Q. What is the role of a rural Lawmaker and what are its challenges?
A. The diversity of our economy and the large size of the district present the greatest challenges.
Our economy in Northwest Colorado is based on recreation/tourism, mineral extraction (coal mining) and agriculture -- and water ties the whole thing together and makes it work. To effectively represent a district like this you need to have a working knowledge of these various elements of the economy. Certainly the recent droughts and fires have brought the importance of water to the forefront.
Our social service impacts are also different from metro legislative areas because the recreation communities affect the "down valley" communities where many of the real working people live. This, in turn, affects the schools, hospitals and other infrastructures in those towns, even crossing county lines. That is why I have supported efforts to accomplish revenue sharing between these entities.
The physical size of a rural legislative district versus a metro district is another major difference and challenge. I travel 20,000 to 30,000 in-district miles annually going to meetings and working with constituents. It is a twelve-month a year job to do it right. Many metro districts can be driven across in 10 or 15 minutes, and easily "walked" during campaigns.
Because rural legislators are so outnumbered by metro legislators, I also find it very important to have the ability to "cross the aisle" and build coalitions with members of both parties in order to pass (or kill) legislation important to rural Colorado. For obvious reasons, you have to pick the more important battles because not all can be won.
Rural legislators also stick together well on issues, better than metro legislators. And Always -- your word is your bond.
Q. What Legislation issues will you invest your time and energy in during the last few weeks of the session?
A. My biggest concern in this Legislative Session has been the fear of passing bad and damaging legislation as a reaction to the drought, fires and the struggling economy. I am still fighting these battles, especially in the closing days of the Session because that is when the legislative process is most vulnerable to slipping legislation through. One such area is water. Colorado water law has worked well since statehood. The basic premise is that senior water rights prevail over junior water rights, and that you go to water court to resolve water disputes. These basic principles should not EVER be changed. Additionally, West Slope water should be protected.
One of my primary concerns has been Senate Bill 73, which, as originally written, would have severely impacted basic Colorado Water Law. This bill should die unless amended extensively. Over the past 2 months I have brought together a coalition with enough votes to kill it if those amendments are not accomplished. It now appears that our coalition pressure has forced the parties to the table for an acceptable compromise position that does not violate our water laws. The final result will play out over the next two weeks.
Another example of bad legislation is Senate Bill 154 on affordable housing that I was instrumental in killing recently. I still hope we can reach agreement on some reasonable legislation for automobile and health insurance before this Session ends.
Q. The state is in a fiscal crunch. Are lawmakers making the best of a bad situation with the 2003-2004 state budget? How do you explain what gets cut and why to your constituents?
A. The State budget crunch is a difficult situation. The economic downturn has created a severe revenue shortfall, which has collided with Colorado's constitutionally balanced budget requirement resulting in substantial cuts.
In reality, we have had to deal with two budgets this Session. We have had to re-balance the 2002-2003 Fiscal Year budget ending on June 30, 2003 because of the revenue shortfall. After exacting those cuts, the legislature is now finalizing the 2003-2004 Fiscal Year budget by cutting a billion dollars out of that budget to meet the constitutional requirement.
The 2003-2004 cuts are extremely deep and no agency, department or division has been exempt. However, kindergarten through 12th grade education has survived better than most because of a constitutional amendment protecting it. There is simply not enough money. It is hard to cut programs that affect everyone, but this is what we are being asked to do. There is no other choice, and we are making those tough decisions.
Q. You've served in the House and Senate a combined 11 years. What has set the 2003 Legislative Session apart from prior sessions?
A. This session the Legislature is trying to solve problems created by the worst budget crisis in Colorado's history, the most severe drought in living memory, and the after effects of the largest, most disastrous fire season on record.
It appears there may be some easing of the drought situation, which should help the fire conditions as well as the economy. I'm hopeful and optimistic it will all come together very soon.