Previous budget battles in recessionary times have shown that much of the state budget is largely untouchable, either because it is outside the state general fund, or because it has protections as a result of the state constitution, federal grant provisions, or the simple impractibility of, for example, prematurely releasing prisoners serving long prison sentences in numbers large enough to make a short term budget dent. Other budget line items, such as those in the Department of Regulatory Agencies or Department of Revenue, either are too small to make a difference or pay for themselves in fines and other revenue generation.
Higher education is the most vulnerable state budget item. General fund transportation expenditures are also very vulnerable.
Besides the obvious impact on average Coloradans who depend on our state higher-ed system and drive on our roads this is potentially a big political problem for Governor Ritter in 2010.
The national economy is not going to recover in time to reverse these cuts. Even if the economy did recover thanks to TABOR and the sun-setting of Referendum C there's very little the governor could do about the dramatic cuts from 2009. With a little fore-sight from the governor's strategists and maybe we would have seen them pitch in to pass Romanoff's SAFER Amendment this year instead of launching their own failed severance tax crusade. The governor's Amendment 58 went down by nearly 17 points (coincidentally that's the same margin Ritter won by in 2006) while Romanoff's amendment 59 "only" lost by 9 points.
Thanks to TABOR its very, very hard to recover to past funding levels after deep budget cuts. So we'll be feeling the effects of this budget shortfall for a long time. In the short run though voters, unfair as it may be, are not going to reward an administration which brought such deep cuts to the state budget.