Idled workers protest budget cuts

By Jason Kosena
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

State workers and advocates for the disabled felt the pain of the state’s budget woes on Tuesday, the first of four unpaid furlough days for state employees mandated by Gov. Bill Ritter in an effort to address the state’s budget shortfall.

They didn’t suffer in silence.

About 200 people outside the West Steps of the Capitol on Tuesday protest budget cuts imposed by Gov. Bill Ritter last month. The rally, attended by many furloughed state workers and advocates of the disabled, was in support for a different approach to the state’s cuts.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

About 200 people participated in a rally organized by the Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute Tuesday afternoon on the West Steps of the Capitol to protest cuts Ritter implemented last month in order to close an estimated $318 million budget gap that arose after the Legislature finished its work in June.

The rally, which was mostly calm, featured speakers from many Denver-based nonprofit groups who said the budget cuts are causing the most suffering among the state’s most vulnerable residents. They demanded a special session of the Legislature aimed at finding less intrusive ways to cut the budget.

“The governor has told us that each of these cuts are painful to him, but they are cuts that have to be made because there are no other options,” said John Parvensky, president and CEO of the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. “How is cutting the health clinics that are providing care for families and children at a time when it is needed most — how is cutting their budgets protecting the safety net?”

A group of protesters hold signs outside the Capitol during the rally.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

Last month, in an effort that many Democratic lawmakers called heroic, Ritter cut $318 million from the state’s budget by executive order.

Included in the long list of cuts were a 1.5 percent reduction in the hospital provider rate, saving $8.5 million, a $1.7 million cut in pharmacy rates and the elimination of 59 beds at the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Fort Logan and 32 beds at the Grand Junction Regional Center. 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.

“The latest round of cuts mean that there are seniors, children and families who won’t get the care and services they need, students who won’t be able to go to college and Colorado families who will get left behind,” said Rev. Nathan Woodliff-Stanley, a board member of the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado. “That’s why we are saying, ‘No more cuts.’ Colorado can’t afford it.”

Colorado, however, might not have any other option.

The Legislature worked tirelessly throughout the 2009 session to balance a budget that felt what seemed like a never-ending series of blows as each new monthly revenue projection proved more dismal than the one before. In total, the state was forced to slash nearly $1 billion — a cut softened somewhat by the infusion of federal dollars generated by the stimulus act passed by Congress in February.

In addition to the $318 million Ritter cut last month to balance additional losses in revenue realized this summer, the Joint Budget Committee is expected to begin finding ways to hack another $600 million to $900 million from the state’s 2010-’11 budget in November when it begins budget planning.

Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, stands on the outskirts of the rally on Tuesday. Steadman said he came out to watch the protest to get an idea of what people are feeling about the latest budget cuts.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

The Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute has outlined a number of areas where it believes additional revenue can be found. Suggestions include disallowing corporations to write off previous year’s losses on current profitable year’s income statements, reducing manufacturer tax breaks, creating a sales tax for purchases made over the Internet and closing certain tax loopholes, among others.

All of the ideas floated by the CFPI include raising taxes, a move ruled out by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, who note that a tax increase is particularly inappropriate during a severe economic recession.

Despite the lack of support to go after additional revenue through legislative mandate, Sen. Betty Boyd, D-Lakewood, told The Colorado Statesman after Tuesday’s rally that she believes the current budget cuts have not targeted the right state services and that the pain should be spread widely among all state residents.

A furloughed state worker protests during Tuesday’s rally.
Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

“I have huge concerns over the kinds of budget cuts we are making this time,” Boyd said. “We are really cutting some of the most vulnerable in the state who we have tried hard to protect. I just think that as we are making budget cuts, we need to do more kinds of global cutting. And, until we make cuts that affect more people, the state will generally not understand the problem.”

Boyd pointed to 2003, when the Legislature eliminated many Department of Motor Vehicle offices around the state as an effective way to reduce the state’s budget without hurting the low-income and disabled population.

“People in this state came unglued when they had to stand in line at the DMV,” Boyd said. “But if people in this state want small government, then that is what it means. It means you wait in line. But, so far, the cuts we have seen this year have affected the people who really need the state’s services and not the general population.”

The idea of a special session, which was heavily promoted at Tuesday’s rally, has not been favored by either Democratic or Republican legislators. Democrats have generally said they believe Ritter can make the needed cuts by executive order, while Republicans have said they are afraid a special session would open the door for additional fees to be imposed on residents.

Boyd said she isn’t sure a special session is necessary. On one hand, she said, it would cost the state money to convene the Legislature again before 2010. But, she added, it also would be the only way for lawmakers to ratify the cuts Ritter has chosen to make.

“The problem with not having the special session that I see is a lot of (Ritter’s) cuts are effective Jan. 1,” Boyd said. “So, if we are going to make any changes in the direction of these cuts, a special session is the only way to do it.”

Jason@coloradostatesman.com