Governor Bill Ritter presented his final budget proposal Wednesday to the incoming members of the legislature’s budget committee. His plan may change in coming months, but one thing probably won’t -- the state has a giant fiscal hole to fill next year.
You think it hurts now -- just wait for next year. That’s when things get really bad -- that’s the message state economists have been telling the budget committee for the past 11 months. Well, next year’s budget has finally arrived, and Wednesday, governor Ritter gave lawmakers a glimpse of what really bad looks like.
RITTER: "The budget continues to spread the burden, the pain, and the solutions among state employees, senior citizens, schools, people who use our parks, retail customers, Medicaid clients, businesses, and more."
Ritter’s proposal for the fiscal year that starts next July fills a three-quarters-of-a-billion dollar shortfall. It also puts off about another $400 million in routine spending increases. Budget math is kind of weird. Overall state spending next year will actually be a bit more than it is this year, but for many state agencies and services it will feel like less. That’s because the number of people needing state services is growing faster than the budget. So those dollars have to stretch further. Ritter’s budget director, Todd Saliman, uses schools as an example -- their funding would go up by 43 million dollars.
SALIMAN: "But once again that’s 92 million dollars short of fully funding enrollment plus inflation."
Ritter’s staff has spent months working on this budget. But the governor will actually have little control over what it finally looks like. He leaves office in January and will hand the budget off to the new governor, Democrat John Hickenlooper, and a legislature that’s now divided between the parties. Ritter urges lawmakers to take a bipartisan approach, something that hasn’t marked budget debates in recent years.
RITTER: "There was a lot of rhetoric during the recent campaigns. But when it comes to budgeting, everything must be on the table. And the posturing, quite frankly, must come to an end."
The legislators Ritter presented his budget to are, for the most part, new to the process. Only one lawmaker from each party is returning to the six-member committee -- Representative Mark Ferrandino for the Democrats and Senator Kent Lambert for the Republicans. And withe the Republican take-over of the House, the Committee is also now split evenly between the parties. Committee chair Mary Hodge, a Democratic senator, says that’s a good thing.
HODGE: "I think it’s the first time in several years that the budget process has been truly a product of both parties. Everybody has to take ownership for the good things we’re going to do, and the bad things we’re going to do."
This bipartisan spirit may be short-lived. Republicans spent the past few years attacking Ritter’s approach to budgeting. And Frank McNulty, the new House speaker, says he doesn’t much care for this proposal either. But Republican committee members like Jon Becker don’t sound ready to throw out Ritter’s plan.
BECKER: "I think there will be some change in it, I think that you’ll see a good portion of what we saw today in that budget, depending on what goes on in the next few months."
One thing that’s likely to happen is some last-ditch lobbying by groups hit by budget cuts. The state employees union, Colorado WINS, is already complaining about proposals to cut salaries and leave positions vacant. The union’s Scott Wasserman promises to bring up the issue during the legislative session.
WASSERMAN: "I guess the question is, do we want a competitive workforce? It’s like any other large company -- don’t you want the best and brightest come work for you? So I think, yeah, we want to have that debate this year and talk about that."
As new budget committee members start to wrestle with all these competing demands, Governor Ritter had some final advice for them.
RITTER: "What you do in a budget demonstrates the values that you hold. And as a moral document it makes a statement to the people of the state about those things that you believe both about the work the government but how it should intersect with the lives of Coloradans."
The lives of many Coloradans may feel the squeeze, in big ways and small, as lawmakers work to serve more people with fewer funds.
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