DENVER - The dirty job is done.
Gov. Bill Ritter signed the state budget Friday, ending four turbulent months that saw lawmakers scrambling to cut programs in the wake of a hard-hitting recession.
The budget rolls back many of the programs Ritter and Democrats trumpeted the last few years, including expansions of full-day kindergarten and health-care coverage for poor children. But the final version preserved services for the state's most vulnerable citizens, Ritter said.
"In challenging times, our values are tested the most. A budget is absolutely a values document," Ritter said.
The recession took the governor and many lawmakers somewhat by surprise. In November, Ritter proposed a general fund budget that increased by 5 percent. But each week brought worse economic news, and by the time they had finished, lawmakers had cut $1.4 billion out of the combined budgets for 2008-09 and 2009-10.
Frustrated with the latest budget crisis, the Senate on Friday voted to create a summer committee to look at the biggest restraints on Colorado's government finances, including the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights and laws that mandate low residential property taxes and higher education spending.
Ritter said he wants the panel to create a plan it can present to voters, but not necessarily this year or even in 2010.
The recession brought headaches for the Joint Budget Committee, which writes the budget and usually sees it approved more or less intact. This year, the six-person panel carved out as much as it could, but still came up $300 million short. The group planned to make up the difference with either a drastic cut to colleges or transfers out of a state-chartered company called Pinnacol Assurance.
Neither option worked, and lawmakers rewrote the budget on the fly in the House of Representatives.
Health-care providers shouldered much of the pain in the House's plan. The budget cuts the rate the government pays medical providers who care for the poor by 2 percent. It also cut community health centers by $15 million. The Dove Creek Community Health Clinic will bear $36,000 of that cut.
"It will cause pain in a lot of communities in the way we deliver services," Ritter said.
Some of the most controversial choices aren't included in the budget bill. They include the suspension of the property tax break for senior citizens and a repeal of the sales tax exemption for cigarettes.
"This budget has probably hurt everyone a little bit, all across the board," said Rep. Don Marostica, R-Loveland, a Joint Budget member.
To a large degree, the Joint Budget Committee relied on transfers from special cash funds to balance the budget, instead of making permanent cuts. The transfers include $42 million from a fund for water projects.
Although transfers like this have limited effects now, they leave less money to spend in future years. And with many of the state's cash funds spent this year, they won't be available to cushion next year's budget if the economy continues to drag.
The bill Ritter signed Friday was for the $7.5 billion general fund, which pays for many of the familiar government services such as education, prisons, welfare and courts. The entire state budget is $17.9 billion, counting items such as college tuition and support from the federal government.
Ritter vetoed five footnotes in the budget bill, including one that would have allowed colleges to raise their tuition more than 9 percent to recoup lost revenue. Ritter said the steep tuition increase wouldn't be needed because the federal stimulus bill helped keep college funding level this year.
The drama might not be over yet. The Legislature balances its budget based on economic forecasts it gets four times a year. The last two forced the Joint Budget Committee to rebalance the budget by making more cuts. The final one of the 2008-09 year is due June 20.
"We're not out of the woods yet," said Joint Budget Chairwoman Moe Keller, D-Wheat Ridge. "We may, after the June 20 forecast, have to balance it again."
Joint Budget member Rep. Jack Pommer, D-Boulder, said he felt "lousy" about many of the cuts.
"All in all, I think it is about the best we could do. And let's just hope next year's a little bit better," Pommer said.