U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat and former superintendent of Denver Public Schools, talks with residents and local officials during a town hall meeting Tuesday morning at Centennial Hall.

Photo by Matt Stensland

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat and former superintendent of Denver Public Schools, talks with residents and local officials during a town hall meeting Tuesday morning at Centennial Hall.

Bennet advises holding on to reserves

Freshman senator says health care reform 2nd only to economy

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By the numbers

Routt County federal stimulus funds

- $2.2 million to the Routt National Forest to remove beetle-killed trees in Routt, Jackson and Grand counties

- $92,000 to the town of Hayden for sidewalks

- $238,000 to the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps

- $57,129 to the Steamboat Springs School District

- $39,720 in Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grants to the city of Steamboat Springs

- $20,580 to the South Routt School District

- $11,961 in Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grants to Routt County

- Local governments eligible to compete for $2.2 million in competitive stimulus funds available to rural transit agencies for the purchase of new buses

Source: Office of U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet

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U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., stands in the back row for a group photo with Strawberry Park Elementary School fifth-graders Tuesday. Superintendent Shalee Cunningham, right, showed Bennet around the school after he held a town hall meeting with Routt County residents and local officials.

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U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., talks to Strawberry Park Elementary School fifth-graders about the book "My Side of the Mountain" on Tuesday while touring the school.

— Local governments' strategies for confronting the economic crisis received some senatorial validation Monday during a visit by U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo.

Asked by Steamboat Springs resident Bill Moser whether local governments should be using their reserves to stabilize services through the downturn, Bennet said that in his previous positions, including superintendent of Denver Public Schools, his preferred approach has been to preserve reserves and minimize layoffs.

"I can't speak to the particular case, and I don't want to because I want to walk out of here in one piece," said Bennet, who joked that he knew the subject was a touchy one locally. "I've always wanted to try and build reserves and keep them there during tough times. : (If you use reserves,) you're really betting on there being a recovery. If it's not there, you end up having to make the cuts anyway, and then the reserves aren't there."

The city of Steamboat Springs and Routt County have made or considered tough budget reductions - such as pay cuts, furloughs and hiring freezes - to combat declining revenues including sales tax. Some have argued that the governments should have dug deeper into their own pockets before slashing pay and reducing levels of service.

While praising fiscal conservatism locally, Bennet also touted a federal budget that is projecting a $1.75 trillion deficit this year, the largest in history. At the national level, Bennet said, such action is necessary to jolt the country out of the longest economic downturn since 1930.

"It's been a very steep ride down this slope," Bennet said. "We have some immediate challenges we have to confront and face down."

Bennet said the budget also fixes "structural flaws" in the federal budget and includes deficit reductions that will reduce the deficit to $508 billion in 2014.

"It took us a long time to get into this mess; it's going to take us a long time to get out," Bennet said. "At least it's putting us on a path toward fiscal responsibility."

Bennet's visit to Steamboat on Tuesday morning was part of the freshman senator's "Recovery in Action" tour of the Western Slope.

Bennet also visited Hayden, Craig, Meeker and Glenwood Springs.

In addition to discussing federal economic stimulus legislation and projects, Bennet touched on energy, education and health care. Gov. Bill Ritter appointed Bennet to the Senate in January after former Sen. Ken Salazar took a Cabinet post in the Obama administration.

After the economy, Bennet said health care reform should be the No. 1 priority of federal lawmakers and the Obama administration this year.

"I don't think it's possible for us to sustain another 10 years like the last 10 years," said Bennet, adding that the U.S. spends 16 percent of its gross domestic product on health care. "I think it's ripe in a way that it's never been ripe before. It would be a real shame to let the opportunity go by. : We have to get it done."

Bennet guessed that the health care solution will include a combination of private and public plans that maintains the country's current high quality of care, achieves universal coverage and reduces high administrative overhead costs that largely are responsible for annual cost increases.

Bennet also said the Colorado delegation in Washington is working on comprehensive legislation to deal with the effects of the mountain pine beetle epidemic across the state.

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