Legislators pursue tourism funding

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— Northwest Colorado's representatives at the state Legislature are confident they will have permanent new funding for tourism promotion in place by tonight.

The Legislature must wind up all business in the current session by midnight. By that time, State Sen. Jack Taylor, R-Steamboat Springs, and State Rep. Al White, R-Winter Park, expect to have a new bill ready for the governor's signature that would generate millions for tourism without relying on taxes.

White and Taylor are the co-sponsors of Senate Bill 256, which they, with State Treasurer Mike Coffman, predict will add $3.4 million to the advertising budget of the Colorado Tourism Office. It would collect interest from abandoned securities in the state's Unclaimed Property Program.

The bill passed the House on second reading late Monday and was expected to return to the Senate by today for approval in its final form. Gov. Bill Owens has sent signals that he tentatively supports the measure.

In addition to creating new funds for tourism promotion, SB 256 would set aside a smaller amount to promote the state fair and other events held at state fair facilities.

"I'm very excited about this," Taylor said. "Colorado ranks 32nd in funding for tourism. Hawaii spends $70 million."

The Legislature appropriated $5.4 million in general fund monies to promote tourism next year.

The money will be generated by "equities" or securities such as stocks and bonds currently languishing in the state's Unclaimed Property Program.

Brian Anderson, a spokesman for Coffman, said banks and brokerage account managers often find themselves holding securities without having had any contact with the owners for years. When the owners cannot be contacted, and there has been no word for five years, the equities are turned over to the state treasurer.

SB 256 would require the treasurer to hold onto the equities for another year, then sell them and reinvest them in interest-bearing accounts. The rightful owners would be eligible to claim the amount of money the equities were sold for, but all of the interest accrued would go to the state.

Coffman's office estimates the bill would generate $3.4 million beginning in fiscal year 2005-06, and the annual revenue stream could grow to $5 million within 15 years. Of the total, 10 percent will be tagged for promotion of state fair facilities.

Coffman intends to continue building the principal in the trust by using the unclaimed portion of the equities turnover to the Great Colorado Payback each year -- typically $2.5 million.

White is concerned that in the future, the Legislature will reduce the general-fund appropriation for tourism by whatever amount the program generates.

"I'm afraid they'll see this as supplanting the general fund money," White said this week. "But at least it's permanent."

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