Liddick: Two cheers for Gov. Hickenlooper
I must admit, I’m impressed. I expected him to punt, but … he actually bit the bullet and provided us with some meaningful cuts in response to Colorado’s budget deficit. He even took a step toward addressing the structural problems that will pose far greater challenges in the future.
It was a far more difficult task than that faced by former Gov. Ritter, who had access to hundreds of millions of dollars in one-time federal money to help mask the true size and scope of Colorado’s financial crisis. These boons, together with astute shell-game accounting and raiding of what reserves the state had left, allowed Gov. Hickenlooper’s predecessor to avoid meaningful decisions not only on an immediate budgetary shortfall, but long-term imbalances as well.
Make no mistake, a $332 million cut to our K-12 education budget is the sort of thing that gets people’s attention. So is the net $125 million reduction in the state’s payments to higher education. And since it’s possible that the latter will directly affect my livelihood, I would prefer not to see it happen, but …
At the moment, the state can’t afford to be generous. We simply don’t have the money. So while I would agree that “a thriving educational system” is necessary for Colorado to flourish, I don’t concur that such a system requires a budget limited only by the desires of those who draft it. One should also remember that almost 30 percent of Colorado’s secondary school graduates who seek higher education or training require remediation in at least one subject; a level virtually unchanged for years. If you bought cell phones by the gross, would you stick with a manufacturer who produced one inoperable phone in three? Perhaps what is necessary is a complete overhaul of the educational system, not another shovelful of money thrown into the furnace of dysfunction.
Two other measures the governor took demand accolades. The first will raise the amount state employees will pay into their retirement funds. The amount is small – a 4.5 percent increase in deductions as opposed to former Governor Ritter’s 2.5 percent – and it is entirely justified as a measure to assure long-term viability of the state retirement system.
State employees may object, but even at an all-up deduction of 12.6 percent of salary they are far better off than their peers in the private sector. If any of them doubt this, they should perform an experiment and quit, then mark how long it takes for a qualified replacement to be hired. As the governor has stated: “There’s an almost limitless list that would much rather have that job, even at a diminished salary.” So I’d advise Colorado WINS against Wisconsin Goon-Squad tactics. The results could be quite painful for their membership.
The second praiseworthy move is to raise the state’s reserve fund from 2 percent to 4 percent. After Ritter’s raids, our rainy-day reserves are so depleted that we better pray for a decade of drought. If Colorado was a family with a $50,000-dollar-a-year income, it would be setting aside enough money to see it through a week. Two weeks’ worth would be a lot more prudent. Twice as prudent, to be exact.
All of these are baby steps. The sum of the governor’s attempts to deal with reality represents less than 9 percent of the total $7.2 billion state budget, which suggests the enormity of the difficulties ahead of us. Education takes up just over 40 percent of the total; transfer payments such as Medicaid and dozens of others including everything from housing subsidies to yes, school breakfast programs, take up the lion’s share to the rest. And since these involve both Federal mandates and matching funds, cutting them would be exponentially more difficult, which leaves Colorado with a pretty problem.
In the not-too-distant future, the state is going to need a lot more money for infrastructure maintenance and development. From where will it come? Given the uproar that cutting 10 percent of our K-12 education budget caused, can the governor really go back to that well? Considering the howling provoked by a proposal to eliminate a miniscule $140,000 from school breakfast programs, is it likely that he will take on Colorado’s petitioner class? They are obdurate and vocal, have a well-developed sense of entitlement, and do not lack for supporters who hope to parlay their solidarity into votes.
So a heartfelt “well done” to Gov. Hickenlooper for understanding that a budget need not only grow. Here’s hoping he will discover that dollars are fungible within budgets as well, and that this year’s budget priorities need not be permanent. That could lead to a budget which actually responds to the needs of the state as a whole.
Stranger things have happened.
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