New and old battles loom as Colorado legislature opens Wednesday

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DENVER -- When the state legislature begins the 120-day 2014 session at the Capitol Wednesday, much of the opening day hoopla will serve as a reminder of last year's session, one of the most controversial and contentious ever.

Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, will be sworn in as the new senate president, taking over for former Sen. John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, one of two lawmakers ousted in recall elections last September as part of a backlash to tougher gun laws passed by Democrats.

There's even a rumor that a group of gun owners will be there bright and early, driving around the Capitol blaring their horns just as dozens of them did from dawn to dusk on the day in March when seven gun control measures were being heard by Senate committees.

And while opening day speeches are sure to include the usual platitudes about bipartisan aspirations, everyone knows a legislative session sandwiched between the rancorous 2013 experience and the 2014 midterm election in November will be partisan from the start.

Republicans have already promised to re-litigate many of last year's most controversial bills, to put forth measures seeking to repeal everything from the ban on high-capacity magazines to the increased renewable energy mandate for rural electricity providers.

"We think that they are wrong," said Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, last week. "This is going to give them an opportunity to correct an error that they made."

Democrats will likely kill off most of those bills quickly, sending them to Democrat-controlled committees and preventing them from reaching the full House or Senate; but in doing so, they'll be adding more gasoline to the fire of outrage still smoldering to the right of the political divide.

But there's something new to fight about in 2014: a $9 billion state operating budget, a result of increasing revenues as the Colorado economy continues to recover at a faster rate than the rest of the country's.

"Right now we are in probably the best budget situation that the state will experience," said Natalie Mullis, the state's chief economist.

"Revenue is growing but we have not yet hit the TABOR or constitutional limit. There's money in the budget. There's money to grow some programs, to restore some of the cuts."

After years of budget cuts, Gov. John Hickenlooper has proposed a budget that calls for a $100 million increase in spending for higher education, an area of the budget that was decimated during the recession.

"It is time to look at reinvesting in higher education and trying to mitigate future tuition increases and trying to keep college accessible and affordable," said Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, on Tuesday, a veteran member of the Joint Budget Committee.

"It may even be harder to figure out how to spend the additional revenue than it was deciding what to cut during the downturn."

Senate Bill 1, which will likely be introduced on Wednesday, will ensure that Colorado colleges and universities can't increase tuition rates by more than six percent in the next year.

There's also likely to be bipartisan support for a measure to give businesses refundable tax credits up to $25,000 on their personal property taxes.

Democrats are more willing to support the idea, long an important cause for Republicans, now that revenues have increased -- and also because they see those revenues approaching TABOR's spending limit.

According to Mullis, annual state revenues are projected to hit the $12 billion mark some time in the next one to three years. Whenever they do, all revenue above the $12 billion limit will be refunded to Colorado taxpayers as stipulated by the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights.

"It is inevitable," Mullis said. "Income- and sales-tax revenues are growing at a faster rate than the TABOR limit, which comes from calculating inflation and population growth. The only thing that would keep us from doing that is if we had another great recession in three years."

That inevitability is why Democrats view 2014 as the ideal time to make strategic investments in tax credits for businesses and other economic development incentives.

"We are moving toward that TABOR limit on revenue; and tax credits could push that out into the future," said Steadman.

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