Ritter Will Have to Scramble to Fund His Long Wish List

The governor submitted his first budget to the state legislature since taking office yesterday. It’s got something for everyone — especially bellyaches for the anti-tax crowd.Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter deflected the question like the skilled politician he has become in the year since his election.

A reporter asked the governor where the money will come from when Referendum C, a temporary waiver of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, expires.

Ritter didn’t say what he would do to replace the $750 million freed up by Referendum C in this year’s state budget.

Instead, he said what he wouldn’t do.

“You can’t put transportation, health care and (an extension of) Referendum C on the same ballot,” Ritter said at a press conference Thursday.

In a few words, the governor summed up his greatest challenge. Ritter has promised Coloradans major improvements in higher education, health care and transportation. Now, he must find a way to pay for them.

Referendum C accounted for more than 60 percent of Ritter’s proposed $60 million increase in funding for the state’s public colleges and universities this year. That’s a good start. But the recession-driven economics of the early 21st century left higher ed in a big hole. A study showed that it would take $832 million in new money just to get state schools even with their peer institutions in other parts of the country.

The governor’s transportation commission is talking about road-building options that could cost a billion bucks or more.

In his first state-of-the-state speech, Ritter promised Coloradans near-universal health insurance coverage by 2010. The costs of that program have yet to be revealed. But they stand to be expensive if the governor forgoes the single-payer option that critics ridicule as “socialized medicine.”

All of it adds up to literally billions of new bucks in a state required to take every tax increase to voters.

So as the governor sang the praises of his administration’s first budget Thursday, he also noted that he doesn’t want more than one revenue-raising initiative on the 2008 ballot.

Say hello to Son of C.

Ritter talked about finding a revenue measure that “voters find acceptable.”

“From the different polling I’ve seen, people really care about health care,” he added.

A single health care-related ballot initiative won’t get the guv where he needs to go. He’s stuck between political pragmatism and promises. To understand how tight this rock and hard place can squeeze, consider what one of the big issues will be in next year’s state legislative races.

It will be what Ritter and other Democrats call “mill-levy stabilization” and what Republicans call an unapproved tax increase.

Ritter proposed – and the General Assembly agreed – to lock in the local tax rates used to finance public schools in 175 Colorado school districts. Now, those rates cannot go any lower. The freeze took place in communities that had already voted to suspend Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights restrictions. A glitch in the law had kept TABOR tax restrictions pushing down the rates.

The governor insists that he did not raise taxes. He says he just let the local school districts do what their residents had already voted to do – suspend TABOR limits.

Whatever you call it, stopping the automatic decline in school tax rates reduced the state’s contribution to local schools and freed up $39.5 million to be spent on other programs.

Those kinds of fixes are rare.

The next big idea could be federal mineral-lease dollars. Those would come from allowing oil and natural gas drilling on federal lands in Colorado. Lands like the Roan Plateau.

“We’re talking to Republicans and individuals,” Ritter said, deflecting another reporter’s question about a practice that many of the governor’s environmentalist supporters find repugnant. “One idea is what we do with those resources and whether we devote (mineral-lease proceeds) to something specific.”

Something like roads and higher education.

The need exists for both. What’s missing is the way to pay for either.

That should make the 2008 ballot a gut-check for both the governor and the good people of his state.