Gov. Bill Ritter defended his latest budget-balancing plan Thursday as “surgical and yet compassionate,” and answered critics who said it relied too heavily on one-shot injections of money that won’t be available in years to come.
In remarks at The Broadmoor hotel after addressing a statewide group of civic, business and education leaders, Ritter acknowledged that “our worst fiscal year is ahead of us.” But he said Colorado’s portion of the $787 billion federal stimulus act had been “a lifeline” for Coloradans thrown out of work by the recession, as well as for the state’s public colleges and universities.
“When those dollars go away, we have to decide how to fund higher education in the state at a meaningful level,” Ritter said, but warned Coloradans not to expect a quick solution.
“You can’t do this stuff on the back of an envelope,” he said.
Ritter came to Colorado Springs a day after unveiling a plan to close the latest in a series of recession-induced budget shortfalls. This one was $286 million, and the biggest part of the patch crafted by the governor was $190 million in non-renewable stimulus funds.
Critics accused Ritter of resorting to temporary fixes instead of making a smaller government that can still balance its books the day after the stimulus money runs out.
“About 80 percent of the recommendations he’s making only affect this fiscal year,” said state Rep. Kent Lambert, a Colorado Springs Republican and member of the legislative Joint Budget Committee.
Ritter’s plan cuts $145 million in funding for public colleges and universities and cancels $37 million in grants to oil-, gas- and minerals-producing counties. It saves $27 million by adding four more furlough days for state workers and an additional $16 million by delaying Medicaid reimbursements.
But all of the higher-ed cuts, plus another $45 million, are covered by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
Noting Ritter’s remark to the JBC on Wednesday that the recession was “a massive correction and a new economic reality,” Lambert said: “We’re going to have to do things differently. Well, what different things are we going to do? We haven’t come up with that.”
“It is disgusting to see him use one-time funds and a shift in Medicaid payments to balance the budget,” state Sen. Dave Schultheis, R-Colorado Springs, said of the governor. “Avoidance of reality is his worst trait.”
Ritter said the critics hadn’t offered meaningful alternatives.
“It’s easy to stand on the sidelines and be a critic,” he said. “Let’s have some specificity about how you get there.”
Some specifics have been mentioned. State Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, who is running for governor, issued a statement saying in part, “Is it time to abolish the Department of Local Affairs? Is it time to consolidate the bureaucracy over higher education?”
Penry did not endorse either idea, but he has called for closing the governor’s energy office, Ritter’s agency for attracting “new energy economy” companies to Colorado.
Ritter described such proposals as “a $100,000 solution to a $100 million problem.”
“Closing the governor’s energy office would be a ridiculous idea,” he said, “given how fruitful we’ve been in luring companies here to be part of our energy economy.”
A Ritter ally, House Speaker Terrance Carroll, got in Penry’s face, rhetorically. “Killing jobs in our fastest-growing economic sector is Penry’s answer to the serious crisis facing Colorado?” Carroll asked.
To which Penry replied: “If Speaker Carroll thinks a silo of patronage packed with political appointments is the source of private-sector job creation, then he must have been absent the day they taught economics in school.”
Contact the writer at 476-1654