Ritter promises budget cut, transportation jobs plan for Colorado | AspenTimes.com

Ritter promises budget cut, transportation jobs plan for Colorado

Steven K. Paulson
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

DENVER ” With Colorado’s recession deepening, Gov. Bill Ritter announced Thursday he is seeking a cut of about $800 million in the state budget, and he unveiled a plan that he says will fix crumbling roads and bridges while creating much-needed jobs.

In his annual state of the state address, Ritter told lawmakers, who began their 120-day session on Wednesday, that he has asked state agencies to prepare plans to cut nearly $800 million from the state’s current $18.6 billion operating budget. He said covering that budget deficit can be achieved in part by using emergency funds set aside for reserves.

“Families and businesses throughout Colorado are facing challenges they haven’t seen in generations,” he said. “Families are making different decisions, setting different priorities and sacrificing. Just like every family in Colorado, we’ll need to make tough choices here in the Capitol as well.”

Legislative economists have warned the state faces a $600 million shortfall in this year’s budget because of a drop in tax revenue. The governor’s office estimates the figure is closer to $230 million. However, Ritter’s spokesman Evan Dreyer said the governor, who must work with state lawmakers to make cuts, has proposed a bigger cut to be on the safe side.

Ritter said the transportation plan, which he calls FASTER, will require Colorado to raise fees and issue bonds. It has not been introduced as a bill because lawmakers say they are still working on a compromise.

But FASTER ” or Funding Advancements for Surface Transportation and Economic Recovery ” will only provide short-term solutions, Ritter warned. He said Colorado needs a more sustainable funding plan that is fair and affordable.

House Minority Leader Mike May, R-Parker, said it will be tough to sell taxpayers on a proposal to raise vehicle registration fees for bridge repairs. He said voters also won’t like a proposal to study ways to track motorists and force them to pay for the miles they travel in their vehicles, rather than relying on declining gas tax revenues.

“That just seems to be a bizarre invasion of privacy,” May said.

Ritter got a stony reception from Republicans and even some Democrats when he proposed changes to the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, which limits the ability of lawmakers to raise taxes without voter approval and would require voter approval to change it.

Rep. Jack Pommel, D-Boulder, said voters passed Referendum C, giving up their tax surplus refunds for five years, and the state is still in a budget hole.

“I don’t think raising fees on car registrations would even make a dent,” he said.

The governor said a bill to establish a tax credit for companies that create more than 20 jobs and revive the Colorado Credit Reserve Program to help businesses get credit will help Coloradans through rough economic times.

He also promised to continue promoting companies that provide renewable energy.

Sen. Greg Trophy, R-Wray, said Republicans could work with the governor on his transportation proposal, which Brophy said was based on Republican principles of pay-as-you-go and could possibly include toll roads. But he rejected Ritter’s call to bring 100,000 people onto the Medicaid rolls, taking hospital fees and leveraging them to get matching federal dollars.

“It’s a Madoff-style scheme balanced on the backs of our children and grandchildren,” Brophy said.

Legislators are expected to focus on the deficit, jobs and the economy this session.

On Wednesday, Senate President Peter Groff said 43,000 Coloradans received $48 million in unemployment benefits in November ” and the numbers are rising. He noted there were 30,000 foreclosure filings in Colorado the first three quarters of 2007 and that half a million people now rely on food banks.

Democrats say they will look at increased taxes and fees to balance the budget, while Republicans suggest Colorado sell bonds to investors, using state buildings as collateral.

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