Ritter served state well

When Gov. Bill Ritter hands over responsibilities of the state executive to John Hickenlooper Tuesday, it will mark the end of what Ritter has said was a frustrating four years.

It’s no surprise that Ritter’s tenure as governor hasn’t gone quite as he and many others expected when he was elected in 2006. The downturn in the economy is largely to blame for that, but there were some missteps on his part, as well.

Even so, we believe Ritter served Colorado well during very difficult times. He fulfilled important promises he made to voters when he was campaigning for office, on oil and gas rules and promoting new forms of energy. He enacted a much-needed change in the teacher tenure law. And, he and his staff put together difficult responses to a severe budget crisis.

Although he said he’s proudest of education reforms, at the top of Ritter’s legacy — especially in this region — will be the oil and gas regulations his team enacted and the Legislature approved. They are important tools that will aid the state in the long term.

Many people today don’t recall how much public demand there was in 2006 —when the gas industry was booming — for rule changes to protect wildlife, water, public health and surface-owner rights. In fact, a significant reason for Ritter’s victory that year was that he pledged to make such changes and his opponent didn’t. People also forget Republicans helped write the initial legislation that led to the changes, although nearly all Republicans voted against the final bill approving those changes.

When the economy tumbled midway through the reform process, and natural gas prices plummeted, Ritter unfairly got blamed for the demise of the gas industry in Colorado. An abundance of natural gas nationwide, leading to those lower prices, was the primary reason drilling slowed. Even so, Colorado drilling has exceeded that of other states in the region.

Republican lawmakers now say they won’t attempt a wholesale repeal of the new oil and gas rules. And Ritter is correct that, with those rules in place, the state is well-positioned to welcome an expanded gas industry when prices rebound nationally.

Ritter angered many people on both sides of the political divide when he attempted to walk a very fine line regarding labor unions. First, he vetoed a bill that would have made it easier to create all- union shops, angering his labor supporters. Then he signed an executive order allowing state workers to enter into “partnership agreements” with the agencies that employ them. Republicans denounced that as a first step toward unionizing state workers.

Members of teachers’ unions were equally bitter when Ritter worked with Republicans to change the state’s teacher-tenure law, making it easier to fire teachers who fail to perform and reward those who do. It was a needed change and we, like most newspapers in the state, supported it.

We disagreed with Ritter on the timing of his plan to raise vehicle fees to increase transportation money, arguing that to do so in the midst of a severe recession was not a good way to boost the economy. But the fees, with some modification, are in place now. They may be tweaked a bit more but, like the oil and gas regulations, they are unlikely to be entirely overturned. Coloradans have learned to live with them and even many Republicans, we suspect, don’t want to lose that much-needed source of highway revenue.

Finally, like nearly every other governor in the country the past few years, Ritter had to oversee painful cuts in the state budget and in state agencies that serve the public. That didn’t increase his popularity, but he did what was required, even if the Legislature at first threw up its hands and left the tough cutting for him.

It was far from pretty, but Ritter spread the pain around, geographically and departmentally. Closing part of the Regional Center in Grand Junction, and the furor it created, was one indication of the reaction that Ritter’s cuts generated around Colorado.

As governor, Bill Ritter did what he believed was best for this state and its residents, even when it didn’t boost his popularity. For that and his four years of hard work, we thank him.


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