Republicans considering pension deal, hoping for bipartisan budget vote

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DENVER — House Republican leaders are floating a proposal to repay a longstanding debt to the state’s Fire and Police Pension Association in full as a way to get some GOP lawmakers to vote in favor of the $20 billion state budget for next year, which will be up for debate in the House on Thursday.

After all 15 Senate Republicans voted against the budget last week, prompting strong criticism from Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, who sits on the Joint Budget Committee and, a few days later, from the Denver Post editorial board, which echoed Steadman’s complaint that Republicans, after voting mostly in favor of budgets that had to be balanced the last few years with transfers and other gimmicks, refused to support a more measured, but expensive budget this year.

Unlike Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, who complained that the budget increases spending across the board, House Minority Leader Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, appears to be more concerned with the optics of his entire 28-member caucus voting against the bill, especially after seeing the criticism leveled at Cadman’s caucus.

The proposal being floated around Tuesday morning would pay back the $142 million dollars the state currently owes to the FPPA, which lawmakers took money from more than 30 years ago and have yet to completely pay back.

Currently, the 2014 state budget proposal would pay $25 million back to the FPPA this year with the goal of paying back the entire debt by 2018; and Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, and Steadman are proposing to add another $20 million to that total.

Waller’s proposal to pay off the debt in full in 2014 with money from the state education fund, would save an estimated $30 million in interest over the next five years that might otherwise be collected by the FPPA.

Essentially, that interest would be transferred to the state education fund, which lawmakers would need to somehow make whole; but Steadman seemed to agree with Waller and some other Republicans that it might be more beneficial to the state to pay interest to the education fund over the long term than to the FPPA.

The question isn’t whether Steadman and Democrats will sign off on it, but whether Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, Cadman’s only member on the JBC, and Cadman himself will agree.

Put another way: this is less about the actual policy than the politics of the budget vote and whether Republicans are better off voting for or against the spending plan, which will pass with or without their support.

“It’s Waller’s effort to buy some Republican votes,” one GOP lawmaker told FOX31 Denver Tuesday.

Waller, who is almost certain to run for Attorney General last year, would like to be able to demonstrate that he leads a group of lawmakers who are pragmatic and responsible; and helping forge a bipartisan budget compromise would help him make that case.

But, for individual House Republicans, a yes vote on the budget, after that budget’s total rejection by their Senate counterparts, could come at a cost: alienating Senate Republicans who would appear increasingly ideological by comparison and risking political payback from folks like Dudley Brown, the Rocky Mountain Gun Owners leader who’s notorious for holding GOP lawmakers accountable should they stray too far from bedrock conservative principles.

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