Gov. Bill Owens provided an optimistic forecast of the coming fiscal year and said economic indicators point to a period of growth in the state during a town meeting in Craig on Wednesday.
The state will end the year with an $80 million surplus, which it will carry over into next year, he said. Unemployment is dropping, corporate tax withholdings are up 26 percent and exports, mainly agricultural, are up 16 percent, indicating "the private sector is coming back," Owens said.
"We're starting to see good things happening."
The governor spoke before a gathering of about 150 residents at the Boys and Girls Club. The brief morning visit was sandwiched between appearances in Steamboat Springs and Grand Junction. He touched on legislative issues, the state's economy and the budget for about 15 minutes before answering questions.
Owens said that unemployment was down in Colorado by one-half of 1 percent and that there were 27,000 new jobs created here last year.
"One person unemployed is too many but this certainly indicates we are in a place of growth," he said.
Because of the growth, the Legislature faces a "ratcheting effect" brought on by the restrictions of the Taxpayers Bill of Rights and the spending requirements of Amendment 23, he said.
TABOR, which was passed by voters in 1990, was designed to control government growth and return a surplus to taxpayers. It didn't create problems for the Legislature until a decade later when state revenues began falling, Owens said. In 2000, Amendment 23 was passed, which says lawmakers must fund K-12 education at cost, plus inflation, plus 1 percent.
Key members of the Legislature are working with Owens to propose something for the November ballot that will eliminate the hobbling effect the two amendments have on government spending.
Owens recognized the achievements of several local politicians, government employees and service organizations.
During the question-and-answer session, he took exception to one resident's assertion that his administration has "turned a deaf ear" on tourism funding.
"This is one area I disagreed with former Gov. Roy Romer. He felt that when Colorado voters rejected a tourism tax in 1993, no state money should go toward tourism," Owens said. "We changed that in 1999 with $5 million going into the tourism fund," he said.
Evelyn Tileston, director of the Independent Living Center, asked Owens why he vetoed a bill that would have allowed energy customers to voluntarily pay into a fund that supports energy assistance for low-income residents.
"I see people every day who need help with heat and are trying to live on $180 per month," Tileston said.
Owens said he warned lobbyists he would veto the bill if utilities didn't give customers the choice to "opt in," rather than opt out, for the program.
"I think the idea is great but only if it's a clear choice for the consumer," he said.
The governor briefly addressed information technology, funding for rural dental care for children, a veteran's clinic and cuts in higher education spending.
Traveling with Owens were Department of Natural Resources Director Russell George; Mike Beasley, executive director of the Department of Local Affairs; Bob Lee, chief of staff; and Dan Hopkins, press secretary.