Down economy forced Gov. Ritter to abandon some programs while he also came under fire

Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter jokes with the crowd at the new Rifle Library.



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Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter jokes with the crowd at the new Rifle Library.

Frustrating.

That was the single word outgoing Gov. Bill Ritter used to describe his four years in office.

Frustrating that the worst recession in decades hit the state and nation on his watch. Frustrating that it caused Colorado to have to slow down or abandon some of the programs he wanted to do. Frustrating that he got blamed for that bad recession, and trying to fix things that he believes still have some systemic problems.

“The voters of this state actually want more of a centrist government (that is) willing to work on the big issues and try and reach across the fault lines in politics to get solutions,” Ritter said. “We had some great successes that were bipartisan, but there were some times that were, because of partisan politics, an effort to frustrate us. I’m really concerned not just about the partisan fight, but about the lack of civility that undergirded them.”

The governor pushed renewable energy to help boost jobs, and he backed a major rewrite of the state’s oil and gas regulations to increase protection of the state’s environment. At the same time, he pushed to expand markets for the state’s natural gas industry.

Still, he was criticized by environmental groups for not going far enough, and he was attacked by pro-drilling advocates who believed he was opposed to fossil fuels.

Meanwhile, Ritter vetoed several bills that labor unions wanted, but signed an executive order allowing state workers to enter into “partnership agreements” with their employers, something his critics said were actually unions even though they have few union powers, such as collective bargaining.

Still again he was attacked, this time by labor unions and business groups for doing both.

To people who followed Ritter’s initiatives over the years, most would expect the governor to say his focus on renewable energy and his oft-touted “New Energy Economy” was his legacy to the state. To be sure, that issue is important to the Democrat, but he was more pleased with strides the state made on education reform, including a controversial teacher-tenure measure that for the first time pegs teachers’ jobs with how well their students achieve.

Labor groups didn’t like that one either, particularly teachers’ unions.

Though Ritter initially was seen as a friend of unions, he upset them almost immediately after taking office. Early in the 2007 legislative session, his first as governor, Democrats who controlled the Colorado Legislature approved a bill that would have done away with a required vote to create all-union shops. Ritter generally supported unions and never expected to issue his first veto against them.

Ritter’s successor, Gov.-elect John Hickenlooper, said that happened, in part, because the governor failed to make his views known to legislators immediately after taking office. While Hickenlooper, a Democrat, said he generally views Ritter as a good governor, he said that mistake started Ritter off on the wrong foot.

“He got defined by circumstances, and it was unfair,” Hickenlooper said. “You get pushed into corners where you don’t want to be.”

Rep. Frank McNulty, a Republican from Highlands Ranch who is to be the next speaker of the Colorado House, praised that veto, but said Ritter did enough to help unions, anyway. McNulty said Ritter failed in other ways, such as allowing strict new rules governing the oil and gas industry, but did do some good things.

“Some of the most heated battles that we had were over his insistence on pushing the new energy economy at the expense of everything else, but where we really did see bipartisan compromise was on education reform,” McNulty said. “His problem was two weeks after vetoing the union-payback bill, he went and signed that executive order that turned state employees over to (a union). It definitely sent a mixed message, and it hurt him.”

Ritter said that although he doesn’t regret allowing state workers to create those partnerships, if he had it to do over again he would have done it differently. He said it was part of a broader desire to change the entire labor-employer dynamic between all workers and their employers.

“I didn’t change the framework for how labor deals with the business community and the business community deals with labor,” the governor said. “They remain at loggerheads. I thought we could modernize and manage those relationships differently. That turned out not to be the case, and I’m saddened by that.”

McNulty said he agrees with Ritter when the governor says his greatest accomplishments were in education reform, something Mesa State College President Tim Foster echoed.

Foster said Ritter’s constant push to fund higher education made him the first governor “in our lifetimes” who not only emphasized a need to fund the state’s colleges and universities and encourage more students to attend them, but promoted programs to do that.

Although the outgoing governor is pleased some recognize his accomplishments, he won’t leave the office without a sense that he couldn’t complete everything he wanted, a goal that was further frustrated by the recession and having to address a $4 billion budget shortfall.

“My vision was that the state needed a course correction, and that involved change, and change is never easy,” Ritter said. “The energy conversation in this state is completely different than it was four years ago. The education conversation ... we were about substantive reform, and we had to fight even with our allies. Because of the budget and because I take a longer view of this, I probably had a more difficult time as governor than most in the history of this state.”



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