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It is a time for all hands on deck

Until this past week, it had been a long while since I was stayed up until 3 a.m. I rarely make it to midnight on New Year’s Eve anymore. But, I was reminded of my younger days when I thought there was a good enough reason to stay up past 10 p.m. when, as a member of the House Finance Committee, we were assigned to hear a package of bills that would significantly change Colorado tax policy. Specifically, the bills cut some of the state’s existing tax credits, add new taxes and remove some business exemptions.

Somewhere after my normal bedtime and still in the committee hearing that had started at 1:30 that afternoon, I noticed that going to bed would be a welcome relief from mentally processing witness testimony and voting on complicated tax legislation. Little did I realize that we were still five hours or more away from that dream.

The majority party sets the calendar and determines when and how bills will be heard. In this case, they decided to cram 12 complex and controversial bills through in a single evening. The second half of the bill package was eventually postponed a day when someone came to their senses and decided to call it a night at 2:30 a.m.

It’s no secret to anyone following the state’s economy that, like every Coloradan, we’re facing serious budget challenges. State revenue is severely impacted by the recession so action is needed by the Legislature to trim the budget, just as most families and businesses are doing now, too.

That said, it was very troubling that the dozen bills that have large impact on many sectors of our economy were set on very short notice. There was little opportunity for citizens, especially those from the far flung corners of the state, to arrange to come in and testify on the bills.

To be fair to those in power, though, there is a press to get this year’s budget shortfall dealt with because all signs indicate that once we get to work on next year’s budget in late March, things will be even more severe in terms of the additional budget cuts that’ll be needed.

The critical points for me that were being debated in this round of budget cutting through tax increases focus on whether it’s the public or private sector that must shoulder most of the current budget shortfall. There’s also always the overarching question as to whether a proposal is a tax increase or not, subject to TABOR’s requirement of being put to a vote of the people, and people argue for hours on each individual bill.

A shortage of time to make tough decisions, though, is not justification for ignoring good process and constitutional mandates, whether they involve funding K-12 under Amendment 23 or not raising taxes without a vote of the people as required by TABOR.

I didn’t support any of the proposed tax changes, although I fully acknowledge the need for an equal amount of cuts to be made in state government. Listening to the testimony, I was convinced that adding more tax burden on the business sector, whether it is taking away an existing credit, exemption or adding a newly-imposed tax, is short term gain only. Colorado’s economic recovery depends on people having jobs. We should go back to the drawing board and follow the medical creed of first do no harm. We shouldn’t pass legislation that will jeopardize those fortunate enough to have a job today.

Unfortunately in our lengthy hearings, whenever a legislator or a citizen witness pushed back on the proposed tax package, the response was a harsh bark of “What would you cut instead?” My suggestion is, let’s not just throw that question out there as a conversation stopper, but ask it and mean it. Time for all hands on deck, if only the ship’s captain and crew will allow it.