Ritter unveils state budget priorities | AspenTimes.com

Ritter unveils state budget priorities

Steven K. Paulson
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

DENVER ” Ramping up on his theme that the state budget is a moral document, Gov. Bill Ritter submitted his first comprehensive spending plan on Thursday, focusing on health care, education and solar energy.

The spending plan, which would take effect July 1, proposed $900 million increase in total state funding.

It recommends a $7.5 billion general fund appropriation, a 6 percent increase from this year’s $7.1 billion and the maximum increase allowed by the state constitution.

It includes money to replace 537 state fleet vehicles with hybrids, and $2 million for rebate and incentive programs to encourage people to install solar panels.

It also includes $34 million to provide health care to 62,500 children and 1,500 pregnant women, and $24 million to add 12,000 children to health care rolls.

Ritter said the state can save $58 million over five years if by spending $6 million next year to keep offenders from returning to prison, including money for mental health care.

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“If we spend those dollars in the right way, we save money in other places in the state budget,” Ritter said. “Certainly I think local government will wind up recognizing the savings, and you can return those people to a place where they are able to be involved with society in a productive way that become taxpayers.

“So that’s one way to think about a budget being a moral document,” he said.

Ritter, who took office in January, said his budget “is both frugal and pro-active in the services and programs it will fund.”

The governor’s budget director, Todd Saliman, said a controversial new law freezing property tax mill levies to shore up the state education fund will save the state $40 million, because without that revenue, lawmakers would have to find the money elsewhere to increase funding for grade schools and high schools.

Republicans say the tax freeze violates the state’s constitutional tax and spending limits and they plan to challenge it in court.

Ritter submitted a separate $180 million capital construction request to two legislative panels: the Joint Budget Committee, which sets the state’s spending priorities, and the Capital Development Committee.

It includes funds to renovate the State Veterans Nursing Home in Florence, upgrade the state’s public safety radio system and repair the deteriorating Capitol dome structure, which has been dropping concrete on to the grand stairway. So far, no one has been injured.

Ritter promised to fix problems with linking police radio systems in the past. A recent state audit said the long-unfinished statewide system still doesn’t work, despite $135 million in state funding since 1998, and the state lacks sufficient information to fix it.

Agencies’ inability to talk to each other by radio became an issue in the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, which left 13 people and the two teen gunmen dead. Several responding law enforcement agencies couldn’t communicate on the same radio system.