Ritter pen constrained by state Constitution

Photo by Gretel Daugherty—Gov. Bill Ritter greets the crowd of Mesa County democrats before speaking about his plan for Colorado at the Pipe Trades Education center, 3168 Pipe Ct.,  on Saturday.



Depression Era crook Willie Sutton is reported to have said that he robbed banks because “that’s where the money is.”

Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter could just as easily say he’s carving the greatest chunk of his latest round of budget cuts out of higher education because “that’s where the money is.”

Ritter’s latest round of budget cuts, announced Wednesday, include cutting $145 million of general fund money from colleges and universities.

We don’t mean to imply that the governor is acting like a bank robber with the budget cuts he announced Wednesday. Actually, his role is more akin to that of a battlefield surgeon, performing emergency amputations as he tries to keep severely wounded patients alive.

Because revenue has dropped precipitously, Ritter this week had to eliminate $271.4 million of spending in this year’s budget. That’s on top of more than $300 million he cut earlier in the year.

Higher education isn’t the largest slice of the state’s budget pie. Kindergarten-through-12th-grade public education takes up a much larger share. But because voters passed Amendment 23 in 2000, fixing annual increases in K-12 education in the Constitution, the governor can only work at the edges of school funding.

Medicaid also accounts for another huge chunk of state spending. But that is federally mandated and driven by the number of people living in poverty — a number that grows as the economy worsens. So, like school funding, the governor can only make some minor adjustments. Ritter’s latest proposal does that by reducing the amount of Medicaid reimbursement doctors and hospital will receive and delaying payments for many months.

Ritter’s plan finds a variety of other places to save millions of dollars: $37 million in severance tax money that would normally go to energy-impacted communities; $14 million from a program to aid energy conservation and renewable energy; $2.8 million for a state subsidy to Colorado’s poorest counties.

We certainly aren’t thrilled with all the cuts. No one can be. There’s something that affects virtually every resident of this state.

But we aren’t going to join the chorus of second-guessers eager to attack Ritter for these cuts. Cutting half a billion dollars from one year’s budget is a no-win task, and blaming the governor for things done when the economy was sailing along is of little help now.

Yes, Ritter is using reserve funds and one-time budget transfers to do much of the heavy lifting on balancing the budget. So did Republicans — in the Legislature and the governor’s mansion — when they faced a budget crisis early in this decade. And Ritter is using something they didn’t have back then — federal stimulus money — to help temporarily refill coffers.

That’s especially true with higher education, which, as it did under the GOP, is bearing the brunt of the latest round of budget cuts.

We understand why that is the case, given the various constitutional restrictions and federal mandates that tie the hands of state authorities. Still, if the governor and the Legislature are going to keep cutting ever more from the state’s contribution to higher education, they ought to look for ways to reduce the burden the state imposes on colleges and universities, such as the multitude of reporting requirements.

Re-examining the role and rules of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education would be a good place to start.


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