Steamboat Springs Protecting $20 million in tourism funding will be the No. 1 priority of state Sen.-elect Al White, R-Hayden, whom Senate Republicans unanimously reappointed last month to the Colorado General Assembly's Joint Budget Committee.
The committee has been meeting since mid-November to evaluate budget requests from state agencies and officials for the state's next fiscal year, which begins in July. In a telephone interview between JBC meetings Thursday, White said tourism funding could be targeted as the state looks to spend conservatively in a dismal economy.
The Colorado Tourism Office receives an annual appropriation of about $20 million, dedicated funding that is the result of a 2006 bill that White, as a state representative, was instrumental in passing. The money could be threatened, however, if revenue forecasts due from the Legislative Council in March 2009 show the state will not be able to increase spending by the statutory maximum of 6 percent. If that happens - which White said likely is given the current economic climate - the bill's language specifies that it is up to the JBC to decide how much money, if any, the state tourism office receives.
"I think this tourism question will be a question brought to the JBC," White said. "I am in a great place to protect those dollars."
White is one of two Republicans on the six-member committee, which is the Legislature's permanent fiscal and budget review agency. The JBC writes the annual appropriations bill for the operations of state government. This process is unusual compared to most U.S. states, where the main appropriations bill originates from the executive branch.
A testament to the power and influence of the small committee, White boasted that the bill, also known as the "long bill," is 99 percent complete when it leaves the JBC.
Joint Budget Committee members serve two-year terms. White first was appointed to the Joint Budget Committee in 2006 as a state representative. In this year's campaign for Senate District 8, White guaranteed he would return to the powerful committee and counted his reappointment as an advantage against his opponent.
"If you live in Routt County, you're in the tourism business," White said at an October candidates' forum in Steamboat Springs. "I want to go back to the Joint Budget Committee to protect that. Without me there, we could lose it all."
White, who was term-limited in the state House of Representatives, defeated former Steamboat Springs City Council President Ken Brenner with 55 percent of the vote. As a member of the Joint Budget Committee, White also was assigned automatically to the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Senate District 8 includes all or parts of Garfield, Eagle, Rio Blanco, Moffat, Routt and Jackson counties.
Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, described White's unanimous election to the JBC by party colleagues as unprecedented for a freshman senator. In the same breath, he called White a "grizzled veteran" and described his reappointment as a "non-decision."
"Government is going to have to tighten its belt," Penry said. "That's why it's important to have a Western Slope legislator to make sure programs for our region don't bear the full brunt."
In addition to preparing what likely is to be a strapped budget for the next fiscal year, the state is facing massive shortfalls in the current year's budget. Democratic Governor Bill Ritter already has taken steps such as instituting a hiring freeze and delaying capital projects statewide. White said the JBC likely will get involved, as any supplemental budget bills will originate from the committee. White said the state may be forced to cut as much as $101 million from the current year's budget.
Asked about other budgetary or legislative goals for the upcoming session, which begins in January, White said he doesn't "have anything of particular significance." He said that likely is to change, however, once the session gets under way.