Colorado governor’s gains go into reverse
The Denver Post
Denver, CO Colorado
DENVER, Colorado “-For Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, it’s one step forward, two steps back.
The plan Ritter unveiled Friday to fill a more than $600 million hole in the current fiscal year’s budget cuts into some of his top priorities and at least partially reverses accomplishments he has touted the past two years.
The cuts, which still must be hammered out with lawmakers, would mean more delayed construction projects on college campuses, fewer children entering full-day kindergarten and an indefinite abandonment of plans to cover more kids through the Children’s Basic Health Plan.
Ritter, a Democrat, said the last item on the list was the hardest cut for him to propose.
“That’s just one good example of how difficult these cuts are,” Ritter said, “to have to make that decision we know has a real impact on the lives and the health quality of the children of Colorado.”
Economic forecasters predicted in December that the state would fall $604 million short of the budget lawmakers approved last session for the current fiscal year, which ends in June. They also predicted the state would see a $385 million hole in the next fiscal year.The current forecasts call for a 6.8 percent drop in general fund revenue over the previous year.
Ritter’s budget staff unveiled its plan to balance the current year’s budget before a meeting Friday of the legislature’s Joint Budget Committee. The governor’s office will present its plan to deal with next year’s budget to the committee next Friday.
The plan to balance the current year’s budget calls for $201.1 million in spending and program cuts and $289.7 million in transfers from cash funds and changes to existing law that would save the state money. The plan also would use $134.1 million from the state’s reserve fund.
Kids’ care expansion shelved
Ritter and the Democratic-led legislature last year boasted of having expanded health-care coverage for poor children. There are an estimated 180,000 uninsured children in Colorado.
But Ritter’s proposed cuts would indefinitely shelve the Democratic-supported plan to expand eligibility for the Children’s Basic Health Plan from 205 percent of the federal poverty level to 225 percent, a step that was supposed to add coverage for 9,040 children over three years. It was a key talking point for Democrats.
The expansion required increased funding over those years, but postponing it will save the state $3.1 million in the current budget year that ends in June and and $13.6 million in the next.
Ritter’s proposal also would cut $21.7 million in planned rate increases for doctors and hospitals who treat Medicaid and CBHP patients. Some of the increased rates were supposed to make it easier for thousands of additional Coloradans to get health coverage by enticing more doctors to treat Medicaid patients.
And Ritter also called for suspending outreach efforts to get more Medicaid-eligible Coloradans to use the program. The programs would have cost the state about $3 million, but also drew down millions of dollars in federal matching money.
Ritter said he is optimistic that the Democratic administration of Barack Obama along with a Democratic-controlled Congress will give more assistance to states struggling to pay Medicaid costs and fund health care for children.
Tough hit for universities
For colleges and universities, though, there’s no federal life preserver in sight.
Ritter called for cutting $30 million from the amount appropriated to colleges and universities in the current year, still leaving higher education with a $30 million net increase over the prior year.
The governor has touted increasing higher education funding by $120 million the past two years as an administration accomplishment. His proposal would cut a quarter of that sum, and he has acknowledged that cuts in next year’s fiscal budget threaten to reverse gains even further.
Ritter said it could have been worse, heralding “the fact that we held that cut to $30 million.”
And Ritter’s office, which had already frozen 12 campus construction projects worth $51.2 million, said Friday it would delay another 64 projects for a savings of $43.4 million.
One of Ritter’s oft-stated goals while running for governor was to increase the number of children in full-day kindergarten, and he and fellow Democrats had been increasing state funding to make that happen.
Ritter’s budget-balancing plan cuts $45.8 million in spending for schools, an amount that still allows the state to comply with Amendment 23 requirements that education spending increase every year.
But the proposed cuts would take $34.5 million from capital construction projects for full-day kindergarten, $4.9 million from charter-school construction projects, $1.8 million from teacher-recruitment programs and $973,000 from summer-school efforts.
Will Ritter be remembered as a governor who slashed the state budget instead of as a leader who improved schools, health care and higher education? Ritter said he was just focusing on doing his job to balance the state’s budget.
“I’m not really a person who worries about a legacy,” he said. “We know it (the downturn) is going to be difficult.”
Tim Hoover: 303-954-1626