Legislative session a mixed bag, our lawmaker say | VailDaily.com

Legislative session a mixed bag, our lawmaker say

Matt Zalaznick

Western Slope water was not plundered by the Front Range during the recently ended session of the Colorado Legislature, but local lawmakers say little was done to bolster mountain supplies.

Both of Eagle County’s representatives in the state capitol say they spent a lot of energy defeating or amending bills that would have harmed Western Slope districts that provide much of Colorado’s water.

“We did quite a number of pieces of water legislation, some of which I agree with and some of which I don’t agree with,” said Sen. Jack Taylor, the Steamboat Springs Republican.

Leadville Democrat Carl Miller was more critical.

“I don’t think it was the best for rural Colorado,” Miller said. “I wasn’t happy with the water legislation. I think it’s the heavy hand of the Front Range.”

“Political frosting’

Both lawmakers said they were disappointed with a bill passed late in session that will put a proposal to expand the power of state and local agencies to fund water projects on the November election ballot.

Senate Bill 236, now before Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican, allows water authorities and other agencies to issue up to $2 billion in bonds to shore up water supplies. But while the bill mandates the construction of a water project by 2005, it does not specify what the project will be.

“It’s absolutely a blank check,” Miller said.

Taylor said it’s unlikely any water project could be built by 2005, because it would take too long for it to be approved.

“They passed a law that can’t be met and that’s not good,” Taylor said. “It’s misguided, political frosting for the people involved.”

Taylor said he was forced to form coalitions to prevent the passage of waters bills that would have been harmful to the Western Slope. One such bill, he said, would have given preferential water rights to a series of wells along the South Platte River. Those wells would have eventually infringed on water rights in the High County, he said.

“You need to have some way to compensate the basin from which the water comes,” he said. “If you take water from the Western Slope, there should be some way to provide compensator storage so the amount of water taken out of a basin is replaced.”

High-altitude storage key

The solution to water shortages is high-altitude storage, Taylor said.

“If we want to avoid having drought-year problems like last year, we need to build a series of small reservoirs up high enough so we can store water that’s going out of the state of Colorado,” Taylor says. “And then we could release it over time.”

Miller said he was disappointed at the defeat of his bill to tap into the Denver Aquifer, which he says could fulfill much of the Front Range’s water needs. He says he will reintroduce the bill next year.

“I tried to get the Front Range to use some of their own water resources,” Miller said. “They’ve got the Denver Aquifer and that’s the largest body of water in Colorado.

Overall, not much was done this session to improve Western Slope water supplies, Miller said.

“I don’t thin our water problems are behind us,” Miller said. “On water, I don’t think we made out that good. I think Western Slope legislators have to be very vigilant with these water issues.”

Budget crunch

Both Miller and Taylor said overcoming the state’s massive budget deficits was a struggle.

“For the first time in seven years, I voted against budget,” Miller says. “I don’t think we solved the problem. We balanced the budget on the backs of local governments, jails and libraries.”

6 percent growth?

Next year’s spending plan was approved on a projection that the state’s revenues would increase by 6 percent. Miller says he doubts that will happen.

Taylor, on the other hand, was less critical of the budget passed, saying funding for K-12 education, transportation and tourism was not drastically cut.

“Most transportation funding comes from the federal government,” Taylor said. “So most projects in rural Colorado should continue, though some may be slowing down.”

Taylor said he battled to keep $9 million in the budget to promote tourism.

“That, we believe, is the fastest way to give a shot in the arm to the economy,” Taylor said. “Do we need a shot in the arm right now? I think the answer to that is clearly “yes.'”

Miller says he agrees tourism promotion could spark the mountain economies.

“I think that’s an economic stimulus with a quick turnaround,” he says.

A state consultant reportedly has found every dollar spent promoting tourism generates between $50 and $200 in revenues.

“If we had that, we’d have more sales tax, we’d have more income tax and a stronger economy,” Taylor said.

The state is losing $2.4 billion in potential tourism revenue because of lackluster promotion efforts, Taylor added.

Easier insurance

The Legislature had some success this session in making both health and auto insurance more flexible and, therefore, cheaper, Taylor said.

“There is no panacea. There is no one silver-bullet piece of legislation to solve all the problems for health or auto insurance,” Taylor said. “It’s going to take a series of bills over a period of time to get some notable changes.”

But bills passed this session should give residents more freedom in choosing the types of insurance coverage the pay for, Taylor said.

Colorado will switch July 1 from a no-fault auto insurance law to an at-fault auto-insurance law. Under the new system, the insurance company for the driver who caused the crash pays both the medical bills and the pain and suffering of accident victims.

Under the old law, a person injured in an accident can sue both the at-fault driver and the insurance company.

“I have some concerns this will lead to a lot of lawsuits and be a lawyer’s full-time-employment act, but 37 other states have this kind of law and it doesn’t work that way,” said Miller. “We’ll just have to see how it shakes out.

“Plus,” Miller added, “with the new system, everyone projects we’re going to have lower premiums.”

Matt Zalaznick can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or via e-mail at mzalaznick@vaildaily.com.

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