Colorado transportation spending could take big hit |

Colorado transportation spending could take big hit

Dan Elliott
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

DENVER ” Colorado’s transportation budget could be slashed by one-third in 2009-10 because high oil prices are forcing drivers to burn less gasoline, which in turn has cut deeply into gasoline tax revenues.

Gov. Bill Ritter warned of the impending cut Sunday as he unveiled his spending plan for the budget year that starts next July. He called it a lean and frugal proposal that reflects a worsening national and global economy.

“This is a budget that tightens state government’s belt, focuses on critical services and reflects the opening of a new state prison,” he said.

Ritter said Colorado has suffered less than other states but cautioned that could change.

“We know we are not going to be immune from these headwinds,” he said.

His plan includes setting aside $77 million for what he called an unprecedented rainy-day fund that could be used for critical services.

Ritter projects a total state budget of $19.2 billion. That’s an increase of nearly $625 million or 3.4 percent from the current budget year.

Much of that spending is outside the governor’s control, including the budgets for the legislative and judicial branches and the offices of the attorney general, the state treasurer and the secretary of state.

Ritter’s proposed budget is only the first step in a months-long process that will culminate in a final spending blueprint sometime next March, after the Legislature has its say.

Senate Minority Leader Andy McElhany, a Colorado Springs Republican, said GOP lawmakers would take a close look at the plan released by Ritter, a Democrat.

McElhany expressed doubts about whether revenues would be as high as Ritter expects and whether lawmakers could resist the temptation to tap a rainy day fund.

“He’d be better off putting it into things that can’t be spent, like asphalt and bricks and mortar,” McElhany said.

He also questioned why the budget cuts transportation. “It seems to be the area that’s been neglected the most,” he said.

Last year, Senate Republicans advocated for creating a rainy day fund and chided Ritter for adding 1,300 new employees to the budget.

Ritter said transportation spending next year may be slashed by $429 million, down from the current $1.3 billion.

The bulk of the state’s highway funding comes from the state’s flat 22-cent per gallon gasoline tax ” which doesn’t increase as the price of gas rises ” along with taxes and fees from vehicle registrations and usage taxes. In good economic years, once the state’s budget grows up to the maximum 6 percent limit allowed by law, any extra money can flow into state construction projects, including highways and bridges.

Ritter blamed about $332 million of the decline on falling revenue from state gasoline taxes. He said Colorado also expects to get $96.4 million less from the troubled federal highway trust fund.

The federal fund, which also depends on gasoline taxes, is nearly broke. Congress and President Bush had to give it an $8 billion emergency infusion in September.

Ritter proposes spending $214 million to expand Medicaid coverage to an additional 54,000 people and $60 million to expand full-day kindergarten to 8,800 more students.

He also wants to spend $5 million on job creation and economic development.

Ritter declined to comment on what would happen to his projections if any of a handful of ballot issues dealing with taxes or spending pass on Tuesday.

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