EDITORIAL: The only road out of Colorado’s budget quagmire depends on releasing hospital provider fee


Colorado’s gathering storm isn’t about partisan grandstanding anymore. It’s about real people being hurt by the political stalemate in the state Legislature.

Colorado has perilous problems with deteriorating and inadequate roads, operating public schools and colleges and keeping the state safe. If anyone tells you differently, they’re either deluded, in denial or lying. The proof is right under the wheels of your car and in the school down the street.

The immediate problem isn’t exactly that the state is critically short of money. Colorado has some cash, but a minority of Republican state officials won’t let the state spend it. It’s tied up in a inane argument over how to classify Colorado’s Hospital Provider Fees and the state’s notoriously cumbersome so-called Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR. It’s a complex problem not easily explained, prompting most of the public to look the other way.

For the past few years, the Senate has been controlled by a one-seat Republican majority. The House is run by a slightly larger majority. Gov. John Hickenlooper is a Democrat. Each legislative house cancels out work by the other. And the state’s finances have become a prisoner in this unending partisan war.

If all goes well, that just might change. Two House Republicans signaled this week they’re tired of the endless battle over TABOR, and the seriousness of state needs has prompted them to call for a truce and a compromise. There’s new Republican leadership in the Senate, and a chance to move forward.

Make it so.

This hearkens back to the creation of the Affordable Care Act. The Colorado Medicaid expansion and hospital provider fee was created to ensure Colorado got its fair share of federal Medicaid money. The state agreed that the public and taxpayers are hurt by hospitals and doctors treating the poor for free and then passing the costs onto others. By expanding Medicaid, the federal government would pick up as much as half of the bill for treating local poor people. Local hospitals and doctors backed the plan, which called for creating the provider fee, which would help offset increased state Medicaid costs.

Republican leaders don’t like more Medicaid. They don’t like Obamacare and they’ve been willing to jeopardize state needs to make their point. But everyday Colorado residents caught up in the crossfire are the ones hurt by the dramatics.

Now-gone Senate Republicans invoked bureaucratic voodoo, insisting that under state tax restriction, the hospital fee should be considered tax revenue, which would trigger paltry individual refunds to state residents. But those refunds create a giant hole in the too-lean state budget.

This has all been made much worse by the new regime in Washington that has put Obamacare and federal Medicaid payments in limbo.

More than ever, the state needs cash. Now. Agreeing to release the cash Colorado has access to, the Legislature can create at least a temporary way forward.

Still unsolved are how to pay for woefully underfunded public schools and where to find a massive capital improvement cache to build the growing list of transportation needs in the state. But for now, releasing the hospital provider fee held hostage by Senate Republicans would give Colorado breathing space.

Whether expansion of the state Medicaid program is effective or pragmatic is a legitimate question. But holding the state hostage — and cheating us out of badly needed road money and already grossly inadequate education dollars — is the epitome of bad government. Release the provider fee.