Two republicans spar over ballot
There were times Wednesday night when the debate over Colorado’s Referendum A and Amendment 33 between Commissioner Tom Stone and state Sen. Jack Taylor –both Republicans –sounded like reruns of television commercials about the two ballot questions.
The pair, who disagree on both measures, debated the merits and flaws of the proposals before 40 people at the Berry Creek Middle School.
Referendum A would let state agencies borrow up to $2 billion – $4 billion with interest – to build and upgrade reservoirs and water delivery systems. Amendment 33 seeks to amend the state constitution to expand gambling, putting video lottery terminals into dog and horse tracks and also into existing gambling towns. Part of the money would be used to promote tourism while other funds would go for open space, parks and schools.
Taylor, who also represents Eagle County, opposed Referendum A and supported Amendment 33 while Stone took the opposite stance.
While the debate was generally civil, there were some sharp exchanges.
The debate on Referendum A began with agreement – that Colorado needs more water storage capacity, but that was the sole point of agreement between Stone and Taylor.
Much of the debate on Referendum A centered on the taking of Western Slope Water if Referendum A is approved by voters. The key issue seems to be its perceived lack of compensation if mountain water is channeled to the Front Range. But Stone said mountain residents shouldn’t be worried about losing water.
“This is an incremental tool in the toolbox,” said Stone. “It’s disingenuous to say there is no mitigation. The mitigation thing is a red herring – a weak excuse.”
But Taylor, who said he’s an ardent supporter of creating more storage in Colorado – which needs to capture up to 5 million additional acre-feet of snowmelt a year with reservoirs– is steadfast in his opposition to the measure.
“Referendum A is fatally flawed,” he said. “If we lose our beautiful green valleys it will affect our quality of life. Clearly, there’s no obligation to meet any mitigation criteria.”
Taylor said the fatal flaw in Referendum A is that the individual projects built under the proposal could not generate enough revenue from users to pay the debt incurred.
The mitigation/compensation issue has been seized upon by opponents of Referendum A who fear the water-rich Western Slope will be de-watered by diversions to the arid and thirsty Eastern Slope, where the major cities lie.
Stone countered that Eagle County’s land use regulations would require local review of any water project. Eagle County denied a permit for a new reservoir proposed by Colorado Springs and Aurora – Homestake II – in 1986, killing the project.
Roots in the drought
Taylor agreed in part with Stone’s contention but said county regulations are part of the planning process and don’t address mitigation, such as creating compensatory storage to help bolster flows of rivers sapped by diversions.
Taylor and Stone said Referendum A’s roots lie in the drought of 2002 which was the worst experienced in 300 years. It depleted many Front Range reservoirs and highlighted Colorado’s need for more water-storage.
Taylor said the measure, as proposed, would consolidate power with the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the governor, who would decide which projects could be built.
“There has been a concerted effort to change the makeup of the Water Conservation Board,” he said. “If it is changed, we’ll see less and less rural representation. If the Water Board has to please the governor, that will further politicize the matter.”
But Stone said legislative efforts have not worked.
“Our State legislature has failed us,” he said. “Referendum A is a step in the right direction.”
Taylor said the creation of the legislation, which he said was a “set up” by a legislature dominated by Front Range representatives, leaves him worried because it leaves the Western Slope without specific language about mitigation, and leaves the recreation-dependant economies of the Western Slope vulnerable to a loss of water.
Taylor also said the measure is not needed because the ability to use revenue bonding for water projects already exists.
“Referendum A is a redundant process,” he said. “We need a way to get revenue streams to pay off (water project) debt.”
In closing, Stone said Referendum A is a simple solution.
“It’s a step in the right direction.”
When Colorado’s tourism tax expired in 1992, tourism began to decline. Colorado now ranks 22nd in state tourism promotion and according to one consulting firm, is losing out on $2.4 billion in tourism dollars annually. Amendment 33 aims to fund tourism promotion by having Colorado voters amend the state constitution to allow video lottery terminals at dog and horse tracks and at existing gambling casinos. Such gambling is allowed at horse and dog tracks in Rhode Island and New Mexico.
The measure has been strongly pushed by Wembley PLC, which operates four of the five tracks in Colorado, and is the largest gaming operator in the U.K. and U.S.
It will generate up to $86 million for a variety of interests, including $25 million for tourism promotion. Last year, Hawaii spent $77 promoting tourism while Colorado spent less than $30 million, according to Taylor.
The issue, stimulating tourism with gambling-generated revenue, seems to revolve around philosophical orientation regarding a “sin tax” on gambling.
“We desperately need a new funding mechanism,” said Taylor who helped spearhead the effort to put the measure on the ballot.
Tourism is a sparkplug for the recreation-centric Western Slope communities, Taylor said. Longwoods International, a respected consulting firm estimated that every tourist dollar spent generates $205 in additional revenue.
“Tourism is about as pure an economic development as you can get,” said Taylor. “It’s clean.”
But Stone centered on how promotional money would be generated.
“It’s about gambling,” Stone said. “I could not be more opposed to this. It’s a bum deal. It’s the most controversial issue Colorado voters will ever face.”
Top Wembley executives in Rhode Island were indicted on charges they attempted to bribe public officials for political favors.
Stone resorted to mild hyperbole and said the measure is “un-American,” and would give the British company a “monopoly.”
“If we’re going to be like Nevada, let’s be just like Nevada and give those young girls a place to work. It’s prostitution,” he said. “This is a bad deal.”
At one point, Stone suggested it would be difficult to control who used the gambling devices and that youth might use the machines, causing Taylor to angrily snap back:
“That’s absolutely not true,” he said. “It would be controlled by the Colorado Lottery Commission.”
“Tom, I think you’re starting to watch all those (television ads) and are starting to believe them,” Taylor said.
Taylor said in his 11 years in the state legislature that he and others have “tried and tried to find a way to fund tourism promotion.”
“This helps fund tourism and it helps the state of Colorado and its small communities by bringing in more people, not less,” Taylor said.
In closing, Stone said “We’ve seen this movie before. It just doesn’t make sense.”
Cliff Thompson can be reached at 970-949-0555 x450 or firstname.lastname@example.org