DENVER — Gov. Bill Ritter says he's dropping out of this year's election to focus on his family. But he also insists it will allow him to better lead Colorado as it struggles with the recession.
"While this decision allows me to make my family a priority, it also allows me to focus on keeping the state budget balanced and keeping Colorado on the road to recovery," Ritter said Wednesday.
He said it would make it easier to make "tough and unpopular" decisions – but he didn't elaborate on what he had in mind.
Legislators wondered if that meant Ritter will side with some Democratic lawmakers who want to end tax breaks and credits to prevent deeper budget cuts.
Colorado faces a $1.5 billion gap in next fiscal year's budget. The state has lost 5 percent of the jobs it had before the downturn hit. While Colorado gained 2,800 jobs in October and November, Ritter has said it will take years to recover.
So far, Ritter has proposed raising $312 million by charging sales tax on candy and soda and by eliminating or suspending a dozen tax breaks.
He's also insisted that all parts of the budget share the pain, including cutting funding for kindergarten through 12th grade education by $260 million. That cut depends on a reinterpretation of a constitutional measure that requires public school funding to increase each year, and not all Democrats agree.
Senate President Brandon Shaffer said he'll oppose the education cuts. But he acknowledged it might be more difficult to convince Ritter to change his mind now that he's not facing re-election.
House Majority Leader Paul Weissmann said he expects the Democratic agenda at the Capitol to remain the same: Carefully balancing the budget and luring companies to the state by promoting a strong higher education system and infrastructure.
If Ritter doesn't have to worry about re-election, Weissmann said, it's possible Democrats could convince the governor to end more tax breaks.
Besides Ritter, House Speaker Terrance Carroll, House Minority Leader Mike May and Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry also won't be facing re-election this year.
Penry, who had hoped to unseat Ritter before bowing out of the race himself, thinks not having to worry about campaigning and winning votes could make it easier for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to work together on the state's long term problems, as has been the case so far with overhauling the state's pension system.
Penry said that could include giving state colleges and universities more flexibility in how they operate and changing the rules for getting citizen's initiatives on the ballot.
"Hopefully people will use this opportunity and work together where we can," Penry said.