The Legislature needs to act immediately to deal with Colorado’s budget crisis, Rep. Ellen Roberts says. Roberts, a Durango attorney and House District 59’s representative since 2006, hopes to unseat Bruce Whitehead in Senate District 6.
Colorado’s budget shortfall could exceed $1 billion in Fiscal Year 2011, and millions more in cuts for this year could be coming, despite Gov. Bill Ritter’s use of $60 million from Colorado’s medical-marijuana registry and federal mineral-lease money usually reserved for local communities.
Critical services are at stake, and, says Roberts, prioritizing spending is not enough.
”It always sounds good to say, ‘We’re going to sit around and say what’s a priority,’ but the bottom line is, it’s rare to get any kind of agreement,” she said.
“To me, it does make more sense to do a certain percentage reduction that is applied by agency heads and, presumably, the governor.”
Roberts said she would like to see the next governor propose across-the-board cuts of a percentage that matches the shortfall.
”We’re relying on the department heads to figure out the priorities within the department.”
The state would have to determine what percentage to cut. She voted last session for a proposal that would have called for a 2-percent cut., but it failed. Whatever the percentage cut this time around, “it needs to match the shortfall,” Roberts said.
As does her opponent, Roberts considers education a high priority.
She said Colorado needs a strong showing of support for higher education, which too often is on the budgetary chopping block.
“I think that’s very short-sighted,” Roberts said, explaining that an educated work force is critical to attracting new business to the state — and business is critical to Colorado’s recovery. The state, she believes, needs to step up efforts to make itself more business- friendly, and higher education is only one of the issues to address in this regard.
The state has lost 170,000 private-sector jobs since 2008, but has seen a growth of 10,000 in government-sector jobs, she said.
“That’s what I think has people very angry. It’s not OK.”
Roberts wants to repeal bills she says have created an unstable business environment, and she’s taking aim at the “Dirty Dozen,” 12 bills that repealed sales-tax exemptions and income tax credits. Roberts said this was done without enough research into credits and exemptions’ importance to business, and that shows a lack of governmental self discipline.
“I would specifically repeal the Dirty Dozen to reverse that message, and say we can balance the budget in a different way — which is, we will look at cutting spending.”
Roberts also want to reduce the amount of business regulations and fees. This, she said, is what constituents, including smallbusiness owners, have told her they would like to see happen.
“They also struggle with a lack of responsiveness from the state government when they have a problem,” Roberts said. More than once, accountants have determined the Department of Revenue erred against businesses, but when the business owners try to resolve the problem, they can’t even get a live human being on the line.
“That’s the type of thing that drives people out of the state and someplace else where they think they’re going to be treated more fairly,” she said.
Roberts is no fan of fee-structure strategies, such as FASTER, which raised motorvehicle registration fees. “I definitely think FASTER was a new tax, one that should have been put to a vote of the people,” she said. “That was brought out and passed on such a fast timeline, and implemented where people were hit with penalties.”
She said it was county clerks who had to deal with unhappy residents. “It was a real shame what we put our county clerks through. They were on the firing line.”
FASTER was introduced to help Colorado fund critical highway and transportation needs. While Roberts said transportation is an essential need in the state, “I just think there’s another way to go about doing it.” The state should put together another referendum to take before voters, she said.
Three ballot measures — Amendments 60 and 61, plus Proposition 101 — would exacerbate the state’s budget woes if passed. The amendments make radical changes to property-tax laws, remove voter-approved exemptions to the Taxpayers Bill of Rights (a series of revenue-capping amendments), and cut vehicle taxes so drastically that everything from school districts to fire districts, hospitals and libraries will take a hard hit.
It’s difficult to say what Colorado would have to cut if one or more of the measures passes, Roberts said.
“To me, those are too extreme, in terms of cutting at the local level for services that people depend on, like fire districts, school districts, mosquito-control districts,” she said.
“Those are basic infrastructure services that all of our communities need. It will make it difficult for businesses to stay in a state where we can’t even provide basic infrastructure.”
The measures have been linked to tax foe Douglas Bruce, the author of TABOR, who in September was fighting a court order to answer questions about his role in getting them on the ballot.
Roberts served with Bruce during his brief tenure in the Colorado House of Representatives.
“I definitely recognize his handiwork. I think he and some of his friends are pushing these forward, and they’re taking advantage of people’s anger and frustration,” she said. “But they’ve put the aim on the wrong target.”
As for medical marijuana and the revenues it brings, it has its place, but Roberts says regulations were needed to ensure it is being used in accordance with Amendment 20. The amendment, passed in 2000, allows people with debilitating medical conditions to obtain a state registry card, upon physician recommendation, and to use marijuana for pain management.
“I think there are times where there are patients where medical marijuana is the only accepted pain medication for them. I don’t have a problem with it being prescribed by a medical practitioner in appropriate situations,” Roberts said.
“I do have a problem with people taking advantage of situations and creating controversy in communities, and hardship for law enforcement and medical providers.”
Roberts voted in favor of HB 1284 and SB 109. The House bill imposed new rules for medical-marijuana centers, and also allows local governments to ban dispensaries, or allow voters to do so. The Senate bill requires a stronger doctor-patient relationship for recommending medical marijuana.
The two medical-marijuana bills were “immense” in scope and size, she said, and the state needs to see how they work out. “We need to let the dust settle,” Roberts said.
The candidate said she is a strong voice for the Western Slope’s water needs, and has never had any trouble finding experts to advise her on water issues, for all that she respects Whitehead’s personal expertise.
In the House, Roberts saw 33 of her bills pass, despite being in the minority party. “I listened to the people in my district. I drafted legislation that would deal with trying to get the state government to work better,” she said, referring to state-level health-care reform that captured costs and reduced administrative burden.
She also carried bills for hospice and palliative care, rural health care, water, energy and private property rights.
“I’m prepared to do the hard work, and I have a record to show that. I do seek common- sense solutions,” Roberts said.
“I bring Republican principles to the table, but I do not hesitate to accept good solutions from the other side of the aisle.”