Q and A with Colorado House Speaker Terrance Carroll

Read the Main Story

Interview by Ed Sealover

As soon as Representative Terrance Carroll took the oath as Colorado’s first African-American House speaker, legislators stopped talking about the color black and turned their attention to green—as in, how were they going to find enough to run the state? The General Assembly had to cut a $1.4 billion budget shortfall.

Much of Colorado’s budget is mandated by constitutional amendments that limit revenue and spending, require businesses to pay the majority of property-tax revenues and demand the K-12 education budget grows annually. Carroll talked after the session about how he worked in the context of these laws, what he learned from and what Colorado still must do.

State Legislatures: How much of your time is taken up by state budget issues at this point?

Carroll: If you think about all the meetings that I do and town halls that I do on other issues where the state budget becomes a predominant issue, I would say 60 percent of the time just in terms of conversation.

SL: Do you feel the legislature made the decisions to put the budget on the right track?

Carroll: I think we made the best decisions we could, given the circumstances. I don’t think anybody likes the idea of cutting $1.5 billion, especially when you look at some of the places where we had to make those cuts. Seniors were impacted; our most vulnerable populations were impacted. Education funding, higher ed was impacted some. Medicaid. You just go down the line.

SL: Is there any way to make this better now, or is that going to take a long-term effort?

Carroll: We’re one of the few states where most of our big-picture fiscal policy is enshrined in the constitution. It’s created this Gordian knot between TABOR and Gallagher and Amendment 23, and none of them work well together. It’s created the need for a long-term fiscal fix that restores some sensibility to the way that we do budgeting. We probably should look at the way we budget as well, in terms of going to a more dynamic budgeting model. Look at what Washington did under Gary Locke a few years ago with performance-based budgeting. That’s a more dynamic system. We don’t really look at how effective programs are. We essentially look at where you were last year and go from there.

SL: Are there other things you’ve learned – either good or bad – from other states?

Carroll: I think that the hardest thing that most states are facing is trying to avoid acts of desperation in terms of the budgeting process. There have been suggestions, not only in our state but also in other states, that you make across-the-board cuts of 5 percent or 2 percent. That’s not necessarily the best way to do budgeting, because it doesn’t look at conditions on the ground. It doesn’t look at what each program does. It’s not very thoughtful. It’s not very pragmatic. And it’s not good public policy.
One of the things that we’ve seen in the states that have been successful is they’ve taken a long-term view of recovery and how it would impact their state, and they’ve tried to make decisions based on preparing for economic recovery. Some of the states that have fared better than others, they’ve had some type of significant reserve or rainy day fund, which we don’t have in Colorado.

SL: How much talk is there of “We have to put the fire out” versus “We have to clear the forest”?

Carroll: We have to do both. Right now we’re dealing with the fire. But we passed a bill that creates a long-term fiscal stability task force, which will be meeting all summer. So we’re actually going on two tracks right now. We’re dealing with the current crisis and we’re looking ahead to how we manage things in the future and how we actually mitigate against such deep financial crises in the future.

SL: Haven’t you supported a sentencing reform commission as a way to address this?

Carroll: Absolutely, because one of the biggest expenditures we have in this state is corrections. And I’m the one who carried the bill that created a criminal justice and juvenile justice commission (in 2007). One of the charges was to look at our sentencing scheme and our sentencing structure. And that was kind of pushed a little farther out, but I’m not sure that we have the option now to wait two, three years down the line to look at cost savings that we can achieve. We have to look at what we can do right now in terms of sentencing that can save us money and eliminate the need to send more people to jail. In this last year’s budget, what did we do in terms of corrections? We mothballed (the Colorado State Penitentiary II project) for the time being: We’re going to finish construction, but we’re not going to open it. And we closed down the Colorado Women’s Correctional Facility and moved all those women up to Denver.

SL: How have term limits affected all of this?

Carroll: Most of the people who were here for the last budget crisis aren’t here anymore, so there’s a certain degree of institutional memory that’s gone among legislators about what happened. That lack of institutional memory sometimes contributes to an overly partisan and overly ideological response from people. And when you get into a budget crisis like this, it’s not about ideology or partisanship. This is really about whether, at the end of the day, we’re doing that which is best for the state, regardless of political affiliation or ideological bent. I will say this much: In the House, we passed a bipartisan budget. I think it’s the first time in years that we passed a bipartisan budget, and we managed to do that this year. So, that was a testament to the fact that folks realized that we actually had to get something done.