Legislators receive economic forecast

I’m writing you today from home. It’s been a busy session and I don’t get home that often, so it’s nice to be back. On Saturday, I participated in an Agriculture Summit at the Four State Ag. Expo in Cortez with John Stulp, the Colorado Agriculture Commissioner.

The most significant event last week at the Capitol happened on Friday when we got the economic forecast.

The economic forecast is a set of statistics the Office of State Planning and Budgeting and the Legislative Council puts out predicting how much money the state will have for their budget. Because of everything that has happened in the economy the past year, the forecast we got Friday was worse than we expected. They projected that General Fund revenue will be $208 million below the amount budgeted in the fiscal year 2008-09 meaning the General Assembly will have to look for $208 million in cuts for the current budget which ends June 30. The shortfall over two years (FY 08-10) will be $1.4 billion, an increase from the $1 billion which was projected in December. This will require additional budget cuts which the General Assembly will begin during the budget discussions March 30.

The Governor’s Office of State Planning and Budgeting anticipates the economy to turn around near the end of 2009 but the recovery will be more gradual than previously thought. This means the state will have less money to put into programs and we’ll probably see cuts in the next year’s budget as well.

As I’ve written about before, Colorado has to balance its budget and with less money coming in, that means less money the state can spend on programs. The big problem is that when economic times are bad, more people rely on services provided by the state. We will have to do our best to make sure we do as little harm as possible to the people of the state.

The other project I was working on this week was House Bill 1252. This bill will allow the San Luis Valley (which includes Alamosa, Conejos, Costilla, Rio Grande, Mineral and Saguache counties) to develop a limited health benefit program for the working poor. This pilot program would make health care more accessible to the “working poor” in this area and also create more jobs. Almost 4,900 people in the Valley fall under the definition of “working poor” so it’s important that we allow the employers and local governments in the valley to develop a program to address this problem. The San Luis Valley is in a great position to have this pilot program because the area is geographically confined which makes it easy to determine the service area. Also, with a handful of exceptions, all the doctors work for one of the four health care systems and would work with the San Luis Valley HMO and likely accept Medicaid rates. This bill will help find a local solution to the uninsured problem. If this program proves successful it will be expanded to other parts of the state. Representative Ellen Roberts is the House Sponsor.

I’ve also been working with Sen. Dan Gibbs from Summit County on SB 235 which would improve the wildlife habitat stamp program. The habitat stamp is set to expire in 2010 and we wanted to make improvements before that happened. The bill made it out of Appropriations Friday and should be on the Senate floor next week. It will create one $10 conservation stamp which hunters will buy when they purchase or apply for a license and also allows non-sportsmen the opportunity to contribute to the fund also. The money from this stamp goes to conserve agricultural lands, provide more wildlife recreational opportunities including access and protect critical fish and wildlife habitat. Since its inception in 2006, the wildlife stamp has provided over $10.4 million and attracted $41.6 million more in matching grants to conserve 63,273 acres of habitat. The fund has provided more hunting and fishing access, as well as protecting important wildlife habitat.

I’ll be working through the Oil and Gas rules which will be on the Senate floor for debate next week.

This week we will be taking up the review of rules adopted by the various state agencies. Included in this review is the newly adopted oil and gas rules. Even though I still have concerns with portions of the rules I don’t think the Senate floor will be the proper venue to make the kind of changes that are needed. Hopefully the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission will be able to make the necessary changes as the new rules are implemented.