IDAHO SPRINGS — Kicking off a series of planned town halls here Thursday, Gov. Bill Ritter told a crowd that included many concerned county employees that Colorado’s budget crisis would undoubtedly worsen next year due to lagging revenue, but that he was confident his focus on building a New Energy Economy in the state would generate industry and jobs in a future-directed, “truly 21st century way.” This is about “securing quality of life for generations,” he said.
Ritter touted the effect of federal stimulus funds as bridge money to help the state through the downturn and as seed money to expand clean tech and energy industries. He also commended Coloradans for the sacrifices they have made and will be making during the downturn and addressed criticism that he had expanded government staff.
In defending cuts, Ritter made unlikely reference to his predecessor, Republican Gov. Bill Owens.
“We should begin by acknowledging that this is a very difficult time,” said Ritter, pointing out that Owens had told him the same thing, even though he would likely not appreciate the attribution.
“You are in so much worse shape than I was,” Ritter recalled Owens telling him. “You are way beyond what we had to do in 2002.”
Although economists predict a turnaround to begin in 2010 or sooner, lagging tax collection will continue to dog state government. The 2010-2011 fiscal year would be the low point, said Ritter, noting that he has already been forced to cut $1.8 billion dollars in state spending and would soon be forced to cut yet another $240 million dollars at a time when residents need services most.
“Right now our focus is how are we going to come out of this … But we have been helped in a significant way at the federal level.”
The stimulus, he said, had brought tax cuts that would benefit 2 million Coloradans; helped ease state fiscal woes; shored up education, retaining a flat lined budget for the next three years in higher education, reducing faculty and staff cuts and tuition hikes; helped pay for a 20 percent increase in state Medicaid rolls and a jump in unemployment benefit payouts.
Stimulus money is creating jobs in transportation, he said, but also helping to make Colorado a template for the rest of the country in building energy jobs of the future.
Wind turbine maker Vestas, he said, for example, will build four new plants in the state and create 2,700 new jobs. Stimulus funds are likewise funneling into the life sciences, aerospace, and information and communication technology sectors.
He added that the state is approaching hiring in new ways, too.
The state now spends $2 million to weatherize homes. But Colorado is scheduled to receive $80 million over the next two years for weatherization.
“We just signed a contract with a group that will hire only veterans to do the weatherizing work in the San Luis Valley.”
Gilpin County Commissioner Jeanne Nicholson asked about $350,000 that was being cut from the DA’s office. “How did you make that decision?”
Ritter said that he was trying to get four state troopers assigned to gambling towns to help mitigate disturbances.
Mark Pautler, assistant district attorney. for Colorado’s 1st Judicial District, followed on Nicholson’s concerns. He said cuts by the state and gaming commission acted as a double hit for law enforcement. There will be less funds to spend prosecuting cases and even as more liberal gaming laws, including an increase to 24-hour gambling as well as higher stakes, will translate to more arrests.
“So we are going to have to make a decision about what not to prosecute. And this really becomes a public safety issue.”
Ritter agreed and apologized, citing cuts to his own staff in 2002, when as Denver D.A. he watched the Owens’ administration make tough decisions as well.
“I’m sorry,” Ritter said. “We understand this is hitting communities.”
One Idaho Springs business owner asked the governor why he had stripped businesses of payment to collect state sales tax. Why shouldn’t the state reduce the ranks of government employees first, instead of expecting small businesses to shoulder the burden?
Ritter responded that it was a one-time decision and would be reviewed. Again, he said, the cut was based on precedent. Owens, the governor said, had also stripped vendor fees in 2002. He said Owens likewise had also been forced to strip senior citizens of a property tax exemption.
“‘What I have had to talk about today is sacrifice,'” Ritter said he told the man. “The county commissioner is trying to figure out how to steer us through a down turn. The district attorney’s offices have to figure out how to do more with less state resources … that shared sacrifice is owned by everybody in this room.”
Ritter said reports of large increases in state employees were incorrect and misleading.
He said the increases were the result of the 20 percent jump in Medicaid recipients. The number of new hires had been inflated due the planned opening of a new women’s prison facility. The facility would have been staffed with more than 500 staff members. But Ritter said the prison plans had been put off. The prison is on hold and so are those jobs, he said.
After the event, Nicholson praised the governor’s responses.
“I think he did a terrific job. He was real honest with us. We all just have to make some sacrifices, and we will.”
Abigail Keating of Dumont had a different opinion.
“I thought he stayed on his message regardless of [the question]. The word ‘taxpayer’ didn’t come up. He mentioned federal money, state money, everything was money. But where is the source of the money? It is on the backs of the taxpayer.”