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Ritter turns to medical-marijuana fund to help balance Colorado budget

Daily Dose 2010-09-21 0 comments

By Tim Hoover
The Denver Post, Originally posted on August 24, 2010

Gov. Bill Ritter (Denver Post file photo)

He opposed it as Denver’s district attorney, but Gov. Bill Ritter is now turning to medical marijuana to heal the state budget.

The plan Ritter announced Monday to bridge a nearly $60 million shortfall in the current budget year relies on $9 million from the  state’s Medical Marijuana Program Cash Fund, financed by fees on patients who get cards to use medical pot. With the number of  applicants for medical-marijuana cards expected to double to 150,000 this year, there will still be about $1 million left in the fund  even after $9 million is swept from it.

Ritter, a Democrat, said that no matter what he thought about medical marijuana as a prosecutor when voters approved it under  Amendment 20 in 2000, it’s legal now, and he has a budget to balance.

“I was not in favor of medical marijuana, but I’m also a lawyer and the governor,” Ritter said, “and I believe in the law. And it’s the law in this state.”

The state used $3 million from the fund last year to help balance the budget. Even so, Ritter said using the pot money was just a one-time solution.

“Truly, we find ourselves in difficult, difficult budget circumstances,” he said.

Most of Ritter’s budget balancing involves temporary fixes.

Ritter said he would cut about $6.2 million in spending from the state’s general fund and transfer $53.4 million from various cash funds to help balance the budget. Because the state is not receiving as much federal Medicaid aid as expected, Colorado faces a shortfall of about $60 million in the budget year that began in July.

Ritter said the plan follows his numerous previous balancing efforts aimed at “preserving essential services, protecting the safety net, minimizing pain and requiring shared sacrifices and shared solutions from everyone.”

Republicans said Ritter and the Democratic-led legislature had relied too much on federal stimulus money and other one-time solutions.

“The Democrats’ partnership with Washington is not working for Colorado taxpayers,” said Senate Minority Leader Mike Kopp, R-Littleton. “Colorado businesses and families cannot afford any more financial burdens because Democrats in the state legislature and Gov. Ritter speculated on federal funding and guessed wrong.”

Colorado was one of about 30 states that had based their budgets on receiving the full amount of increased Medicaid aid from Congress. Instead of getting nearly $212 million as the state had hoped, Colorado received only an estimated $144 million.

Monday’s actions announced by Ritter would:

• Save $4.9 million from a 1 percent reduction in payroll costs achieved largely by not filling vacant jobs.

• Cut $1.3 million from the Department of Corrections, including a $250,000 savings from spending less than expected on clothing and cash for inmates leaving prison; and an $89,100 savings from reducing 20 private prison beds at the Trinidad Correctional Facility.

• Transfer $15 million from a cash fund generated by oil and gas drilling that is used to provide grants to local communities affected by the energy companies’ activities.

• Sweep $5 million from a local government severance tax fund.

• Take $11.4 million from a grant reserve fund for local communities generated by federal mineral lease royalties.

• Move $9.4 million from a fund for higher education funded by federal mineral lease earnings.

• Transfer $9 million from the Medical Marijuana Program Cash Fund.

• Take $3.5 million from a cash fund in the secretary of state’s office.

Nearly $41 million of Monday’s budget-bridging actions came from oil- and gas-related funds meant for local communities and higher education. Ritter said not using those funds would have meant other places in the budget had to be cut.

“One of those options was taking teachers out of classrooms, and I’m not willing to do that,” he said.