Tough tasks loom

Lawmakers face difficult issues as session nears

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For Colorado lawmakers, the flowers soon will be replaced by brass tacks.

Wednesday -- the opening day of this year's four-month legislative session at the Capitol in Denver -- will be a day largely of pomp and ceremony, hoopla and hugs, well wishes and best intentions.

But when the gavel drops, officially convening the second year of the 65th General Assembly, a daunting pile of business -- including budget planning, education and transportation funding, health care proposals, tourism promotion, illegal immigration debates and water issues -- will lie before state senators and representatives.

Mix in the passage of Referendum C by voters, the failure of Referendum D and the political maneuverings of an election year, and lawmakers have a lot to stomach.

"Right now, my plate is full preparing for this session," said Sen. Jack Taylor, a Steamboat Springs Republican entering his 14th year at the Capitol.

"It will be contentious," said Rep. Al White, R-Winter Park, who has represented Routt County since 2000. "I think it will be one of the most interesting sessions of my terms in office."

Keeping a promise

When planning next year's budget, lawmakers will have to decide how to allocate more than $6 billion.

Last year's session was dominated by the bipartisan creation of Referendum C, a controversial proposal designed to help pull the state out of a recession by allowing the government to keep more than $3.5 billion in surplus taxpayer refunds during the next five years.

Voters approved the referendum in November, and lawmakers say a primary goal this year is to make sure that taxpayer money is spent as advertised.

"We have to make sure the new dollars are used in the manner they were promoted to be used," Taylor said. "I will certainly toe that line."

Democrats say they share that sentiment.

"We are determined to fulfill the voters' wishes by upholding not just the letter of the law, but the spirit, as well," said Speaker of the House Andrew Romanoff, a Denver Democrat who was one of the main creators of Referendum C. "That means making sure every dime we invest matches the voter's intentions."

Those intentions, according to the referendum, are to spend taxpayer money on funding for K-12 education, higher education and health care. Voters turned down Referendum D, a companion measure that would have allowed the state to borrow about $2 billion to pay for immediate transportation and other needs.

Romanoff called that loss "significant but not fatal."

"I don't think the voters were saying they don't care about fixing roads and bridges," he said Friday. "I think most of them were saying: 'We're not wild about borrowing to do that.'"

A fraction of Referendum C money will go to transportation because of a state constitutional law that limits the general fund's growth to 6 percent a year, Romanoff said. Any revenue that exceeds 6 percent growth, according to the constitution, must go to capital needs and maintenance, such as roads and bridges.

A leading House Republican said how much money goes to transportation will be decided in the coming months.

"That's going to be a critical debate," said Joe Stengel of Littleton, the House Minority Leader.

Not a cure-all

Locally, leading politicos from both parties said they have their eyes on Referendum C spending.

"One of our concerns is to make sure our Legislature is being fiscally responsible," said Jennifer Schubert-Akin, chairwoman of the Routt County Republicans. "If state government grows too big, then it's awful hard to turn it back."

Mike Smith, precinct coordinator for Routt County Democrats, said the failure of Referendum D sent a message to lawmakers and Gov. Bill Owens.

"I think the voters clearly said across the state that we need to focus on education and health care first," said Smith, a math teacher at Steamboat Springs High School. "That would definitely help school financing."

That help will not come immediately, lawmakers caution.

"Even though C passed, it doesn't mean that we're going to have any money until January of 2007," said Rep. Gary Lindstrom, D-Breckenridge. "(State government) has to collect the money before they can spend it, and they'll be collecting it this year."

Although income from Referendum C won't be collected until tax payments are received in April, lawmakers will plan how to spend that money during the coming months by creating next year's budget.

When that money finally does reach schools and hospitals next year, it won't be a cure-all, Taylor warned.

"Everybody thinks Ref. C dollars will be a panacea to everything," Taylor said. "They won't -- we're billions of dollars behind."

Selling Colorado

Routt County's legislators say a way to increase state revenue that doesn't involve taxpayer dollars is to promote and increase tourism in Colorado.

"The perennial issue that I am putting forth once again is a permanent source of funding for tourism marketing," White said. "Sen. Taylor and I have worked together on tourism issues over the years, and we are continuing to do so."

White said he will sponsor a bill to increase the amount of general fund money that funds tourism marketing. Although he was asked to withdraw a similar bill last year because of a shortage of state finances, White said he has more confidence this time around.

"This year, for the first time, I have support for the funding issue from the Speaker of the House, the Senate president (Joan Fitz-Gerald, a Jefferson County Democrat) and Gov. Owens," White said.

Money invested in tourism can bring exponential returns, he added.

"Over a period of three, four to five years, we should be able to regain the revenue source we have lost," White said. "If we don't spend the money, we aren't creating it."

According to Taylor, who has served on the state tourism board for five years, "the new deal in tourism is cultural and heritage tourism," or tourism that promotes Colorado's rich history and landmarks.

Taylor identified Hahn's Peak, which in the late 1800s was the Routt County seat, as an area that could become a prime cultural tourism destination.

"There's an incredible history out there," he said.

A one-night stand?

Other issues for the Legislature include how to manage the increasing number of immigrants coming to Colorado and the regulation of water flow in the state.

"Many of my colleagues, and many of the Democrats, frankly, realize that we have a problem with illegal immigration," Stengel said, noting that Colorado leads the nation in illegal immigrants as a percentage of state population.

Rep. Kathleen Curry, a Gunnison Democrat, again plans to propose legislation to help manage recreational and agricultural water usage.

"I don't think we'll have any problem with that bill (this year)," Lindstrom said.

Lindstrom said he has heard of as many as 70 proposals -- dealing with issues including immigration and teaching intelligent design creationism in public school classrooms -- that legislators may bring forward to change the state constitution during this year's session.

"I think that is an abuse of the authority of power of state Legislature," he said. "We shouldn't try to do things by amending the (state) constitution."

Those proposals may well draw party lines heading into next November's elections, which include races for Owens' term-limited governor's seat and numerous House and Senate seats across the state.

Romanoff said he hopes legislators can put off most of the partisan campaigning until summer, after the work of this year's Legislature is done.

"Voters want bipartisanship," Romanoff said. "I think the next 120 days will tell whether the Ref. C victory party represented a one-night stand or the beginning of a more meaningful relationship between parties."

The 2006 legislative session, the second year of Colorado's 65th General Assembly, begins Wednesday and lasts 120 days.

Routt County's legislative representatives are:

-- Sen. Jack Taylor, Republican from Senate District 8, representing Eagle, Garfield, Jackson, Moffat, Rio Blanco and Routt counties Capitol office: (303) 866-5292 Steamboat Springs office: (970) 879-3600

-- Rep. Al White, Republican from House District 57, representing Garfield, Grand, Jackson, Moffat, Rio Blanco and Routt counties Capitol office: (303) 866-2949 e-mail: al.white.house@state.co.us

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