Gov. Ritter defends cuts, energy policy

By Ellen Miller

GRAND JUNCTION — Gov. Bill Ritter had to run a gauntlet of protesters — about 20 of whom were angrily vocal — before he could get inside Two Rivers Convention Center to defend his budget cuts at the Sept. 12 fall meeting of Club 20.

Political stars stop by for Club 20 meeting

Political gadflies hoping to see Democrat Gov. Bill Ritter and GOP challengers Josh Penry and Scott McInnis in the flesh working the same room during last weekend’s Club 20 events were disappointed. Although Ritter, Glenwood Springs native McInnis and GOP hopeful Dan Maes, of Evergreen, circulated at the Friday night steak fry, Penry, who represents Grand Junction in the Colorado Senate, skipped it.

Penry, however, “worked the halls” before Ritter’s Saturday morning speech, while McInnis and Maes didn’t appear. Penry was gone by the time Ritter arrived.

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, who spoke on health care reform Saturday morning, also attended the Friday night event, but his opponent for the Democratic nomination, fellow Denverite and former Speaker of the Colorado House Andrew Romanoff, didn’t show. Neither did any of the GOP U.S. Senate hopefuls, a list that includes former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton, who grew up in Grand Junction and now lives in Englewood.

U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, of Eldorado Springs, and 3rd Congressional District Rep. John Salazar, of Manassa, both Democrats, sent regrets. However, Republican Attorney General John Suthers, of Colorado Springs, attended both the Friday and Saturday functions, as did Secretary of State Bernie Buescher, a Grand Junction Democrat.

Legislators on hand in addition to Penry included Sens. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass, and Nancy Spence, R-Centennial; and Reps. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez; Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, and Laura Bradford, R-Collbran.

Grand Junction Republicans and former Sens. Tilman Bishop and Ron Teck, both were on hand, as were Club 20 stalwarts Bill Cleary, Ruth Vanderhoof, Peg Foster and Steve ErkenBrack, all of Grand Junction; Pitkin County Commissioner Rachael Richards, of Aspen; Peg Rector, of Rangely; T. Wright Dickenson, of Maybell; and Tom Harned, of Eagle.

Once inside, he outlined his efforts to spur natural gas production and got feisty on the subject of the gubernatorial race.

“We had terrible, awful cuts to make’’ to the budget, Ritter told more than 200 people. “These are tough times, and the challenge now is leading Colorado forward.”

The governor said those challenges include the recession, which has driven natural gas prices down by more than 75 percent.

Ritter called the natural gas industry “vitally important to our state.”

He said he had lobbied President Barack Obama on the need to continue developing natural gas during the president’s visit to Grand Junction last month. Ritter noted that more rigs operate in Colorado than in any other Rocky Mountain state, touted the environmental benefits of powering vehicles with natural gas and defended the recently passed oil and gas industry regulations.

Ritter also pointed to his testimony before Congress to urge more inclusion of natural gas in climate-change legislation and said he has been urging federal permitting authorities to speed approval of the Ruby pipeline to transport more gas from northwestern Colorado to the Pacific Northwest.

He defended Obama’s policies, noting that federal stimulus funds have provided for work on highways and improvements to Grand Junction’s airport and have cushioned Colorado’s colleges and universities from crippling cuts.

Ritter said the cuts at the regional center and similar slashes at Lakewood’s Fort Logan Mental Health Institute were “deeply personal,” disclosing that a younger brother, Danny, who was born with developmental disabilities, had died at age 6.

Ritter spokesman Evan Dreyer later told The Colorado Statesman that the governor had discussed his disabled brother in public “only once or twice before” his comments to Club 20. Ritter was 13 when Danny died.

From there, he moved to his critics, and, without mentioning his name, appeared to take on state Sen. Josh Penry, of Grand Junction, one of three GOP hopefuls in the governor’s race.

There are “political opportunists who say, ‘we need to cut, but not in my district,’” Ritter said. “The critics came out, but — as Teddy Roosevelt pointed out — it’s not the critics who count.

“I’ll work with anybody, but don’t demagogue it,” he added.

Penry, reached by e-mail Monday, said Ritter and legislative Democrats “ignored the pleas of me and others and went on a record-breaking spending spree, failing to build up a meaningful rainy day fund.”

“I really do like the governor personally, but his mismanagement of the budget over three years is an indisputable truth,” Penry wrote. “For him to suggest that the only place to cut is services for the most disabled in our midst, well, that’s just disingenuous and wrong.”

After his speech Saturday, Ritter wouldn’t name the critics he described.

“It was a general statement, and I won’t make any more of it,” he said.

On arrival at the Two Rivers Convention Center, the governor had been greeted by about 30 people, most carrying signs decrying the coming closure of the skilled nursing facility at the Grand Junction Regional Center. They gathered around him as he stopped to talk with them.

Ritter had met earlier in the day with several members of the group, most of whom have profoundly disabled relatives living at the aging center, which is scheduled to be shuttered this coming winter as part of the state’s budget cuts made necessary by the recession.

“We’re listening,” Ritter told them. “There will be no closure until everyone has another placement in the community.”

He ignored the shouting from the north side of the convention center, where about 20 people carried signs ranging from “Ritter Energy Quitter” to accusations concerning socialized health care and death camps. A few of the latter signs appeared to be left over from last month’s rally during Obama’s visit.

About 20 loud protesters, complete with a bullhorn, belatedly saw the governor heading into the south entrance to the convention center and ran over to chant “Governor Ritter’s got to go!”

He ignored them as he continued to talk to Regional Center advocates on his way inside.

Club 20 gave Ritter a courteous reception, as the Western Slope lobbying and promotional organization customarily gives elected officials.

“There is some angst in western Colorado, but our speakers are all treated with respect, and sitting governors get a standing ovation,” said Club 20 President Reeves Brown.

Brown attributed the unusually high turnout during an off-election year to “the entire political climate, from the national health care debate, the recession and general concern people have.”

Nearly 250 people attended Club 20’s Friday night gathering, and more than 200 were on hand Saturday, Brown said.