State’s state? Broke!

By Jason Kosena

A dose of hard economic reality seemed to overshadow Gov. Bill Ritter’s third annual State of the State address on Thursday.

Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

Gov. Bill Ritter delivers the 2009 State of the State address before a joint session of the Colorado legislature on Thursday.

In addition to pushing for a continuation of his two-year effort to construct a new-energy economy in Colorado, Ritter called for a 10 percent spending cut in the state budget and proposed a transportation plan to fix the state’s deteriorating roads and 126 structurally unsafe bridges.

Both efforts, he said, could create tens of thousands of jobs and help to bring Colorado out of a recession.

Ritter didn’t, however, offer specifics on how much the omnibus transportation plan (dubbed FASTER) would cost or identify concrete methods to fund it.

He did, however, acknowledge that the state would be forced to raise fees and issue new bonds in the process.

“We’re trying to run a 21st-century transportation system on a 20th-century funding model that’s no longer sustainable,” Ritter said. “Even with federal recovery dollars, we don’t have the resources to repair the 126 structurally deficient bridges in Colorado. We don’t have the resources to maintain aging and congested highways. And we don’t have the resources to give commuters the transit choices they demand and deserve.”

With Republicans wary about raising fees as the economy weakens, Ritter acknowledged that passage of FASTER won’t be easy.

“This will take political courage and strong leadership, because this will not be free. It will require asking people to invest more in a down economy,” Ritter said. “For the short term, we’ll need to put safety and maintenance first, by looking at fees and bonding to fix old bridges and old roadways. For the mid term, we’ll need to be even more creative, looking at public-private partnerships and other financing options. And for the long term, we’ll need to craft a sustainable funding formula that’s responsible, fair and affordable.”

Republican leadership was hesitant to sign on to Ritter’s funding plan, instead asking that transportation be placed higher in the existing budget and to leverage state assets to gain additional revenue.

“I spoke with the governor this morning, and I think we’re going to be able to work together,” said House Minority Leader Mike May after the address. “They will bring forward some of their proposals and we will bring some of ours, but there is real opportunity for some bipartisan Colorado solutions this year — not just red and blue solutions.”

When asked if he supported using new fees to fund additional transportation projects, May was hesitant.

“I haven’t seen the details of his plan in depth yet, but there is one piece of it that I don’t like at all,” he said. “He wants to spend $3 million to study some pie-in-the-sky vehicle-miles plan, where you are taxed by how many miles you drive. That needs to come out of the governor’s plan.

Photo by Jason Kosena/The Colorado Statesman

House Minority Leader Mike May, left, and Sen. Mark Scheffel, right — both from Douglas County — listen to Ritter’s third State of the State.

“Some sort of long-term plan needs to come about, and we need to have some real discussions about the best solution,” May said. “The immediate need, however, is to fix those roads and bridges…. We have the ability to leverage existing assets and put people to work right now.”

Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry said Democrats have the power to “steamroll” new policy through the Legislature without taking Republican factors into consideration. He said he was hopeful, however, that Democratic leadership will work across the aisle in order to find the best solutions for Colorado.

“I think, in many instances, Governor Ritter struck the right tone,” Penry said, noting that transportation will provide the true test of the Democrats’ commitment to bipartisanship.

“I think on the transportation issue, he said he has his plan, and we have a plan. And I think it’s now time for us to sit down at the table and cut a deal and make this happen sooner rather than later,” Penry said. “I think the tough choices. We have to make very difficult political decisions that will impact people’s lives.”

Although Republicans said they felt Ritter struck the right tone throughout most of his address, his call to re-examine TABOR was not well-received.

“There is also an opportunity here — a chance to address TABOR and the constitutional and statutory straitjacket that makes modern, sensible and value-based budgeting an impossibility,” Ritter said. “Last year, former House Speaker (Andrew) Romanoff started the conversation, and we need to keep it alive. We need to talk about life after Ref C — whether and when to extend it. We have a chance to find a better way forward. A Colorado way forward.”

As every Democrat in the chamber applauded those words, members of the Republican caucus sat in stony silence. Afterward, they let their frustration be known.

“The one disappointing piece is when he mentioned TABOR, which really has nothing to do with this crisis at all,” said May. “And although I know our legislative leadership is committed to not using this as an excuse to go down some ideological bent, that portion of the speech was disappointing.

“To say that that part of the constitution needs to be removed was disheartening,” the House minority leader told reporters.

Freshman Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, agreed.

“I know he also discussed TABOR, and I was surprised by that,” she said. “In the last election, the people of Colorado said very clearly that they are in favor of TABOR (by voting against Romanoff’s Amendment 59), and we need to listen to them.

“I know it’s frustrating for (some) lawmakers to not get what they want. But I think we need to keep TABOR intact and keep the will of the people in place,” she said.

For one Democratic freshman lawmaker, Rep. Dennis Apuan, D-Colo. Springs, the experience of watching the State of the State address for the first time as a lawmaker offered an exciting new perspective.

“It was just awesome to hear it as a legislator who can do something about it now,” Apuan said in his Capitol office Thursday afternoon. “I have heard (Ritter’s) previous State of the States before. But to be in a position of sacred trust conferred upon us by the voters. It felt like something very positive, you know, that here I am as a newly elected legislator who can actually do something to create change, rather than just be inspired.”