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Gov. Ritter: Tough decisions await Coloradans

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STEVEN K. PAULSON | January 14, 2010 03:40 PM EST | AP

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DENVER — Gov. Bill Ritter urged lawmakers Thursday not to stand on the sidelines of Colorado's fiscal crisis, saying partisan criticism and "$10 solutions to billion-dollar problems" will do nothing for future generations.

In his fourth and final State of the State message, Ritter promised to work closely with Democrats and Republicans to create jobs and close the state's $1 billion budget deficit.

"We have a higher responsibility, and if you are not at the table providing solutions, then you are part of the problem," Ritter said.

He focused on what he calls the new energy economy – green businesses that he says will generate jobs. The Democratic governor also called for raising the amount of power electricity companies must obtain from renewable energy sources from 20 percent to 30 percent.

"This will trigger the creation of tens of thousands of new jobs, draw new capital investments and new companies to our state, and keep Colorado at the epicenter of America's energy revolution," Ritter said.

"Longer-term, we need to continue the debate over Colorado's financial future. We need to have an honest conversation with the public about what kind of services they want their government to provide, and how much it will cost to provide those services to 5 million people today and to nearly 10 million by 2050."

On the budget, Ritter attacked what he called "three of the most backward-thinking ballot measures this state has ever seen."

He said Proposition 101 and Amendments 60 and 61 would close colleges and prisons, increase class sizes, put thousands of teachers out of work and prevent the repair of unsafe roads and bridges.

"If these measures pass, the state could never again support building another public school, library or rec center," Ritter claimed. "The cynical game the proponents are playing with our future would quite literally destroy the safety net and wipe out any hope of creating a better future for our children."

The first November ballot measure would slash income taxes, vehicle registration fees and most taxes and fees on phones and Internet service. The second could lead to property tax cuts in areas with falling property values. The third would limit government borrowing.

Ritter urged lawmakers to swiftly pass a bill they hope will give the state an edge in competing for millions of dollars in federal education funds. It would require the state to track where educators get their training and report on the success of teachers and principals in boosting student achievement.

The Senate approved the bill Thursday, the second day of the 2010 session. Ritter wants to sign it before Colorado submits its application for the federal "Race to the Top" program next week. The House planned to take it up later Thursday.

"Frankly, regardless of whether Colorado receives a Race to the Top grant, we've already won. We are now a national leader in education reform," Ritter claimed – though he noted later in his speech that the state has spent more on keeping 22,000 inmates in prison that on educating its 220,000 college students.

The governor also called for a swift regulation of Colorado's chaotic medical marijuana industry. Approved by voters in 2000, it has proliferated since the Obama administration suggested last year enforcement of federal law would be a low priority for medical marijuana.

"We need to uphold the will of the voters while reining in abuses and bringing common sense to the chaos that now exists," Ritter said. "Together, we can achieve bipartisan solutions that clarify the doctor-patient relationship and address the proliferation of dispensaries."

Before his speech, Ritter requested a moment of silence for victims of the earthquake in Haiti.

House Minority Leader Mike May, R-Parker, said Ritter offered no suggestions on how the state can balance the budget with no more federal stimulus funds.

Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, R-Fruita, said Ritter finally gave Colorado's struggling oil and gas industry the recognition it deserves by promising to increase the use of natural gas to generate electricity, reduce air pollution, stabilize consumer energy bills and create jobs.

Penry said there is no proof renewable energy saves money and that Ritter still refuses to roll back tough regulation of the oil and gas industry that are designed to protect the environment.

"If he had done this three years ago, his administration might not be in so much trouble," Penry said.

Elise Jones, executive director of the Colorado Environmental Coalition, said renewable energy will pay for itself with reduced health costs, less pollution and lower fuel costs.

"We're delighted he's making a strong commitment to his clean energy legacy," she said.

Ritter introduced his wife, Jeannie – who got a standing ovation – and dozens of relatives in the House gallery but made only a passing reference to his decision last week not to seek re-election.

The man who hopes to succeed him, Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper, said Ritter has been candid about the challenges of the job. Hickenlooper defended Ritter's decision to end or suspend some tax credits to help balance the budget and noted Ritter reach out to businesses before doing so.

"Everyone is going to have to give a little," said Hickenlooper. "I think he's been very direct about that."

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Associated Press Writer Colleen Slevin also contributed to this report.