Ritter defends Colorado cuts to disabled, mental health
Associated Press Writer
DENVER – Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter decided to cut services for the mentally ill, the disabled and people without health insurance to help balance the state budget, saying he didn’t have the luxury of sparing the safety net.
“Those kinds of options had to be on the table to do what we did, to be fiscally responsible but also spread the pain,” Ritter said in an interview.
Lawmakers cut about $812 million in spending before they adjourned, so Ritter had to make more cuts as state revenues continued to fall. He cut a total of $258 million, including 300 jobs, after going through the budget line by line.
“This had to be surgical,” he said.
Ritter said he looked at four areas under his control with significant expenditures: Health care, human services, corrections and higher education.
The biggest part of the budget – education through high school – is protected by the state constitution. Higher education cuts were made up with federal stimulus dollars. Ritter did accelerate parole for eligible offenders, allowing for the release of about 6,400 inmates over two years.
On health care, Ritter chose to close units that treat 59 children, teens and the elderly at the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Fort Logan in Denver. A 32-unit for the developmentally disabled at the Grand Junction Regional Center will close by March.
Health clinics serving the uninsured are losing $35 million, including a $21.5 million cut by Ritter. He will also cut $200 in monthly payments to disabled people waiting to qualify for Social Security.
The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless warns that the cut could put thousands more people on the streets.
“It’s as if they’ve forgotten the people, the need to see the people and the impact it will have on them,” coalition spokeswoman B.J. Iacino said.
About 10,000 people relied on the money last year to pay rent, check into a motel or pay for doctor visits as they worked their way through federal red tape, she said.
But Ritter said the cash payments are the least efficient money spent on the safety net, with no way to ensure they go for basic needs.
The state can get reimbursed for payments to those who obtain Social Security, but the average wait is 22 months and most applicants aren’t approved. Colorado received only 20 percent of what it spent last year, but Iacino said that’s partly because the state and federal government have different standards of eligibility and there aren’t enough workers to process claims.
Ritter said he remembers shopping for groceries with food stamps with his mother, so he knows the importance of the safety net. He also said his experience as a prosecutor showed him the importance of treating mental illness.
He said his decisions avoided worse ones, such as a $12.5 million cut that would have eliminated mental health care to 4,000 people without health insurance.
Iacino and other critics say the state should consider reversing some of the $1.8 billion in sales tax exemptions and other tax credits instead of cutting health care. But Ritter said getting rid of one of the biggest tax exemptions – $583 million a year for manufacturers – would hurt Colorado businesses, make it harder to attract new ones and prolong the recession.
At Fort Logan, officials insist patients can be placed elsewhere, such as homes staffed by local groups that provide mental health care. Ritter pledges the units won’t be closed until patients find help, but mental health advocates don’t think there are enough spaces.
Lacey Berumen, executive director of Colorado’s National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, said about 500 people stay at Fort Logan each year. She fears once the units are closed, children and teens who need help end will be stuck in emergency rooms until space can be found for them.
Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, who hopes to challenge Ritter in next year’s election, said some of the developmentally disabled people at Grand Junction could be moved to less intensive care to save money. But he said Ritter should have looked at moving other people from the center, not just focusing on the unit that serves severely disabled people.
Penry, R-Grand Junction, says Ritter ignored a suggestion he made to see how much money could be saved by consolidating state agencies. He criticized the Democratic governor for not cutting more jobs he’s added in his office and other departments.
The number of employees in the governor’s office and executive agencies has grown by 941 since Ritter took office in 2007. Three hundred will now be cut.
Ritter said some of the positions, including a climate change adviser, are paid for by federal funds or foundations. He said others were hired to oversee how the state spends its homeland security funds after critical audits.
Democratic leaders have no plans for a special session to try to reverse the tax exemption and undo the budget cuts, and they warn that worse cuts are likely next year. Legislative economists predict another $500 million will have to be cut partly because federal stimulus money will dry up.