Ritter’s ‘Colorado Promise’ blunted by recession
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
DENVER – Bill Ritter seized the Centennial State’s governorship in 2006 on the wings of his “Colorado Promise,” a 54-page pledge to insure hundreds of thousands of Coloradans, boost higher education funding and amplify the state’s aging transportation system.
Then he ran into the recession – and Colorado’s vexing constitutional limits on tax increases. And despite the glow of a successful 2008 Democratic National Convention, his “deeply held belief that we as a state were not living up to our full potential,” as he put it in 2006, still rings true today.
Ritter’s surprise announcement last week that he won’t seek re-election this year means he’ll be Colorado’s first one-term governor since Republican John Vanderhoof, booted out of office after just 18 months in 1974 under the Watergate cloud that hurt the GOP.
Pending this year’s Legislative session, Ritter leaves a mixed legacy.
Colorado lost 5 percent of its jobs in the recession, and jobs in the green energy sector heavily promoted by Ritter weren’t spared. The governor’s ability to maneuver was severely limited by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, the constitutional amendment approved by voters in 1992 that requires a popular vote to raise taxes and limits revenues the state can receive, even in good years.
Many Colorado promises had to be abandoned, and many unpopular cuts or fee increases adopted.
Still out there is Ritter’s promise to provide health insurance to 790,000 uninsured Coloradans by 2010. Ritter did sign legislation increasing hospital fees to provide insurance to 100,000 people.
In 2007, tuition at the University of Colorado rose 14.6 percent.
Ritter signed bills increasing auto registration fees and freezing mill levy rates to raise money for education. Republicans called both tax hikes.
Transportation improvements did come – in part thanks to the federal stimulus bill. Still, Colorado has scores of aging bridges and other highway infrastructure in need of repair, and no solution is in sight for the increasingly congested – and costly – Interstate 70 corridor.
Ritter now admits that some of his promises were too ambitious to get done in four years, but said he’d rather set the bar too high.
He canceled scheduled interviews with news media following his announcement he wouldn’t seek re-election.
In some ways, Ritter, like Vanderhoof, is a victim of his times, said John Straayer, a political science professor at Colorado State University. In Ritter’s case, it is the economy.
“He couldn’t possibly do it with the fiscal situation in this state,” Straayer said.
But Straayer said Ritter has a different management style from his predecessors, preferring policy over politics and trusting instincts that often got him in trouble with his constituents and his party.
Ritter angered many constituents when he vetoed a measure to make it easier to set up all-union workplaces. He later signed an order allowing state workers to organize, but organized labor wasn’t mollified.
Firefighters were angered last summer when Ritter vetoed a bill to allow them to unionize without getting local approval. He also vetoed a bill sought by grocery store workers – still locked in contract talks – that would have allowed them to collect unemployment benefits if they were locked out by the companies.
He also disappointed other Democratic constituencies, including Hispanics.
One of his biggest – and most criticized – decisions was to appoint a little-known associate, Denver Public Schools Superintendent Michael Bennet, to a U.S. Senate seat in January 2009, with support from President Barack Obama. Bennet replaced Ken Salazar, now interior secretary.
Hispanics were upset that Ritter didn’t pick another Hispanic to succeed Salazar. Supporters of former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff were also upset; Bennet had no previous political experience, though he has been a fundraising juggernaut since his appointment.
For Straayer, it was vintage Ritter, keeping his eye on the policy ball to the detriment of the political ball.
“A lot of people wanted him to play political games with them, and he was reading from a different script,” Straayer said.
In contrast, Democratic Gov. Roy Romer was “politics all the time,” Straayer said. GOP Gov. Bill Owens was controlling, believing state workers could not be trusted and that departments had to be kept in line.
Mike Stratton, a Democratic political consultant, said many people think there is something more than Ritter’s explanations that he simply wants to have more family time – and govern without the distractions of an election campaign.
“I really think it was difficult for him to govern in this political environment that has gotten so nasty,” Stratton said. “With his Catholic background, missing time with his kids was tearing him up.”
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