5/5/08

Pro-union Gov. helps boost dues income

Rep. Rob Witwer and Sen. Josh Penry got a surprising offer from the Ritter administration just days before this legislative session began. The Democratic governor liked the Republicans' ideas for Colorado education reform and wanted to adopt a version as the centerpiece of his agenda.

Witwer and Penry - who had left their ideas for dead after Democrats panned them the year before - jumped on board. The resulting bill passed the House on a 60-4 vote and is expected to pass the Senate.

As the session winds down this week, that reform bill stands as a symbol of Gov. Bill Ritter's leadership style.

"This is a very important bill and there's no way it would have happened this year without the governor's leadership," Witwer said.

Ritter speaks in terms of "we" and talks a lot about bipartisanship. He is credited for continued progress on environmental issues and for kick-starting a "new energy economy" in Colorado. Yet Ritter was elected in 2006 on the strength of a campaign of big ideas for funding universal health care, higher education and transportation at levels that dwarf his modest gains so far.

Many Republican lawmakers say Ritter has squandered an opportunity to make giant strides toward those goals during his first two legislative sessions as governor. They say new governors such as Ritter, whose parties control both houses of the legislature, should come out of the gate pushing big agendas early.

But instead of leading boldly, they say the governor caved in to union pressure. They blame his November executive order giving unions a bigger role in state government for the brewing ballot fight between proponents of a right-to-work initiative and those who support a slate of pro-labor measures.

"This governor needs to decide why he's governor and what he wants to do," said Senate Minority Leader Andy McElhany. "If there's something he wants to do for Colorado besides strengthen unions and promote solar energy, then he needs to put an agenda together and go out and push for it."

Ritter and the Democratic leaders of the Senate and House say they are making steady progress on a bold, visionary agenda, and that partisan sniping just goes with being in charge.

"Our approach is we have a vision and it involves some fairly big ideas," Ritter said. "There are a lot of things you could say just for political premium that you're going to do in a two-year period and call it quits, but something like education, like health care, like transportation - they're not that way."

As for the executive order, Ritter says it prevented a disruptive, partisan floor fight over collective bargaining for state workers.

An achievable agenda

During his first year in office, Ritter oversaw blue ribbon commissions on transportation, health care and education. Those groups came up with proposed solutions and outlined their costs.

Ritter also set to work building what he called a "new energy economy" based on clean energy initiatives.

The commissions came to conclusions over the fall and winter. Transportation needed between $500 million and $1.5 billion more a year. Universal health care would cost more than $1 billion a year. It was estimated that the state's colleges and universities needed another $750 million annually just to reach national averages for funding.

Expectations were high that Ritter would tackle at least one of the problems head-on. But he didn't touch those big-ticket items in his second State of the State address in January.

Instead, he lowered his sights and laid out an achievable agenda for the upcoming session that included bipartisan, centerpiece ideas.

He floated an idea for a $100 car registration fee increase to help fund transportation. No lawmaker carried it as a bill.

Ritter announced he had brokered a compromise between environmental and higher education interests to boost funding for both with a severance tax increase on the oil and gas industry. But he didn't endorse that approach.

A few weeks later, he backed a revised plan that would funnel increased tax revenue from oil and gas into college scholarships instead of university operating budgets.

And he would do it through a citizens' initiative, rather than seek the support of two-thirds of the legislature needed to refer the measure to the ballot.

Ritter said he circumvented the legislature because he knew Republican lawmakers were ready to pounce on his plan with "cynicism and quips," when in fact it had a lot of Republican support outside the Capitol.

Bipartisan tactics

The governor said he looks at this legislative session as a success, and the Democratic leadership agree that they got a lot done in lock step with his office.

They approved a bill to provide 55,000 more kids with health care over three years. They passed an ambitious economic development package.

They pushed through a plan by House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, D-Denver, and State Treasurer Cary Kennedy that will allow the state to borrow nearly $1 billion to fix crumbling schools.

They approved a plan by Senate President Peter Groff, D-Denver, to allow school districts to apply more innovative approaches to education.

They are on the verge of passing the bipartisan bill that Witwer and Penry helped conceive to overhaul content standards for K-12 education.

They approved a budget that earmarks more money than ever for higher education operating costs. And they approved bipartisan legislation that will funnel money from federal mineral leases on land the state owns into higher education building projects.

"These are things that make real differences in people's lives, and the governor has helped move these packages through the process in a bipartisan way," Groff said.

During the two legislative sessions remaining in his term, Ritter said he will keep pushing for economic development. He also will push to reform the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights.

On health care, Ritter will try to reform a broken system as he waits to see who is elected president this November. After the election, he said the state's role in developing a health care plan should become clearer. As for transportation, Ritter said Coloradans need to be better educated about the "quiet crisis" brewing with its deteriorating roads and bridges.

What they're saying

Lawmakers have a range of opinions about Gov. Bill Ritter's performance so far:

* "This completely calculated, what's-in-it-for-me, how-will-it- look-in-the-press that every minority party adopts is sort of a new thing for him. Here you have a set of people whose job it is to make you look foolish and disagree with you at every turn. It takes some getting used to."

House Majority Leader Alice Madden, D-Boulder

* "He's a very nice man in a Jimmy Carter kind of way. "

House Minority Leader Mike May, R-Parker

* "I think we made a great deal of progress on health care, higher education and transportation. "

House Speaker Andrew Romanoff, D-Denver

* "I think this governor is a great human being. He's a delight to be around socially. He's a huge disappointment as far as leadership, simply because there hasn't been any. The only thing he's been decisive on is strengthening unions in Colorado."

Senate Minority Leader Andy McElhany, R-Colorado Springs

What's next?

* End of session: By law, the Colorado General Assembly must adjourn 120 days after convening. The clock runs out on the 2008 session at midnight Wednesday.

* What's left? Among other issues, lawmakers are still working on a bill needed to keep the Public Utilities Commission in business. Also, the Senate Appropriations Committee will consider creating an insurance ombudsman's office to help Coloradans with everything from resolving claims problems to shopping for a policy.

(rockymountainnews.com)

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