Taylor called for stiffer fire fines

Bill would have tripled penalties for offenders

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— A Republican bill that died on the last day of the legislative session may have helped prevent forest fires like those now raging around the state, Gov. Bill Owens and others are arguing.

House Bill 1470, which was sponsored by Sen. Jack Taylor, R-Steamboat Springs, and Rep. Gregg Rippy, R-Glenwood Springs, would have tripled civil penalties for setting fires to woods or prairie during a drought emergency.

The state's intense fires are now sparking political debate over why and how the fire bill was killed.

Owens and Taylor have both said slow action by Democrats such as Senate Majority leader Bill Thiebaut, D-Pueblo, was the reason the bill did not pass. But Democrats said there was nothing unusual about HB 1470, that the bill, like many others, died because the Legislature ran out of time.

"The governor was profoundly disappointed that this legislation was killed by Sen. Thiebaut at the last minute," said Sean Duffy, Owens' deputy chief of staff for communications. "The governor believes strongly that this bill would have been a very, very helpful tool to have on the books."

Duffy said the idea for the bill came up during an April meeting of the governor's Water Availability Task Force, which makes recommendations for dealing with dangers of drought, such as the heightened risk of wildfires.

One of the group's recommendations was to increase penalties for starting wildfires, and Taylor and Rippy introduced HB 1470 to make the change.

"As we got near the end of the session and we realized that things were getting drier and drier, we decided to do this," Taylor said.

Under current laws, only actual damages can be recovered.

The bill passed the House on May 7 and passed on second reading in the Senate later that day but never had a third reading.

Both Duffy and Taylor said they thought there were plenty of opportunities to pass the bill.

Taylor said that during the last day of the session, he tried to persuade Thiebaut to consider several bills, including the fire bill. But he said Thiebaut put them off until the end.

"He let (the bills) slide until it was after 11:30 p.m.," Taylor said. The session ended at midnight.

"Clearly this Bill 1470 was not a high priority for the majority party, the Democrats," Taylor said.

With 20 minutes in the session left, Taylor said Thiebaut asked Taylor to pick which bill he wanted to bring to the floor.

Taylor said he knew of several legislators that would have debated HB 1470, and that even if it passed, it would have gone back to the House because it had been amended. So Taylor chose to consider a bill for the water resources review committee.

Thiebaut has responded to charges that he killed the fire bill by saying Republicans used up time earlier in the day to pass a school voucher bill. He was unavailable for comment on Wednesday.

Sen. Peggy Reeves, D-Fort Collins, said bills that die at the midnight hour are nothing new in the Legislature.

"There were other bills in the House and Senate that just didn't make it. (HB 1470) wasn't the only thing," Reeves said. "This was not an unusual circumstance."

Taylor said he might try to bring the bill up again next session. But he said he is disappointed the rule won't be in place for this summer.

"The only reason that the bill was brought forth was the obvious pending danger of wildfire," Taylor said. "Now we're there, and we don't have this legislation to help people understand that they need to be a little more aware of what they're doing when they're out in the woods, or even in their backyards."

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