Colorado lawmakers ready for a somber session

(Photo/Eric J. Lubbers, Flickr)
(Photo/Eric J. Lubbers, Flickr)

“Daunting.” “Somber.” “Tough decisions.” This is the language of Colorado’s 2009 legislative session which opens Wednesday.

Even with historical markers —two African-American men leading the Senate and, for the first time the House of Representatives — this year’s Democratic-led Legislature will be far from a jubilant affair with a state government in the decided throes of hard times.

The 120-day session kicks off with a forecast budget shortfall of at least $631 million. Thanks to numerous spending requirements specified in the state’s Constitution, any programs above and beyond are subject to potential axing by the 100-member body.

As the Colorado Independent, The Colorado Springs Gazette, the Rocky, The Denver Post and other news outlets have reported, shortly before Christmas, Gov. Bill Ritter’s office announced an even bigger hit, a likely 10 percent cut in the budget to address the shortfall, which the governor’s spokesman, Evan Dreyer, put at “close to $800 million.”

An economic stimulus package, still in the formative stages, from President-elect Barack Obama’s incoming administration will bring some relief. Gov. Ritter has asked for $1.4 billion in transportation projects in Colorado, which will create, by some reports, an estimated 39,000 jobs.

But, as The Denver Post has noted, “no one expects the federal government to make Colorado’s deficit go away.” Senate President Peter Groff, D-Denver, along with other legislative leaders, have been warning of Colorado’s bleak economic landscape for weeks now — though many, Republican and Democrats alike, have tried to send assurances that they are up for the task ahead.

At the top of the list: Creating jobs in an environment when unemployment rates are creeping higher every month. Figuring out ways to fund already overstressed roads and infrastructure. Trying to ensure that higher education doesn’t take a bigger hit. Moving forward with meaningful — or any — progress on addressing Colorado’s health care crisis. Other proposed legislation, especially those that cost money, are likely doomed even before they get out of committee.

And, at least so far, legislative leaders, including Groff and state Rep. Terrance Carroll, a Denver Democrat who is likely to become Colorado’s next Speaker of the House, have not yet specified where cuts may occur. The Denver Post has reported that Carroll, speaking at a recent editorial board meeting, said he “wasn’t inclined to go back to the ‘Dark Ages’ of higher education funding, referring to debilitating cuts the system suffered during the last economic downturn.”

Yet Carroll also told the board that transportation and infrastructure needs must be a priority — an opinion that has been shared in various venues for the past year by the governor’s office, as well as leaders in the minority GOP.

On Sunday, the Post published opinion pieces submitted by both Groff and Josh Penry, a Republican from Grand Junction and the incoming Senate Minority Leader. Both minced no words about the state of the budget and the daunting task that the Legislature must tackle beginning this week.

“Jobs and highways,” Penry wrote. “Those will be the top two priorities facing Colorado’s General Assembly when it convenes on Wednesday. The public, hard-pressed by a deepening recession, expects action. So do the employers who create our jobs.”

Noted Groff: “When the General Assembly convenes on Wednesday, we will have an overriding focus that will guide us throughout the legislative session: to protect and produce jobs across Colorado.

“As economic activity slows, the revenue that state government uses to provide essential services — such as educating children, providing basic health care, plowing snowy roads, or policing our highways, among many others — is projected to drop precipitously at a time when many of those services are especially critical,” he wrote.

How they and other Colorado leaders plan to deliver, is a story in the making.