Gov. Bill Ritter came upstairs to the House chamber this morning and told legislators gathered in joint session that their priority this year should be to create jobs, build roads, and continue efforts to improve access to healthcare.
The occasion was the annual "State of the State" address, and in Ritter's third opportunity to deliver it he also asked the General Assembly to put aside partisanship so that solutions to the state's "tough" financial situation can be found.
"In this legislative session, in this tough economy, we'll need to make tough choices, we'll need to collaborate and listen to one another as we chart a Colorado way forward," Ritter said. "Our challenges need more than just Democratic ideas or Republican ideas. We need uniquely Colorado ideas."
During his 33-minute address Ritter hit on several familiar themes in addition to discussing the Centennial State's possible $604 million budget shortfall this fiscal year and $385 million difference between anticipated revenues and expenses in the coming year.
"We've used the budget the past two years to set Colorado on a forward path," Ritter said. "Now, in these tough times, we must focus on the bare fundamentals and delay some investments we know will make Colorado stronger eventually."
The "investments" the governor was talking about will, if agreed to by the Senate and House, hit wide swaths of the state.
"Unlike the previous recession, our options are more limited this time," Ritter said. "Therefore, everything will be on the table. We'll work to protect life, safety and public health, and we won't abandon our obligation to provide safety-net services. However, we will touch many other important public services. This will be hard on the public and hard on public servants like those of you here today: lawmakers, judges, mayors, county commissioners and school board members."
The governor also said, though, that he anticipates receiving help from the federal government after President-elect Barack Obama is inaugurated later this month.
"Together with the new administration, together with out new senators and our entire congressional delegation," Ritter said, "we will create a stronger partnership with the federal government and work side-by-side on the challenges we face."
Republicans applauded Ritter's acknowledgement that difficult budget choices will have to be confronted while simultaneously knocking him for counting on Washington, D.C.
"“The state is facing difficult challenges in this economy, and the governor’s speech indicates that he is beginning to realize the extent of those challenges. It is clear that Colorado is not immune to the effects of this national recession.
“We are committed to working in a bipartisan manner to protect jobs, help stabilize the economy, and make our roads and bridges safer," Rep. Mike May, R-Parker, the House minority leader, said. "However, the governor’s plan appears to rely almost solely on the hope of federal handouts and on increased fees for already-struggling Colorado families."
“Now is the time to tighten our belt and make the difficult choices that are required to balance the budget, just like Colorado families are doing. It is not the time to create new programs, increase government mandates, and increase the burden of hardworking Coloradans.”
Ritter has already taken some steps to ease the state's financial woes, freezing state hiring and cut funding for preschool and kindergarten programs and college capital construction projects. He hinted strongly in his speech that state employee compensation will be cut, too.
"We've asked state employees for their ideas, and we will ask them to sacrifice, too," Ritter said. "As I announced before, employee compensation will be part of the solution."
The governor did not hesitate to point out that Colorado's budget woes have something to do with the revenue straightjacket imposed by the Taxpayers Bill of Rights and asked the General Assembly to consider ways of loosening it.
"There is also an opportunity here a chance to address TABOR and the constitutional and statutory straightjacket that makes modern, sensible and value-based budgeting an impossibility," Ritter said. "Last year, former House speaker Romanoff started the conversation, and we need to keep it alive. We need to talk about life after Ref C whether and when to extend it. We have a chance to find a better way forward, a Colorado way forward."
Republicans leaped all over that statement, accusing Ritter of being out of touch with the state's electorate.
Sen. Mike Kopp, R-Littleton, was quoted in the Denver Post as saying that "bad Chinese air" must have got to the governor on a recent trade trip.
"I don't know if the governor was in Asia during the election," Kopp told the Post. "The citizens roundly rejected dismantling the only provision in the constitution that protects taxpayers."
Ritter returned, for the third year in a row, to his "New Energy Economy" theme, arguing that his programs to expand production and use of renewable energy have significantly helped the state.
"In my first State of the State, I said the New Energy Economy must be our calling card to the future," Ritter said. "In two short years, we've created thousands of jobs, quadrupled our wind power and made Colorado a global research leader. We introduced the New Energy Economy to our president-elect and the rest of the country, and now we're introducing it to the entire world."
The governor also appeared to endorse the use of bonds and increased user fees to pay for the state's transportation needs. The proposal, called "FASTER" or "Funding Advancements for Surface Transportation and Economic Recovery, was developed in part by his transportation review panel.
"For the short-term, we'll need to put safety and maintenance first, by looking at fees and bonding to fix old bridges and old roadways," Ritter said. "For the mid-term, we'll need to be even more creative, looking at public-private partnerships and other financing options. And for the long-term, we'll need to craft a sustainable funding formula that's responsible, fair and affordable."
On health care Ritter made a bold proposal to impose fees on hospitals in order to increase the amount of matching funds paid to the state by the federal government.
"Our provider fee partnership with the hospitals is a bright light that will not only help the uninsured, but slow the escalating cost of health care for struggling businesses as well," Ritter said.
The administration says the fee could generate $400-600 million per year, which would be matched by Washington. Those dollars would, in turn, be available to reduce "underpayments" to hospitals and physicians and expand Medicaid coverage to as many as 100,000 more people.
The governor's jobs focus was evident throughout the speech. He used the word 18 times.
Ritter also asked the General Assembly to pass legislation that would:
1. Ratify strong new regulations by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission that toughen environmental standards on energy drillers;
2. Require all new single family homes to make available to buyers a "solar-ready" option allowing use of the sun for electricity needs, help rural schools build solar and wind energy production facilities, and mandate disclosure of utility bills upon sale of a house;
3. Create a tax credit applicable to creation of new jobs;
4. Ease the barriers to high school student efforts to obtain college credits;
5. Revive the Colorado Credit Reserve Program, which helps businesses obtain access to capital; and
6. Provide for financing for consumer renewable energy projects.
The governor closed with a plea for cooperation across party lines, arguing that effective and responsive government will not be possible without it.
"One hundred years from now, I want Coloradans to look back and see this as the turning point the point when we set aside partisan politics and worked together as Coloradans and built a New Energy Economy, a modern transportation system, and the country's best education system," Ritter said. "In his election night remarks, President-elect Obama reminded us of the words of Lincoln: 'We are not enemies, but friends. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.'"
"We will need to work together as responsible leaders to make the difficult choices necessary to weather this storm. We must not give in to partisan politics. We must not let cynicism win out over hope. We must not let fear win out over faith."
Republicans later released a YouTube video response to Ritter's address, in which Sen. Mike Kopp of Littleton and Rep. Amy Stephens of Monument said the GOP would be happy to work with Ritter but opposed the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission efforts to crack down on pollution created by oil and gas extraction and would not support increases in fees or efforts to convince the public to approve tax increases.
The text of the governor's speech is available here.
The GOP video response is available here.