GRAND JUNCTION — A panel of seven Western Slope legislators — six Republicans and one Democrat — discussed diverse issues they’re working on in the state legislature at the Club 20 annual meeting on March 28, focusing on water, energy, the economy, TABOR and federal lands.
Sen. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, said he and Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, had introduced a bill, SB 15-232, that would create a Federal Land Management Commission to study the transfer of federally managed public lands to Colorado. But that doesn’t mean the lands would be sold to the highest bidder, he added.
“I know there’s a lot of people running around with their hair on fire, afraid that we’re going to sell the lands, but that’s not what the bill is all about,” Baumgardner said.
Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, who also attended the panel discussion, is the House sponsor for the land transfer study bill.
During a discussion of conflicting constitutional amendments, Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, confessed that the state legislature has been making end runs around the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.
“We did not follow the Constitution,” Roberts said. “We made up something called the ‘negative factor’. There are budgetary tricks.”
Amendment 23, which mandates yearly increases in K-12 education funding, is in conflict with TABOR, which restricts the growth of government revenues, a dilemma that several of the legislators complained about. Club 20 member Chris Treese asked the panel to discuss that conflict.
Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Aspen, said she was extremely frustrated by TABOR.
“We go through a long process crafting bill language, then we can’t do it because of TABOR,” Donovan said. “The bill dies because it would have brought in revenues from fees.”
Coram agreed. “We’ll kill a bill because it bumps into TABOR.” He predicted that this year would be the last year that Colorado residents would get a tax refund due to TABOR. He also said he thinks it’s too easy for citizens to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot.
“I agree that the ballot thing needs to change,” he said.
Roberts said she was looking to Club 20 to provide leadership in resolving constitutional conflicts. “Club 20 has a key role to advancing this.”
Club 20 is considering a resolution that would call for the formation of a Constitutional Commission that would attempt to resolve the differences between Amendment 23, TABOR and the Gallagher Amendment, a 1982 legislative referendum that changed the way Colorado assessed property valuations.
Preventing the Front Range from taking more Western Slope water was a popular theme during the panel discussion.
“We’re protecting West Slope water,” said Sen. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction. “This is your front line of defense.”
Rep. J. Paul Brown, R-Ignacio, called for the Front Range to impound and store more of its own water.
“We keep sending more and more water to the Front Range,” Brown said. “I think water storage is important. The study of the South Platte is important.”
The last time the Front Range considered building a dam was 25 years ago, when the proposed Two Forks project was vetoed by the Environmental Protection Agency. The Denver Post recently called for water storage to be added to Gov. John Hickenlooper’s draft Colorado Water Plan.
“Our water infrastructure was dramatically cut back,” Roberts said. “You can’t build towns on air. You have to have water.”
“I’ve always been an advocate for storage,” Baumgardner said. “We must have storage or we’re going to have a huge problem.”
Coram said 400,000 acre feet of water could be conserved if “water thief” non-native species such as tamarisk and the Russian olive were eliminated.
Energy was another topic the panel discussed. Rep. Dan Thurlow, R-Grand Junction, a self-described “rookie” in his first term, was the House sponsor for SB 15-44, which would have rolled back the percentage of mandated renewable energy required by earlier Democrat-sponsored legislation. The bill died in the State Affairs committee, he said.
“Good bills, they get killed in State Affairs,” he said.
Thurlow, who has sided with Democrats on a few GOP-sponsored bills, said he was unconcerned about threats of a recall effort put forth by Mesa County conservatives.
“That’s their right,” he said.
Western Colorado coal is the “fifth cleanest energy producer in the U.S.,” Baumgardner added.
Baumgardner lamented the fact that energy companies were “moving out of state. There’s a war on coal. There’s a war on oil and gas.”
Coram agreed, noting that one of Club 20’s annual meeting sponsors, WPX, was “pulling out of Denver.”
America is “number one in the world in gas production,” Scott said. “We’re on the road to becoming number one in oil production. We need instant and long-term help in western Colorado.”
One coal mine in Gunnison County was shut down by an underground fire, and another has been denied a desired expansion. Western Slope environmentalists continue to protest against oil and gas drilling in Delta County.
Factors such as these are preventing the Western Slope’s economic recovery.
“We have not seen the economic recovery that Denver has,” Donovan said. “We still need some help out here.”
Donovan has introduced SB 15-36, the Rural Economic Emergency Assistance grant program, which would award government grants to small towns that lose many jobs.
“We don’t need grants,” Brown countered. “We need jobs.”
Scott said he favored the Tax Free Colorado proposal, which would give out-of-state companies that brought jobs to Colorado 10 years without state income, property or sales taxes. The companies could not be competing with existing Colorado businesses and would have to work with local colleges and universities to hire local graduates.
Government “can’t create jobs,” Scott said.
— Ron Bain is The Colorado Statesman’s Western Slope correspondent