DENVER– Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry has been out of the governor’s race for a month, but you couldn’t tell based on the back-and-forth on display at the press conference held by Colorado legislative leadership at the Denver Press Club Monday. Ostensibly a meeting called mainly to present legislative ideas on how to address the budget, Penry devoted his time there to making the same finger-wagging points he made for months on the campaign trail, calling Gov. Bill Ritter a bad manager and a big spender not yet fully chastened by the state’s budget crisis.
Penry once again attacked Ritter’s proposal to eliminate tax exemptions for businesses and the senior homestead tax exemption. He criticized Ritter’s prisoner furlough / recidivism program and his hiring practices and said Ritter failed to hew to the spirit of the state’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights. In short, the press conference seemed less a genuine preview of any coming legislative program than a warm up for the partisan bickering that will mark the session, coming as it does in an election year. This despite the fact that everyone in the room could agree that the state’s problems were dramatically real and demanded solutions.
In fact, Penry aimed to provoke from the moment he arrived. He entered late, just as the governor and legislative leadership were presenting their agenda for the lawmaking session, which is scheduled to run from January through the middle of May.
“I’ve been selling on eBay my campaign office supplies,” he told the crowd.
Ritter said he aimed to speed up the economic recovery and create jobs in the state. He also said that preserving a safety net during the downturn was critical for the families of the increasing number of Colorado workers facing unemployment.
In the past two years as taxable income and sales has dropped, the state budget has fallen roughly $1 billion into the red, according to the Governor’s office. Revenue projections forecast no early end to the pain.
As Penry continued to attack Ritter, he failed to acknowledge little of the fact checking that was done by the media during his campaign on many of the same assertions. He didn’t mention that many of the programs cut by Ritter’s administration, including for example, the Senior Homestead tax exemption, were also trimmed by Republican Gov. Bill Owens in the last economic downturn. Owens sympathized with the challenges facing Ritter in the downturn, one that Owens openly admitted is considerably more severe than the one he faced during his tenure.
Penry also said Ritter had increased the number of employees on the state payroll by 2,000, a number Ritter disputes and that is down at least from the original 4,000 Penry had waved against Ritter for a month before the Denver Post’s Tim Hoover demonstrated it was overblown by at least half.
Ritter’s office has said that the state currently employs 500 less workers than it did at the start of the economic downturn. Evan Dreyer, spokesperson for the Governor, said that Ritter has ordered the elimination of more than 300 government jobs.
“The [state] work force directly under [Ritter’s] purview today contains at least 500 employees less than it did when the economy began to tank a year ago,” Dreyer said.
Penry also claimed Ritter had used the economic crises as an excuse to get soft on crime by implementing shorter prison sentences– a policy he said he would not want to defend in an election year. But Ritter’s office has addressed the issue in depth, calling Penry’s criticisms “just flat out wrong.” Evan Dryer told the Colorado Independent that limiting incarceration costs by reducing the state’s current 53.4 percent recidivism rate has been a goal of the governor since he took office.
Sen. Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, told Penry that “It is important to remember that we have cut a billion dollars out of the budget in the last two years and we are looking to cut another billion dollars.” He noted that in addition to Ritter’s past audit of the government, which brought about streamlining of services, Shaffer was planning to introduce legislation that would conduct an audit looking to weed out any waste or inefficiency.
Rep. Terrance Carroll, D-Denver, added that it has been the actions of the Democratic majority and those of the governor that have allowed Colorado to have one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, 3 points below the national average.