Gov. Bill Owens said he was cautiously optimistic about the state's economy when he stopped in Steamboat Springs on Wednesday morning but noted reforms were needed in Colorado tax law.
In front of an audience of about 80 residents at Centennial Hall, Owens talked about the inherent conflicts between TABOR, the Taxpayers Bill of Rights and Amendment 23. Owens, who was visiting five Western Slope towns Wednesday, also fielded questions about chronic wasting disease, tourism funding and his veto of the LEAP bill.
After the harsh years of the recession and Sept. 11, 2001, the Colorado economy is rebounding well, Owens said. He noted that tax collection is up, exports have increased and the state's unemployment rate is down and below the national average.
"We have been through tough times and are coming back strongly. I am very pleased where we are," he said.
But he warned of the challenge the state faces with two conflicting state tax laws, TABOR and Amendment 23.
TABOR is a law that limits tax revenues governments can raise and spend each year, and Amendment 23 is a state law requiring the state to increase funding for public education annually.
The state's budget problems began after 2001, when revenue dropped, but the state's required funding for education and Medicare increased, leaving a smaller portion to cover the remaining expenses.
"Forty percent of the budget is compromised, because of the mandated increase in the other two components," Owens said.
Owens acknowledged a TABOR-reform ballot issue proposed by two policy centers but said he is advocating a more moderate approach that also addresses Amendment 23.
"If you only focus on TABOR, you are missing part of the issue. If you only fixed TABOR, you wouldn't have anything different in last year's budget," he said.
Even with increasing revenue, Owens said, to return to funding levels between the downturn will be difficult if the state continues to have to fund kindergarten through 12th-grade education at the required level.
"We are starting to see greater revenues come in, and we can use some of those revenues to recover the losses," he said. "We are going to have a battle getting back to funding other areas."
Owens said he strongly promotes tourism funding. Although the state does not have a dedicated tax for tourism, Owens said the money comes from the general fund.
Chronic wasting disease and its effects on those who own elk ranches also was discussed Wednesday after a woman quizzed the governor on the state's stand. Owens said the state had treated the private sector fairly in regulating the disease, but it also had to protect the state.
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