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Former state lawmaker and Weld County Commissioner "outstanding" in his field — a corn field on the family farm near LaSalle. (via Facebook)

Brief bio:

  • Executive director, Fostering Unity and Energizing Leadership.

  • Served as a Republican in the state House of Representatives, 1988-1996.

  • Weld County commissioner, 2001-2008.

  • Spent much of his life working the family farm near LaSalle.


Colorado Politics: Not long ago, you chided Gov. Jared Polis in a letter to the editor for his musings on meat — in particular that Colorado could become a major producer of plant-based substitutes for beef. The governor’s views of course don’t sit well with the state’s cattle industry, and you also pointed to a broader “agenda to transform Colorado in ways that we in Weld do not appreciate.” Is there a sense that the elected leadership at the Capitol — where both chambers’ leaders as well as the governor hail from Boulder — has lost touch with our state’s rural communities?

Bill Jerke: I don't think that many from Denver/Boulder currently serving in the legislative body ever were in touch with rural Colorado. Rural Colorado has slowly lost population and as a result, representation in the legislature for decades now. When I first went into the House in 1989 our speaker, Bev Bledsoe, was from eastern Colorado; the chairman of the JBC was from Lamar, and most committee chairs were from outside of the metro area.

The lack of research by the Polis administration with respect to soy burgers is particularly troubling. First, plenty of soybeans are produced in the Midwest, leading to low prices due to overproduction. Second, an entire beef economy is already built and well established in Colorado. This includes cow-calf ranchers operating on literally millions of acres of land unsuitable for irrigated agriculture. None of this land is suitable for soybean production. Irrigated land already has uses ranging from corn and hay to potatoes and hemp. Not to mention that I've heard that soy burgers are rough on women's hormonal systems!

CP: You also weighed in recently on another face-off — oil and gas development vs. some of its Front Range neighbors — and indicated the relationship in Weld County, at least, is far from the feud depicted by environmental groups. In what ways do you feel the industry benefits northeast Colorado? 

Jerke: Thirty years ago as a young legislator I too had problems with the Oil and Gas industry. Irrigated agriculture had many issues with a few operators that made the whole bunch look bad. Guess what: They got a whole lot better over time!

First, their accountability is dramatically better. From air and water pollution standards that really protect us to prompt payments for royalty owners, the industry just gets better and better. In the mid-'90s I was the House sponsor of 94-SB177, a bill that really ramped up inspection, scrutiny and funding at the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Since then several more iterations of regulations have made it even better. Today Weld County, in spite of its 20,000 wells, has as healthy a set of outcomes for its residents as do its peer Counties.

Second, Horizontal drilling is literally changing our world in ways we can hardly imagine. For generations Americans lived with the threat of an undependable supply line, largely from the Middle East breaking down and leaving us cold and immobile. Thanks to horizontal drilling we now are the world's largest producer of oil and actually do some exporting. The greatest danger for American oil and gas is the same as agriculture's age-old problem — overproduction, leading to lousy prices.

Third, The huge increase in production has led to dramatically larger royalty payments to people who own mineral rights. Significant dollars flow to agriculture in Weld, the farmers and ranchers who own and work hundreds of thousands acres, making oil men who could rival TV's J.R. Ewing from "Dallas" 40 years ago!

CP: Speaking of a shift in politics, do you believe perennially purple Colorado — having turned blue at the state level in November 2018 — is going to go purple again? Or, is the tilt toward Democratic control part of a longer-term trend?

Jerke: Predicting the future of politics is a real challenge. Pendulums do swing back and forth. Overreach by Democratic legislators and administrators almost guarantee it. Still, it will take a concerted effort by conservatives who have the financial ability to rival the old Gang of Four to begin changing hearts, minds and voting patterns!

CP: You are executive director of an endeavor called Fostering Unity and Energizing Leadership, or FUEL. Tell us about its mission and what you feel it has accomplished.

Jerke: After I finished up as a Weld County commissioner in '08, I got together with one of the large oil operators in Weld to discuss ways we could help make oil and gas and other natural resource-types of industries more attractive to both elected officials and NIMBYs. We came up with FUEL, a 501(C)(4), and have membership from agriculture, water development, sand and gravel mining and of course — oil and gas.

FUEL members support each other on land-use cases. I, as executive director, do a lot of presentations to electeds, chambers, service clubs, school groups, etc. I teach them about our natural resources and how they are the very building blocks of our civilization. Just think about the mined rock products for example. Every bit of construction, both roads and buildings, have rock products as their foundation. Ever try living without food and water? Pretty essential! And of course oil and gas has been the FUEL, pardon the pun, that provides the power for a modern civilized life!

FUEL also does some outreach for voter education — not R versus D, but ballot issues before the public. While we don't advocate a position, we do spell out the ramifications of the questions on the ballot and their effect on our industries.

CP: How in your view have things changed at the Capitol from your days there in the legislature in the ‘80s and ‘90s? Some say the atmosphere there is a lot more tense and partisan. Do you agree?

Jerke: The people running the legislature these days don't seem to be able to have a decent lunch break most of the time. I do believe that more minority party-sponsored bills passed when I served than pass today. I chaired House State Affairs in 95-96. I didn't even know that it was a "kill" committee. Back when I served, (the) GAVEL (Amendment) had just passed, eliminating "pocket" vetoes. This led the GOP leadership to make sure every bill got a fair hearing and led to monumental legislation passing like declaring the square dance as the official dance of Colorado!

CP: The old jab at state lawmakers who win a seat on their local county commission — a move you made — is that they can expect to do half the work at twice the pay. It’s of course a quip, but it raises a serious issue: Should members of our state’s “part-time,” seasonal legislature get a pay raise — perhaps even be treated as full-time officeholders — as some advocate? 

Jerke: Weld County is different, but you all knew that already. Weld is a home-rule county, its charter dating back to 1976. In that charter is a provision with tighter spending-limit/growth-of-government requirements than TABOR, passed 14 years later. Also in Weld's charter is provision of a five-member board of commissioners where each member serves as a coordinator/administrator of each major department of county government under commissioner jurisdiction. Weld commissioners serve as the Health Board, Social Services Board, Board of Equalization for property tax appeals etc. When I finished up (on the commission), I made $69,000.

State Legislators are flat out intense for 120 days. It is far more demanding than commissioning — for 120 days. After that, some interim work goes on to be sure but it is way less demanding than commissioning is. When I left the legislature a generation ago, I was paid $17,500.

I've always believed in citizen service, not professional constant advancement of career. After I left the legislature in '96, I waited four years before I ran for commissioner, and only after I had been recruited to run. I believe that government, and the people as a result, get better representation by people who take time off from their professions to give some public service. I used to tell my friends in the House that I was just looking for a good winter job and House District 51 representative looked like a good fit!

CP: You grew up on the farm and still work there. What ever made you decide to enter politics in the first place?

Jerke: I did grow up on our family farm but in truth I'm not working it anymore. We rent it out these days and my pickup is cleaner!

In high school they made us take a test one year called the current events test. I was a lousy student, bored with the whole thing and wanting to be an adult. I was shocked when at awards assembly they named the winner of the current-events test, and I won! When I took a political science class at UNC I found that I enjoyed it and did well. I interned later with a candidate for lieutenant governor from Greeley named Hank Brown and I was smitten with politics!


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