Steamboat Springs A bit of gallows humor from the governor last week shed light on just how quickly times can change at the Capitol — and how legislation that local politicians once crowned as a capstone achievement can get cut nearly in half in just a few years.
The topic was tourism funding. In response to a question from Yampa Valley Bank’s John Kerst, who asked Gov. John Hickenlooper about state tourism dollars during Wednesday’s invite-only event at Bud Werner Memorial Library in Steamboat Springs, the governor acknowledged that the $15 million in this year’s tourism budget will get cut to $12.5 million next year.
Hickenlooper noted that Colorado is facing huge financial challenges that include $385 million in looming cuts for public education, for example, and said everybody has to share the pain. That includes Hayden Republican Al White, a former longtime state legislator in Northwest Colorado and the new director of the Colorado Tourism Office.
“Al wanted to cut the whole thing,” Hickenlooper quipped, referring to the tourism budget and drawing scattered laughter from the crowd of more than 100 local service club members.
He then gave a serious answer to Kerst, who had talked about the importance of marketing Colorado to potential visitors and spurring resort-driven economies.
“I think we can hold the line at $12.5 (million),” Hickenlooper said. “So you’ll still have a budget.”
Not long ago, that budget was much bigger.
In May 2006, then-state-Sen. Jack Taylor, a Steamboat Springs Republican, returned home from Denver after what he called his best legislative session at the Capitol. The primary reason for the success was House Bill 1201, which Taylor sponsored in the Senate and White, then a state representative from Winter Park, sponsored in the House. The bill allocated $20 million a year from state gaming revenues to fund Colorado tourism promotion.
“That’s the culmination of 14 years of effort, for the entire 14 years I’ve been in the Legislature,” Taylor said at the time. “The bill is huge for the state of Colorado.
“It’s a done deal,” Taylor continued. “It’s as permanent as anything can be down there (in Denver) — it will be a line item on the budget each year.”
Then the recession struck. The line item shrank. “As permanent as anything can be down there,” it turns out, meant about three fiscal years.
Taylor went on to serve two more years at the Capitol. He said the state’s tourism budget actually spiked to about $24 million before revenue diversions began. The state’s tourism budget was about $20.3 million for fiscal year 2009, about $15.1 million in fiscal year 2010 and is projected for about $14.4 million in the current fiscal year, according to documents provided by White.
That budget will dip to about $12.5 million for fiscal year 2012.
White said the state’s overall budget crisis boils down to decreasing revenues and increasing demands.
“Part of what we’ve had to do, unfortunately, is touch every aspect of the budget, including my beloved tourism dollars,” White said last week. “They never really had permanency — anything that was created legislatively can be changed legislatively, and that’s what happened.”
In 2009, White got a firsthand look at cuts to tourism spending as a member of the state’s Joint Budget Committee.
“It hurt then, and it hurts now,” he said. “If I don’t have any other legacy in the Legislature, it’s that I fought for tourism funding and I continue to fight for tourism funding.”
The funds are used for national and global marketing of Colorado. White and Taylor often have cited studies that show significant returns on tourism dollars.
“I don’t know of any other state entity or program that delivers money back to the state like tourism,” Taylor said Sunday. “When times get tough is not the time to be cutting the promotion of tourism.”
Taylor said he’s heard some people question the use of taxpayer dollars for tourism promotion, but he noted that the source is gaming revenues — an activity people choose to undertake.
“To me, it’s different from a regular taxing revenue stream,” he said.
White said he’s confident that Hickenlooper shares the value that White and Taylor place on tourism dollars.
“When revenues return, as they surely will, I’m going to be knocking on his doors loudly,” White said.
He might not be the only one knocking.
“When revenues come back, we’ll put it all right back into education,” Hickenlooper said after last week’s event in Steamboat, responding to an unrelated question about education funds.