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A challenging year for everyone

We are once again approaching the end of another year, and it is safe to say that it has been a challenging year for everyone.

The downturn in the national economy has impacted all of us, and nearly all families in Colorado have found it necessary to tighten up their budgets. This has been true for the Colorado Legislature as well. Over the last two fiscal years, the Legislature and the governor’s office dealt with a $2 billion shortfall, and the governor’s proposed budget for 2010-2011 will address an additional $1 billion shortfall (about 15 percent of General Fund) to achieve a balanced budget.

The latest forecast released on Dec. 18 shows some positive signs that the recession is over in Colorado and the state’s economic situation is starting to turn around. In fact, in November, Colorado added 6,300 jobs.

However, despite these numbers, the forecast also projects we will need to trim an additional $54 million from the current budget. Even so, the budget we pass next session will maintain critical programs that promote job creation and protects our core services like education, healthcare and a social safety net at a time when Coloradans need them most.

I will work this session to make sure our state government is lean and efficient. To ensure we maintain our vital programs like schools, unemployment insurance, healthcare for children and public safety, certain cuts have to be made in order to balance the budget.

The upcoming 2010 legislative session will focus largely on laying out our priorities in the budget, and ensuring that tax dollars are being appropriated in a fair, responsible and fiscally conservative way.

While many of the decisions the governor laid out in his budget plan are effective choices, there are certain budget-balancing measures we will need to look at closely.

The proposed cuts to state funding for higher education should be shared equitably between all the state-funded colleges and universities, and Fort Lewis College should not have to suffer a higher proportional cut than other institutions. I have already taken action to try to correct this imbalance, but it will not be an easy task, since each of the other institutions will be extremely protective of their turf as well.

Despite the recession, my fellow legislators and I will try to preserve essential services that are critical to making Colorado a great place to live and raise a family. The state will continue to fund programs like Children’s Basic Health Plan, full-day kindergarten, developmental and mental health, and services for senior citizens. We know small businesses and Colorado families are struggling — that’s why we are providing immediate help and leading the way toward a fast and strong economic recovery.

The General Assembly will convene on Jan. 13, and my recent focus has been the development of a bill package that will include issues relevant to southwestern Colorado including job training and getting people back to work, water conservation and drought planning, agriculture, air quality and alternative energy.

In fact, earlier this month, we released the details of a jobs retraining bill which would set up job retraining savings accounts, similar to Colorado’s 529 college savings accounts, so people can work with their employers to save money to continue their education and be more valuable employees.

Updates on other bills will be provided to you in a future column, as will the progress of the bills that I will sponsor in the Senate.

May all of you have a safe and enjoyable holiday season, and I’m looking forward to working for you in the Legislature during the year that lies ahead of us.