By Jason Kosena
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
The cuts were far worse than anyone had expected.
When Gov. Bill Ritter’s budget team told the Joint Budget Committee on Tuesday that his plan would cut $823 million from the 2009-’10 fiscal year, the hearing room packed with journalists, lobbyists and legislative staffers went stone still as everyone sharply inhaled and held their breath.
And as the scope of the bruising cuts slowly penetrated the room, no one exhaled.
Included in Ritter’s proposed reductions are $225 million from K-12 and higher education, suspended property-tax breaks for senior citizens and the closure of two prisons. State employees will be forced to take unpaid furlough days — possibly as many as eight in the next 12 months — and the state will cut $264 million out of earmarked funds. Other cuts included $10 million from the state’s tourism budget and the elimination of hundreds of state jobs.
In total, the cuts add up to nearly $1 billion and represent 8.7 percent of the state’s $7.9 billion general-fund budget.
“It’s a dramatic situation we’re faced with, and this package proposes some dramatic action,” said Todd Saliman, director of the Office of State Planning and Budgeting. “There will be pain, and it will be felt by many citizens of the state who rely on state services. There is just no way to avoid that.”
The recession gripping most of the country has hit Colorado hard. Tax revenues were projected last month to fall $1 billion short for the 2009-’10 budget year, and expectations at the Capitol are that numbers only can grow in coming months. Rep. Don Marostica, a Republican JBC member and business owner from Loveland, said he won’t be surprised if the state’s shortfall reaches $1.5 billion after new revenue estimates are released on March 20.
“A billion dollars (estimated today) probably shocks everybody, but I am still not there,” Marostica said. “I still think we have a ways to go, and that we’re not going to know until March how bad it will be. I know (Ritter) is saying that this is a conservative estimate, but that is exactly what it is — an estimate.”
The cuts proposed on Tuesday are devastating to public education in Colorado. The $100 million cut from higher education nearly wipes out all of the $120 million in funding gains Ritter achieved since taking office and leaves the system near its 2006-’07 funding level.
Although Amendment 23 protects growth to K-12 education, Ritter had worked to increase funding in addition to the Amendment 23 requirement, shoring up pre-kindergarten programs as well as capital construction projects. Those programs will be greatly diminished.
The closures of the Colorado Women’s Correctional Facility in Cañon City and the state’s correctional facility in Rifle, as well the delayed opening of the new maximum-security prison in Fremont County also are slated.
“Hearing the magnitude of the cuts is sobering, but they are not a surprise,” said Senate Education Committee Chairman Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins. “The cuts to higher education are really painful for me because Colorado State University is the major employer in my community, and it’s going to have to reduce the number of employees working there. Its those people who are the backbone of our economy. It’s tough to think about.”
Not surprisingly, a quasi-debate about the effect of TABOR on state government began to play out during Tuesday’s JBC hearing, which was attended by a handful of lawmakers from both sides of the aisle.
Some lawmakers expressed concern that when the state pulls out of the recession, it will lack the ability to reach the budget levels of this year because of TABOR’s requirement that government not grow more than 6 percent each year. Despite primarily Democratic support for revising TABOR, some Republican lawmakers were quick to defend the tax policy approved by a statewide vote in
“I want to point out (that) Colorado is not as bad as some other states are, and I personally look at that as a success of the Taxpayers Bill of Rights,” said Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch. “Much of the innuendo in this conversation thus far (indicates) the problem that we will have in the future is with the Taxpayers Bill of Rights, but I would argue that the restraints in spending that TABOR put on this Legislature is what has kept us form being one of the worst states in the country.
“You have states like New York, California and New Jersey that really did have irrational and irresponsible spending over the last 10 years. But because of TABOR, we have had to hold ourselves back, and it has put us into a position that when money is tight we are not essentially going bankrupt or forced to go to the federal government and ask for a massive bailout,” Harvey continued.
“I just want to say that I think that TABOR has been a good thing, and though it makes it difficult to make decisions at times, I think the voters were wise in putting restraints on state government, because other states don’t have as good of a track record as we do.”
JBC Chair Sen. Moe Keller, D-Wheat Ridge, disagreed.
“What we have to do is get rid of the ratchet piece of TABOR,” Keller said. “We can’t create a rainy day fund… and can’t use surpluses in good years. It’s these kinds of things that I would like to have more flexibility with. One could argue though that because TABOR is so restrictive that we have no discretionary money to absorb the cuts that were getting into right now where other states do have that ability. We aren’t opening a new prison and we need one…. If we had more discretionary dollars, we might have a better ability to absorb these cuts.”
The Legislature will begin detailed discussions on the budget, including which areas of Ritter’s proposed cuts to keep, early next month.