Cost is the necessary backdrop for decisions

Last week, I gave you a break from my column’s previous talk of the doom and gloom about the budget.

A reader sent me an e-mail this week saying I shouldn’t apologize for asking you to think about the serious and weighty budget questions we’re now facing.

It was nice to get that e-mail to know that someone reads my columns (actually, a number of you have said you do), and that at least some of you want to hear the tough news, too.

To be honest, though, I wasn’t apologizing last week. I was trying to let you know that there are some positive moments at the Capitol even when we are facing dire financial times.

But, the break’s over, because, again, costs are the necessary backdrop against which all bills are currently judged, at least by me. That’s not to say I’m an automatic “no” vote for every bill with a fiscal note, which means an expense to the state. If only it were that easy of a decision to make. Instead, to do the job right, we have to weigh each bill on its merits, but, if it costs the state and it’s a worthwhile policy goal, the next question has to be, what doesn’t get funded instead.

Here’s an example. The state’s district attorneys have an organization that has a presence at the Legislature to propose bills and help the bills through the legislative process. The DA’s council, like many similar organizations, spends many months discussing among its members what laws should be changed during the next legislative session. They then propose bills to legislators to sponsor them and the district attorneys come to testify in committee about why these bills are needed.

This week, we heard in the Judiciary Committee about how, due to a loophole in the current law, sexual predators have been using cell phones and text messaging as a means to lure children into horrible scenarios. The DAs are proposing that we add text messaging and phone communications to Colorado’s Internet sex crimes.

Few will question that this is a serious public safety concern and many would agree that it’s an appropriate role of government to protect its citizens, particularly the most vulnerable among us. However, the downside to closing this loophole is the cost involved.

If we make this a new crime and perpetrators are caught and sent to prison for it, the state picks up the tab for the offender’s room and board, some for a very long time. The streets and our children are safer, but the state coffers are poorer. If we make this a new crime, where does the money come from? What gets cut? These aren’t rhetorical questions; they’re what we face, several times a day now, on all sorts of topics.

Some will say cut all of the social programs and instead put that money into roads and public safety.

But, here’s another example. The seniors and disabled veteran property tax exemption, costs the state a lot of money. It’s been proposed to be cut, or at least be given a timeout from the budget. Some will say that those on fixed incomes, especially those who are elderly and paid taxes all of their lives, or those who have served their country and were wounded while doing so, deserve a break on their property taxes. It’s hard to argue, though, that this property tax exemption is anything but a social program. So, do we keep this tax exemption or cut it?

We’re just beginning to decide the cuts of over $600 million to be in place before July 1. Then, we’ll be working on next year’s budget with much less revenue coming in. It’s important for you to know the questions we’re facing because, for good or for bad, you’ll feel the effects of our decisions. We don’t take this task lightly.