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Don’t blame Hick — thank him

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By Rob Witwer

Gov. John Hickenlooper is taking plenty of heat for his recentl announced budget, which includes massive cuts to state spending. Truth be told, he didn’t have much of a choice. If anything, we ought to commend his honesty in proposing a budget that reflects Colorado’s financial condition.
While not final, the governor’s proposal accurately presents the dire reality of a state that has long ignored its most pressing fiscal problems. If Hick has his way, Colorado will reduce its workforce by more than 250 employees, close four state parks and a prison, and cut nearly $350 million from K-12 education and another $36 million from higher ed.
“This budget proposal is about tough choices and sustainability,” 9News quoted the governor as saying. “Frankly, it is about living within our means at a difficult time.”
Hick’s fellow Democrats aren’t thrilled.
“The governor’s plan as he gives it to us is, I hope, in part, DOA (dead on arrival),” Democratic state Sen. Bob Bacon told the Denver Post. “It is extremely shortsighted of us to say we’re going to grow the economy but we’re going to shrink education.”
OK, Sen. Bacon — I hear you. As a public school parent, it bothers me too that K-12 and higher ed are taking the brunt of the cuts. But as you well know, the state is out of options. K-12 and higher education make up about half of the state’s general fund spending; another 30 percent is devoted to health care, much of which is non-discretionary. The cuts are simply coming where the money is.
For years, legislators have shuffled cash from one fund to another, played accounting tricks, passed on opportunities to put money into a “rainy day” fund, and ignored deteriorating revenue forecasts. The fact that Hickenlooper’s proposal is so shocking isn’t his fault. He’s the first political leader in a long time to face the state’s budget realities head-on rather than kick the can down the road.
The state’s downward spiral will continue until leaders with courage are willing to stand up and say “enough”. Enough burying our heads in the sand. Enough whistling past the fiscal graveyard. Unless we balance the budget and recognize the mathematical reality that spending habitually exceeds revenue, things get much, much worse. The governor’s proposed cuts will look like chump change compared to what lies ahead if we don’t face the music now.
And here’s a message to Hick’s critics: You cannot in good conscience point a blaming finger at the governor without presenting viable alternatives. Theoretical, long-term arguments about amending the constitution or bemoaning the state’s structural deficit won’t help the state balance its budget this year (unlike the federal government, Colorado doesn’t have the option of running up a deficit).
 Got a better idea? By all means,  don’t hold back. Now’s the time. But don’t kill the messenger. In fact, we should thank Hickenlooper for taking the fiscal bull by the horns.

Rob Witwer is a former member of the Colorado House of Representatives and co-author of the book “The Blueprint: How Democrats Won Colorado and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care.”