Ritter swings budget ax at prisons, human services

By Jason Kosena
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Gov. Bill Ritter’s bleak Tuesday budget update had one bright spot: It’s not as bad as it could have been.

On Tuesday, Gov. Bill Ritter, surrounded by Democratic lawmakers, talked about further budget cuts the state must make in coming weeks to balance the budget. Due to the recession, the state has cut more than a $1 billion from its operating funds since last year.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

When the June budget was released, Ritter said he expected to find the need to fill an estimated $384 million shortfall in the coming months. It’s halfway through August, and the shortfall and subsequent cuts announced by Ritter this week totaled only $320 million — $64 million less than the first estimate.

Unfortunately, the good news stopped there.

In order to recoup the state’s $320 million shortage, Ritter is making massive budget cuts by executive order.

The new cuts will affect nearly every state agency and department. Included are plans to eliminate 266 state positions as well as large-scale cuts in the Departments of Corrections and Human Services.

“We’re still investing in small businesses, job creation, infrastructure and education so we can recover stronger, healthier and quicker,” Ritter said in prepared remarks to reporters. “Still, you can’t reduce spending this much without impacting services. Sadly, many people are going to feel the pain of these cuts. Many people will be making sacrifices to help all of us get through this tough time.”

During a presentation to the Joint Budget Committee Tuesday before a packed chamber in the Old Supreme Court building, Ritter and budget director Todd Saliman explained how $25 million would be trimmed from the Department of Corrections budget. Those trims include the elimination of 34 employees who provide education and vocational training services for inmates. Ritter also cut drug and alcohol treatment programs in the state’s prison system.

A packed Old Supreme Court Chamber listens to Gov. Bill Ritter announce his budget cuts to the Joint Budget Committee on Tuesday.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

Ritter also trimmed $19 million by shortening the parole terms of prison inmates who meet certain milestones early.

During a press conference with reporters after the JBC presentation, Ritter said he believed the reduction of parole time was a safe and efficient method to gain critical dollars.

“We know that it’s difficult for the Department of Corrections to find places to cut,” Ritter said. “If you’re on parole for five years, everybody makes or breaks it by the midway point. So, by cutting their parole in half, people who have not had a problem on parole, we release them and take the savings.”

Ritter said that it’s important to note that any prisoner eligible to be considered for early release already will be nearly ready to re-enter society.

“These are people who are already parole eligible and within 110 days of the release day,” Ritter said.

The Human Services Department also will take much of the pain.

Hospital provider rates will be cut by 1.5 percent, saving $8.5 million, which comes in addition to a 2 percent cut to provider rates last year. Pharmacy rates will be cut by $1.7 million, and 59 beds at the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Fort Logan and 32 beds at the Grand Junction Regional Center will be eliminated.

Furthermore, the state will no longer offer $200 monthly checks to residents who have applied for Supplemental Security Income. The state’s Medicaid program will see an $18.5 million cut.

Gov. Bill Ritter appears before the Joint Budget Committee Tuesday morning.
Photo by Jason Kosena
The Colorado Statesman

“We had to balance the budget and make tough choices, and that’s what we did,” Saliman told reporters Tuesday morning. “These were not easy choices.”

Not all areas of the state budget took hits as hard as the ones dealt to Corrections and Human Services, however. Funding for higher education will remain flat with help from federal stimulus dollars, and K-12 education will remain relatively untouched.

In addition, funding for emergency preparedness will be unaffected in an effort to beef up the state’s readiness to handle a possible H1N1 flu pandemic. Community programs helping the developmentally disabled, drug and alcohol treatment facilities and service programs such as Meals on Wheels also were mostly spared.

Ritter did suggest the creation of a $10.50 fee on criminal background checks in an effort to raise additional revenue. Ritter can make budget cuts by executive order, but he will need the Legislature to approve any fee increases.

After Ritter’s presentation to the JBC Tuesday, Republicans were quick to criticize him for not cutting enough from the budget.

“When you look at the $320 million in cuts, maybe 25 to 40 percent of them aren’t cuts but are backfills from the federal stimulus monies,” said Sen. Mike Kopp, R-Littleton, the minority caucus chairman. “They weren’t really cuts.”

Kopp went on to say that Ritter broke a June promise to make “10 percent across-the-board cuts” in the proposed solutions he released this week.

“On June 25, the governor told all departments that they needed to prepare for 10 percent across-the-board cuts, and that was not what was presented today. It’s somewhat disingenuous to make the argument they did,” Kopp said. “In actuality, that did not happen. We’re going to be in a much worse situation in the ’10-’11 budget year when we have to make those cuts.”

But Kopp’s interpretation of Ritter’s June budget plan — and promises — is not entirely accurate according to Ritter spokesman Evan Dryer, who referred to a meeting with reporters in the Governor’s Office on June 25. At the time, said Dreyer, Ritter said he was soliciting a proposed list of 10 percent cuts from all departments, but that he would not make across-the-board cuts.

In an article published in the June 29 Colorado Statesman, Ritter was quoted as saying he will not make 10 percent across the board cuts to all state departments.

“That allowed him to look carefully, methodically, and surgically to decide which will be cut and which will not,” Dryer said. “This is a politically expedient argument that (Kopp) is making. We did what we had to do to balance the budget.”

Most of Ritter’s proposed cuts will take effect Sept. 1 and will remain in effect until the next legislative session. Ritter will produce a balance 2010-’11 budget to the Joint Budget Committee during the first week of November.

Jason@coloradostatesman.com