Could Sen. Rachel Zenzinger be the ultimate Joint Budget Committee enthusiast?

It’s been a dozen years from the Arvada Democrat’s first exposure to the bipartisan panel to this week, when she became the JBC chair.

After spending part of her childhood in a house without electricity on the Grand Mesa, Zenzinger’s fascination with state finance started back in high school, when she did a paper on the Taxpayers Bill of Rights the year voters approved it.

She’s one of nine children in a blended family starting with three brothers and sisters. After her parents divorced, and her mom remarried, she gained four stepbrothers and sisters, and then her mom and stepdad adopted two more. Growing up “was like Little House on the Prairie in real time.”

Her first foray into state politics — and that first time with the JBC — was as a legislative aide to Sen. Mary Hodge, a Brighton Democrat who served as JBC chair in the 2011 session.

By 2013, Zenzinger was a member of Arvada City Council and thinking about a run for the state Senate. She planned to wait until 2017, when Sen. Evie Hudak would be term-limited.

That changed when Hudak resigned rather than face a recall vote over gun control legislation in the 2013 session. Zenzinger, who was Hudak’s campaign manager, was appointed by a vacancy committee as the replacement.

It didn’t last.

Senate District 19, the most competitive Senate district in the state at the time, regularly flipped between Democrats and Republicans. In the 2014 election Zenzinger lost by 663 votes to Republican Laura Woods, despite her all her bills boasting GOP cosponsors.

But that fighting spirit, developed during her days growing up on the Western Slope, meant she was far from done with state politics. She defeated Woods in 2016 by 1200 votes, and won re-election in 2020 by 19 percentage points.

Her path to the JBC also hasn’t been easy.

She was on the committee in 2019, but in 2020 Senate Democrats replaced her with Sen. Chris Hansen, D-Denver. The move was in part to scold her over disputes with the governor.

As Zenzinger often says, you can never count her out. A year later, when Senate President Leroy Garcia took a job with the Pentagon, the domino effect of that decision left open a seat on JBC and she was back. On Monday, she officially took over as chair. 

Zenzinger is a member of the General Assembly’s interim committee on school finance and is one of two Senate Democrats on the Colorado Commission on Higher Education advisory committee.

We caught up with her ahead of the coming legislative session. Here's what she had to say:

Colorado Politics: What lessons did you learn from how you grew up?

Rachel Zenzinger: It’s the core of who I am, and part of it influences my legislative style. Because I grew up on the Western Slope I have a broader view of the state and the people.

CP: Who’s a Republican you admire?

RZ: Don Coram (state senator from Montrose), 100%. We're both from Montrose and there was almost a family connection to Don. I still go home to visit and every year, usually 4th of July, Don would see me on the side of Main Street, watching the parade. He'd pull me into the parade with him and would introduce me to everybody along the route as the other senator from Montrose.

Rep. Marc Catlin’s wife, also a teacher, worked with my mom. They just adore each other. Once, Don, Marc and I all ended up at the movie theater around Christmas time. It was hilarious because it was almost like we could have called a town hall meeting.

CP: Why is education such a passion for you?

RZ: I do come from five generations of teachers. I was always going to be a teacher, so politics was not really on the horizon for me.

But being the daughter of a teacher meant tracking very closely funding of schools. My activism early on centered on education, then I branched out to other things. I was the co-founder of the College Democrats at Regis. I also was the first multicultural director of student government, after petitioning the student body to add a multicultural director. Nobody applied for it, so I applied for it. I also sponsored the very first national “Coming Out Day” on a Catholic college campus.

Back then, I called myself a progressive. I would not say that that's my style. I'm definitely a moderate through-and-through.

CP: In the 1990s, the state funded higher ed at about 60%, now it’s 40% and the financial burden now falls on students and their families. Is that a situation that you think has any chance of improvement?

RZ: We can't improve it, and we should improve it. Our ability to improve it, though, is hamstrung by TABOR. I am concerned. The governor's budget last year for higher ed was woefully inadequate. This year’s [budget] is an improvement over last year, but I still think they’re going to be short, without the ability to cover their base minimum costs, especially with mandatory spending [such as] the increase for the WINS agreement [the state employee union] and the impact of high inflation

The way that we are balancing it right now is expecting a 4% tuition increase for in-state and up to 8% increase for out-of-state. We just can't keep doing that, that that's an unsustainable solution because we're pricing students out of higher education, and that just continues to increase the student loan debt.

We're also creating a really difficult decision for colleges and universities, for things like our veterinary school or our medical schools, where they essentially have to rely on out-of-state tuition to meet their needs. That becomes competition for our in-state students.

Part of my core belief system is the inherent value of education. I'm not just talking about job training or skills training. I am talking about overall quality of life and the impact of education on your ability to interface with our existence on this planet in better and higher ways.

The research shows that your earning potential, your happiness quotient, and your children's economic future is largely dependent on the parents educational background and attainment.

CP: How has your relationship with the two governors you’ve served under developed?

Zenzinger: Hickenlooper and Polis have very different styles. Hickenlooper had a very much hands-off approach. It allowed the legislature to have lots of room to maneuver. Then, if he had an opinion, and he wanted to insert himself into the process, it was usually pretty high stakes at that point because he gave us a lot of room to work things out to get to a good place before he had to pull the charter on anything.

Polis is very different because he's involved in every level all the time. It’s a style difference, I would say, that took a little getting used to. In the beginning he was new at his job, but I was used to the old way. So that newness and then my familiarity with the old style did create some discomfort initially, some friction, and that really came to bear over things like kindergarten.

We had the same goal, which was full free all-day kindergarten, but we had very different views on how to get there. That's where we struggled a little bit.

CP: What do you plan to focus on in your new role as JBC chair?

Zenzinger: It’s kind of funny. Monday, I had lunch with, Sen. Jeff Bridges, Reps. Emily Sirota and Shannon Bird because they just got appointed.

We just kind of talked through some mechanics, basics, things about the committee itself, not about the budget. Bridges said: “Rachel, I'm so glad you're chairing because you're definitely a teacher. This is going to be very helpful having somebody who can teach me the nuances of the committee.”

I laughed, it’s just kind of inherent in my style. I can't help myself. It is a new committee, and I need to be aware that it comes with opportunity and with challenges. The second part is that I've had the experience of being on the committee when we had to cut $3 billion, the worst time in our state’s history, and then last year when we had more money than we knew what to do with.

So I have been in a normal budget year, an extraordinary budget year, and a disastrous budget year. Having an experience of all three of those scenarios, we're looking at probably a more normal year that leans toward being a little more challenging and a little more constrictive.

We don't have those federal funds to really help us close the gap this year. What that means is we're going have to prioritize, and prioritizing sounds easy, but it's really, really, really hard because everything is a priority.

There's gonna be a lot of people and pressure to tap the reserve, for example. We do have ample reserves for a crisis. We would be okay in year one, but we don't have the kind of reserve that sets and stops for a recession, which is different than a crisis, because that's longer term.

CP: What are you most proud of in your time in the state Senate?

Zenzinger: Two bills. First, the quest to better fund special education. When I came on board the Joint Budget Committee four years ago, I discovered that we were not, in fact, fully reimbursing school districts for special education services to the tune of $700 million. I was shocked. How can this be? We fund special education. It's right there in the budget. Well, I didn't understand how it worked, and we were barely covering 30% of what it costs.

Over time, we've been working on increasing that, making structural changes to account for inflation, raising the targeted amounts. And last year we got up to, with an historic infusion of $80 million, we got up to 74% of what we're supposed to be doing. 

We're within striking distance of actually getting to 100%.

That’s one aspect of the governor’s budget I’m really excited about, because I think he gets it.

The second is my foster youth higher education bill, which created a free higher education for our foster youth. That was a bill that I was really pleased to carry with Minority Leader Hugh McKean (who died Oct. 30). He was also a champion on that bill, even though we disagreed on some of it. At one point he was going to drop off it. We talked for over an hour and a half and he came around. It came out of House Education unanimously with McKean on the committee that day.

These two bills are fundamental game changers for the benefit of these young people.

CP: Did you have any second thoughts about voting against the Colorado Option bill in 2021? (Zenzinger was the only Democrat in the General Assembly to vote against it).

Zenzinger: None. It started off as a public option bill then rebranded as the Colorado Option. I neither saw it as public, nor as optional.

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