Senate Bill 17-267 has been widely reported as the last, best chance to save our rural hospitals, but as it stands right now, the bill, which goes by the title, “Concerning the Sustainability of Rural Colorado,” is anything but sustainable. The proposal calls for a $670 million cut to the revenue cap that voters approved when they voted for Referendum C in 2005. Doing this would bring our state spending as a percentage of personal income to the kind of recessionary levels that we saw between 2001 and 2003. Ironically, these are precisely the kinds of spending levels that brought about the need for Referendum C in the first place.
Those were not good years for this state and certainly not for rural Colorado. During that recession, we were forced to slash funding for colleges. Rural colleges were among the worst hit. We temporarily closed state parks and cut the budget for the CSU agricultural extension. We reduced pay for our state employees. Those cuts included correctional employees, many of whom live in places like Canon City and Sterling. Severance tax funds, an important source of dollars for local rural projects, were diverted to support the state budget. The senior property homestead tax exemption was suspended. It was no wonder that in 2005, rural communities showed enthusiastic support for Referendum C.
And while S 17-267 attempts to hold rural Colorado harmless by doing things like directing funding into rural schools, shrewd observers would be justified in wondering just how long that political arrangement would last as the rest of state budget dramatically contracts.
If we proceed with SB 17-267 as currently written, our budget will have to shrink dramatically. And remarkably, we’ll be imposing this contraction on ourselves, not because of a real economic downturn, but because of a politically imposed capitulation to an extreme ideology touted by groups like “Americans for Prosperity.” Under their construct, Coloradans will receive nominal rebate checks even as our state struggles to pay the big bills that local communities and indiviudals are unable to shoulder by themselves.
SB 17-267 has one thing right. Rural hospitals deserve the important funding that comes from the Hospital Provider Fee. The price, however, should not be an unsustainable, self-imposed recession at a time when Colorado has the No. 1 economy in the nation.
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