Budget issues loom like a dark cloud

I had planned on driving home to Hesperus last weekend, but decided against it because I would not have been able to leave Denver until Friday evening and would have had to drive back to the Capitol on Sunday.

I struggle to stay awake when I drive at night, especially during session when I don’t sleep for more than a few hours a night during the week. Staying in Denver will allow me to attend some meetings here and prepare for some of my bills that will be heard next week in the Senate.

A visitor to the Capitol might think everything is pretty much business as usual. A lot of bills covering many different topics are moving through the House and Senate committees. But while it may appear to be fairly normal, the serious budget issues loom over us like a dark cloud.

The Joint Budget Committee (JBC) is working on both this year’s and next year’s budget. First, it will bring its proposal on the current year’s budget to the full Legislature. We should have that by Feb. 16. Our Senate JBC members have been briefing us on the proposals and asking for our input in the hope that there will be full support for the proposal when it is presented to us on the Senate floor.

It takes a combination of measures to balance the budget. These will include cuts in programs, the use of part of the state reserve, and the transfer of cash funds.

The disagreement, of course, is which programs to cut, how much of the reserve to use, and which cash funds to transfer. What we don’t know is how deep the recession will be and how long will it last. The assumptions we make will affect the degree to which we use the various measure to balance the budget.

Back on ground level I’ll mention some of my bills that will be up next week in committee.

First up will be HB 1014. You may recall the legislation we carried last year concerning conservation easements and their associated tax credits. The legislation was necessary because of abuses in the program. The legislation was a result of many meetings that were held in the fall of 2007. This bill will result in a process that will ensure that easements in the future for which credits are claimed serve a conservation purpose. The bill will also ensure that the credits claimed are not excessive. Key components of the bill require review of appraisals and certification of the entities that hold the easements. Last year’s bill put a cap on these fees. This was a reasonable thing to do and had the support of the task force. The fees were to go to the Division of Real Estate within the Department of Regulatory Agencies to pay for the costs of the review of appraisals and certifications of the entities holding the easements. But, because of the uncertainty of how many appraisals would be reviewed and how many entities would apply for certification, there was no certainty that the fees would cover the additional costs of the program within the Division of Real Estate. Therefore the Department of Regulatory Agencies was not going to fund the program unless the caps on the costs were removed so that the fees could be adjusted to cover the actual costs. HB 1014 will remove those caps so that we can get the program started and get the credibility we need back into the tax credit program.

This week, I will present Senate Bill 124. This bill extends funding out of the Operational Account of the Severance Tax Trust Fund for agricultural energy-related projects through the Department of Agriculture’s Value Added Grants Program. I had originally created this program through an amendment to a bill in 2006. The funding was for three years and will end this year, unless SB 124 passes. This is an appropriate use of Severance Tax Trust Fund dollars and doesn’t compete with general fund programs. One of the local beneficiaries of this program is the San Juan Biodiesel Project in Dove Creek.

There are a lot of applicants for these funds and it helps our agricultural communities throughout the state.

Here’s hoping we get snow that keeps our winter moisture above normal.