gessler’s office of a potential deficit some time ago.
Gessler, who is vying for the GOP nomination for Colorado governor, is asking the Legislature to approve a $21.9 million budget for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. The JBC, however, approved just an $18.6 million spending plan, saying he should consider hiking business filing fees to make up the difference.
Gerou, a JBC member, said she agrees with the rest of the JBC, but is frustrated at the prospect of increased fees for businesses.
“When a division of state government comes to us with a proposal where they want to spend dollars and they are cautioned time after time after time by this committee, and yet they move forward with their actions and we end up in this spot … I don’t want business suffering because of the actions of one department of state,” Gerou said.
“If he has to raise fees based on his decisions and his department, then he needs to answer to the constituents to explain why he had to do that,” responded Rep. Jensie May, D-Aurora, another JBC member. “He has the option to reduce his expenditures, but all those fall under his purview. It’s the responsibility of the JBC to send a letter to say, ‘We’re projecting that you’re going to be over-spent,’ and we should monitor that.”
Gessler responded in a general email that is sent to anyone who requests email alerts from his office, saying that Democrats on the committee were slinging mud at him.
“As Colorado small businesses claw their way out of this recession, the Democrats’ answer is to raise fees to pay for their partisan election bill and pet projects,” Gessler said. “My office submitted a fiscally responsible budget that meets the spending obligations of the Legislature without raising fees on our businesses and nonprofits.”
The law, however, requires Gessler’s office to adjust his fees to cover his own budget, said JBC staff analyst Alfredo Kemm.
As a result, his options are to cut other parts of his budget or lay off workers, but Gessler’s office has only said it would increase penalty fees for late filings, Kemm said.
Gessler also complained that Democrats insulted him by calling him a pig.
One Democrat, JBC vice chairman Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, made a reference to swine, saying he didn’t want Gessler himself to come before the committee.
“I’m reminded of the old saying that you should never wrestle with a pig because you’ll get muddy and the pig will enjoy it,” Steadman said.