Apr 132009
Authors: Jessica Fender The Denver Post Staff

Gov. Bill Ritter said Monday that a potential $300 million cut to Colorado colleges is off the table, though he offered no guidance on how to solve the state’s shortfall as the Senate moved forward with a plan that taps money from a workers’ compensation insurer.

College officials greeted the news with cautious optimism but said they’re not safe until additional funds are found to balance the state’s $17.9 billion budget.

Ritter’s announcement, the first time he has publicly stated his position on a major budget proposal this year, came as senators approved the budget and critics accused Ritter of “hiding under his desk” during a crisis.

“For anybody to claim the governor has been anything but out front or heavily involved is just wrong,” said Ritter’s spokesman, Evan Dreyer, who pointed out that Ritter’s office first proposed a list of budget fixes in January. “This is a collaborative effort that includes multiple parties.”

Dreyer stopped short of promising a veto should the college cuts remain in the budget, but he said Ritter found out last week that the proposed $300 million reduction would disqualify Colorado from $760 million in federal stimulus money for all education levels.

Colorado colleges are already taking a $150 million hit, though Ritter plans to fill those holes for two years with the stimulus cash – provided the state receives it.

Dreyer declined to signal Ritter’s opinion on the Senate-approved plan to take $500 million from Pinnacol Assurance, a quasi-governmental workers’ compensation insurer, or other proposed budget fixes. Pinnacol leaders have promised a court fight should the plan to raid the insurer’s reserves continue to succeed.

The budget and the Pinnacol plan head next to the House.

Optimistic but still on guard

Nancy McCallin, president of the Colorado Community College System, called Ritter’s announcement “a good step, but we aren’t out of the woods yet. We clearly don’t know where the $300 million will come from.”

Faced with a $800 million shortfall for the fiscal year that begins in July, lawmakers partially shored up the budget by raiding cash funds, suspending a property-tax break for seniors and cutting education budgets.

Lawmakers also are considering plans to furlough state employees, lift some of the state’s $2 billion in sales tax credits and exemptions, reduce the K-12 budget by $100 million and many minor cuts.

Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, said he would like to know where Ritter stands on those proposals so lawmakers can make decisions that won’t fall under the veto pen when the governor receives the budget later this month.

He and other Republicans ripped Ritter on Monday for staying silent on politically difficult choices.

“He’s the guy who could nip all this in the bud,” Penry said. “But he’s invisible. It’s left a vacuum of uncertainty that other governors would have filled.”

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle agree that Ritter’s leadership style is a departure from past governors, who have pushed proposals with more force.

“The governor isn’t one to tell us what to do or when to do it,” said Sen. Moe Keller, a Wheat Ridge Democrat and head of the Joint Budget Committee. “He’s not heavy-handed; he’s cooperative.”

Ritter began dealing with Colorado’s fiscal mess by curbing the number of state hires and pushing a balancing plan that included furloughs for state employees. His department heads worked with JBC to find savings and cuts, and his office talks regularly with the legislative budget architects.

But until now, he has not signaled his intentions on any of the solutions lawmakers are proposing. Spokesman Dreyer said all but the higher-education cuts are still on the table.

He said Ritter also has met several times with Pinnacol executives, most recently on Monday.

Adding to the budget uncertainty is the threat of a court case over the plan to take the Pinnacol money.

The state-chartered agency provides last-resort workers’ compensation insurance and enjoys a tax-free status unavailable to its competitors.

Pinnacol bills pass

The agency suffered a blow Monday – despite an outcry from business owners who filled the Senate chamber – when lawmakers approved on an 18-15 vote Senate Bill 281, which would put Pinnacol firmly back under state control. Democratic Sens. Dan Gibbs of Silverthorne, Paula Sandoval of Denver and Gail Schwartz of Snowmass Village voted against it. Sen. Al White, R-Hayden, was the lone Republican to support the bill.

The vote was similar on Senate Bill 273, sponsored by White, which would force the transfer of $500 million from Pinnacol’s funds to the state. That bill passed on a 19-14 vote, with Sandoval voting “yes.”

After a long day debating the state’s next financial move, White said he expects Ritter to become more vocal as the budget bill gets closer to his desk.

But he didn’t fault Ritter for taking a more hands-off approach.

“He’s been wisely waiting for the right moment,” White said. “But I think the situation has come to a head. It’d be foolish of us to pass a bill that he’s going to veto.”

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