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Running on empty 

Legislature's mood is grim, as are the prospects for Coloradans in need

A lot of phrases have been used to characterize the state of the Colorado Legislature in the past decade.

"Survival mode" is a new one.

But it aligns well with words like "uncomfortable," "crisis" and "horrible," all of which legislators are uttering in regard to the state's economy.

Nobody is certain how many cuts it'll take to balance Colorado's budget; latest estimates range from $230 million to more than $600 million out of the general fund's $7.5 billion, meaning as much as 8 percent. Nor is anyone sure what areas of government will suffer most. But everyone acknowledges that anything could be on the chopping block and that many new bills and reforms will not come up for consideration in this five-month session, because the price to implement them will be too high.

So the traditional chipper speeches and grandstanding gave way to sobriety when the General Assembly opened Wednesday. As required by the state constitution, state representatives and senators started the session by working to balance the budget.

Evan Dreyer, spokesperson for Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter, doesn't mince words when he talks about Colorado's current financial troubles.

"Everything is under consideration [for cuts] at this point," Dreyer says. "This is an immediate economic situation that we are going to have to work our way through."

Before the new year, Ritter disclosed that he had told state agencies to brace for significant cuts and spending restrictions. Even higher education, a cause he's championed in his first term, would not be safe.

Instead, according to Dreyer, Ritter's main priority during this session will be improving the economy by balancing the budget, creating new jobs and trying to keep the ones that already exist.

'In a hole'

Lawmakers have plenty of concerns about how the budget shortage will affect their constituents.

"Literally, there's no money. We're in a hole," says Rep. Buffie McFadyen, D-Pueblo West.

McFadyen's district includes Cañon City, where the construction of a new 320-bed, super-maximum-security prison for state prisoners is due to be completed in early 2010. But because of the state's financial problems, it is uncertain whether there will be money to staff the prison, named Colorado State Penitentiary II.

"We've known that this prison was going to open," says state Sen. John Morse, a Colorado Springs Democrat who chairs the Judiciary Committee. "The question at this point is, will it still get funded? The reality is, we have all kinds of prisoners, and we need a place to put them.

"We could mothball the prison for a year or two. We've got it built and ready to go, but if we don't have the money to staff it, we won't. That's possible."

McFadyen doesn't want to lose programs that encourage state inmates to avoid slipping back into their criminal ways after serving their sentences.

"I just hope that we're being proactive with our inmates before they're released and that we keep doing that," McFadyen says. And that when looking at budget cuts, that we don't cut those programs.

"I think right now that the Legislature is going into survival mode."

Kathy White, program director at the Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute, has been following the state budget for nearly a decade. She says this year, her nonprofit will encourage investments in things like public infrastructure, which would open the way for more federal funding of state programs. And it will work with lawmakers to curtail any budget cuts that could negatively affect those who need state services the most; public services like food stamps and health care for low-income families may be threatened.

"There is a tough position when you have revenue falling at the same time you actually have need increasing," White says. "We know that all of the counties are having a really tough time processing food stamp applications. Colorado has one of the lowest recipient rates of food stamps in the country."

Aura of uncertainty

The state budget relies heavily on individual and corporate income taxes, and sales taxes. The crumbling economy has affected these numbers in a way that few could have anticipated a year ago.

"Across the board, we have seen a big drop in all state revenue, from both businesses and individuals," says Dreyer.

The state appears to be losing jobs at nearly the same rate it was gaining them last year, according to the most recent data from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. The state, with an estimated workforce of more than 2.3 million people, lost 5,500 jobs in November 2008, compared with a gain of 4,500 jobs in November 2007.

Colorado Springs lost 600 jobs in November 2008; the city had gained 1,000 new positions in November 2007. More than 3,500 local jobs disappeared in the past year, leaving an estimated 260,000 people currently working in the city.

Rep. Mark Waller, a Colorado Springs Republican starting his first term after defeating Rep. Douglas Bruce in the GOP primary last summer, says he is preparing to deal with a turbulent environment.

"I think it's going to be a huge challenge to balance the budget," Waller says. "It's going to take a tremendous amount of work to get that accomplished this year, and there probably aren't going to be a lot of folks who are happy, because there are going to be cuts."

Morse and the joint budget committee (of which he was a member in 2008) already had meetings in December, to brainstorm possible cuts that legislators could make in January.

But no one knows exactly when the Legislature will be able to balance the budget, and the true impact of the shortfall will not be known until June 30, when the state's fiscal year ends and total revenue losses can be determined.

Projects like the Blue Ribbon Commission on Health Care Reform, a special committee created by the Legislature in 2006 to analyze and recommend changes to the state's health care system, may have to be tabled.

"They can have the greatest recommendations in the world, but if the money is not in the budget," Waller says, "the reality is, it's probably not going to happen."

You could say that taking a long view seems the best option for legislators. But even after they balance this budget, the national recession's effects may continue far past the first five months of 2009.

Says Dreyer: "It's probably going to be tight for a couple of years."

newsroom@csindy.com

On the agenda

  • Forced budget cuts dominate the Capitol stage in Denver.

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