Eagle’s men in Denver focused on budget, water | VailDaily.com

Eagle’s men in Denver focused on budget, water

Scott N. Miller
Brad Odekirk/Summit Daily News Freshman state Rep. Gary Lindstrom says transportation, particularly on I-70, will be one his priorities during this year's legislative session.

EAGLE COUNTY – It’s not all about the budget, but it’s close.With the start of the latest session of the Colorado General Assembly, Eagle County’s representatives in Denver, Rep. Gary Lindstrom, D-Breckenridge, and Sen. Jack Taylor, R -Steamboat Springs, said much of their focus will be on the state’s budget. But both also said they’re concerned about water and other issues close to the hearts of Western Slope residents.Democrats, who have majorities in both the Senate and House of Representatives for the first time since 1960, have vowed to fix the state’s budget crunch, caused primarily by conflicting requirements of two constitutional amendments. But Taylor said having a new party in charge doesn’t mean a budget fix is a sure thing.”Will we get something done? I’d like to say yes,” Taylor said. “But we tried to get something done last year, and it wasn’t a partisan issue then. We’ll see if there’s enough willpower and guts.”Both Democrats and Republicans voted against a couple of proposed fixes last year, Taylor said, adding that any kind of budget fix the Legislature puts on the fall ballot will have to pass with two-thirds majorities in each house.”On the first try in the Senate, it passed 18-17, but that wasn’t enough,” he said. “Then as we got later in the day we started going backwards, and it went down 16-19.”

Both Taylor and Lindstrom said solutions to the state’s budget shortfalls will have to address two issues. The first is the 1992 amendment known as the Taxpayers Bill of Rights, or TABOR. That amendment limits local and state government’s ability to impose new taxes, and also limits spending. The main problem with TABOR comes during and after recessions, or whenever tax revenue drops. When that happens, increases in government spending are still limited, and can’t return to pre-recession levels without voter approval. The amendment also requires governments to return tax collections that exceed the revenue limits.Voters in many of the state’s towns, cities and counties have exempted local government from many of the amendment’s revenue-limiting restrictions, but the state government is still bound by them.$230 million cutWhile TABOR is limiting government revenue, another amendment requires spending increases. Passed in the 2000 election, Amendment 23 requires the state government to increase funding for public schools by the inflation rate plus 1 percent every year.

The conflict between the two amendments has resulted in stiff budget cuts for virtually every state agency. Legislators are faced with cutting more than $230 million from the state’s 2006 budget.With voter approval required for any fixes to the two constitutional amendments, lawmakers are pondering short-term fixes. One would involve negotiating a lump-sum payment for the state’s share of a large lawsuit settlement between most states and the tobacco industry.Under the current arrangement, the state stands to collect between $2 billion and $3 billion in payments over the next decade or so. A lump-sum payment would inject about $800 million into the state’s accounts.Lindstrom said he needs to know more, but is leery of the idea.Taylor favors the payment, saying there’s no guarantee the state will get all the money the settlement calls for. Taylor said he’d like to see part of the payment applied to this year’s budget deficit, with the rest put into an “emergency fund” to cover budget shortfalls in future recession years.How dry we areWhile the budget will get most of the Legislature’s attention, there are other problems facing the Western Slope that Taylor and Lindstrom say they will try to address.

Lindstrom has already staked out a position different than one of his party’s legislative leaders. Senate Majority Leader Joann Fitz-Gerald earlier this month said she’d like to see the state pay less attention to tourism promotion and more to bringing new industries to the state.With tourism by far the leading industry on the Western Slope, “I don’t agree we should put tourism on the back burner,” Lindstrom said.”We need to be geo-centric with our interests on a lot of issues,” Lindstrom said, adding he’s trying to put together a coalition of Western Slope legislators, since the General Assembly is dominated by the Front Range. “It’s critical we’re in the same place on a lot of these issues,” he said.Perhaps the most important of those issues is water. Lindstrom said he’ll try to ensure that “basins of origin” are protected in any new transfers of water from the Western Slope to the Front Range.Taylor said he’s working on the same issue, but with something of a twist. Russell George, director of the state’s Department of Natural Resources, has proposed a new form of water contract called “inter-basin compacts.” Those contracts would allow more flexible use of water than state law allows now.The key issue for Taylor is ensuring that the Western Slope rivers providing water to the Front Range are protected.

“If we don’t protect our basins of origin, and the mainstem of the Colorado (River) is mismanaged, we’re going to be in real trouble,” Taylor said.While Lindstrom isn’t yet a whole-hearted supporter of new reservoirs, Taylor said reality demands new water storage on the Western Slope, probably starting with a proposed reservoir near Wolcott.Getting there from hereA subject Lindstrom will probably attack with enthusiasm is transportation. The former Summit County commissioner has been appointed to the local government and transportation committees, and said he’ll work to try to find money to start some work on Interstate 70.There’s one big problem, though. Money.”The message this year is there’s no money.” Lindstrom said. “A bill that costs the state money just will not pass.”================

State capitolWhat: Colorado General AssemblyWhere: DenverWhen: The 120-day session began WednesdayWho: Eagle County is represented in the House of Representatives by freshman Gary Lindstrom, a Breckenridge Democrat, and in the Senate by Steamboat Springs Republican Jack Taylor, now in his second and final term.

Staff Writer Scott N. Miller can be reached at (970) 949-0555, ext. 613, or smiller@vaildaily.com.Vail Daily, Vail Colorado

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