Governor Trades Dreams for Reality

Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter’s first State of the State speech was about dreams. His second was about reality.In comparison to the bold vision he showed in 2007, Ritter’s speech Thursday to a joint session of the General Assembly was all about caution. In some ways, it reflected the lessons learned in his first year in office. But it still felt like a call to keep expectations low.

The most glaring example came on the issue of health care reform, perhaps the most important issue facing Americans today.

Here’s what Ritter said about health care reform in 2007:

“My long-term vision is to establish a Colorado Health Plan that provides every Coloradan with access to some basic form of health insurance and health care by 2010.”

Here’s what Ritter said about health care reform in 2008:

“We have to keep addressing that, and we have to keep doing it in a way that acknowledges the fiscal constraints of this state … We have to take a realistic, building-block, steady approach to progress.”

That sure doesn’t sound like universal health coverage by 2010.

On other critical fronts, such as the need for  “21st century transportation,” decently funded colleges and universities and kindergarten-through-high school programs that produce competent graduates and cut shameful dropout rates, the governor was also a lot more restrained than last year.

In 2007, he proclaimed goals of cutting the dropout rate in half in 10 years and halving the achievement gap between white and minority students in a decade. He also touted a study commission that would develop a transportation plan to meet a crying need for road construction and repairs and mass transit.

This year, he warned, “We aren’t going to come up with big fixes in all of those areas all at once. It would be a fool’s errand even to try. We must make steady progress across the board, doing what is right and what we can afford.”

The Democratic governor begged for “collaboration” from a Democrat-dominated legislature and a Republican minority already crying foul about a property tax stabilization plan that has added enough money to the state budget to fund expanded preschool and kindergarten programs.

“We must never mistake sound bites for sound public policy,” the governor said.

With many members of the legislature facing re-election in this presidential election year, it would be foolish to expect anything except partisan political grandstanding.

But Ritter is right. The state’s needs exist independent of any individual candidate’s need to remain in office.

“From 2001 to 2006, no other state cut funding to higher education more than Colorado,” the governor reported. The state allocated $52 million additional dollars to higher ed last fiscal year. Ritter proposes adding $59.5 million more this fiscal year. But from the prior budget cuts, the budgets of Colorado’s public colleges and universities still remain hundreds of millions of dollars a year behind the budgets of comparable schools in other states.

Even on the red meat, bipartisan issue of improved transportation, the governor acknowledged the difficulty of implementing the recommendations of his blue ribbon transportation commission. The commission called for $1.5 billion in projects funded by ongoing fee and tax increases. This is what it will cost to fix gridlock and deplorable roads that drag down quality of life and, eventually, economic development.

“We can make steady progress this year (on transportation),” Ritter contended. “But how we go forward depends largely on whether we can build a bipartisan consensus around contentious funding issues.”

In an election year, it’s hard to see that happening.

But not as hard as it will be to see dreams for a great state dashed.

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Jim Spencer

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