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Suggestions for the 2007 session of our legislature

Letter from Phil Doe

Politics – January 2007 – Colorado Central Magazine


Here are some suggestions for the 2007 session of the Colorado General Assembly:

1. Oversight and modification of Colorado Open Records Act (CORA). This should be a no brainer since the Denver Post has already questioned the effectiveness of its implementation. They would not, however, publish my letter detailing how abysmally the law was being enforced. I think hearings on the law’s implementation would bring out a lot of people. We, Citizens Progressive Alliance, for instance, were served with a SLAP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public participation) suit when we made a CORA request in Durango. One thing is for sure, when these public-interest laws are passed there should be scheduled legislative reviews, probably on a five-year clock, to find out how they are working.

2. We should have a revision of the severance tax allocation formula. In 2004 there was a 400 to 500 percent spike in these tax revenues from oil and gas–$107 million in oil tax revenues in 2004 according to the Department of Revenue website. Yet, the money keeps going by formula to the same old usual suspects, including the Colorado Water Conservation Board. This money should go to public education, almost exclusively, and to rural areas exclusively if, in a spirit of reciprocity, the transportation trust fund monies were to be returned to the regions of Colorado in which they were raised. Right now Denver only receives about a 65 percent return on the federal gas tax revenues it raises. The rest goes to other, more rural locations. It’s a huge amount of money which might better be used for mass transit. In this regard, it would also be helpful if somebody down there started banging the drum for transfer of the Highway Trust Fund to the states for their allocation through state legislatures, rather than the Congress. It would eliminate thousands of earmarks and bring the decisions back to the states where they belong, at least with regard to highway maintenance and construction. I think there is a prescribed formula for the interstate highway system that would have to be observed.

3. Obviously, something needs to be done about publicly funded elections–the California initiative was a pretty good one, but it incurred the ire of the corporations, for an increase in tax on them was the way it was to be funded and was thus defeated by a costly lobbying campaign. The stakes are high. We could take some of the tax money away from the beneficiaries in the severance tax formula and set up a publicly funded election trust.

Or better, we could dissolve the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority (CWRPDA) and transfer its function to the Division of Natural Resources or Public Health; the latter is probably where it belongs since the funding comes from the EPA in grants for Safe Drinking Water Act and Clean Water Act functions. The trouble is that the legislature has allowed CWRPDA to keep the money and establish a revolving fund, valued at $1.5 billion, which is used to grant low interest loans to developers — up to $500 million without the need to ask for legislative approval. Unbelievable. I know this is too much too soon, but somebody down there has to get after these boys, for they are, in a very real sense, determining growth patterns in this state. The money that is now in the revolving fund should be used for a) publicly funded elections, b) increasing funding to higher education, c) Medicaid drug assistance, d) increased funding to preschool education, or e) all of the above.

4. Someone needs to look seriously at the vast number of taxing entities being set up under the special district loophole. The University of Denver’s recent study on Colorado’s future has some very interesting observations concerning taxes in this state. State taxes are low on a comparative basis, but overall taxes are relatively high when one adds in the taxes that people have to pay to state chartered entities such as water districts, etc. It is their opinion, as I recall, that the continued proliferation of these special districts poses a real threat to the fiscal health of state government.

5. Strengthen the state’s Whistleblower Protection statute. PEER is more than willing to help with the writing of such strengthening legislation. Its director, Jeff Ruch, is an old friend, though he probably cringes at my characterization of our relationship.

6. We have tried in the past to get legislation passed that would require water conservancy district boards to be elected, not appointed, as they now are, by district judges. Last time we tried, I think it was Shawn Mitchell who stood up after our testimony and said he couldn’t vote for it because people wouldn’t vote anyway. I wondered if that was how he thought he got elected. This is one good way to honor the memory and work of Jeanne Englert.

7. I think legislation to dissolve water conservation boards should be floated. We are down to our last drop of water in this state. The use of that water should become a central concern, not a decision left to unelected, regional boards with demonstrably parochial interests. These conservation districts, of which there are four in the state, I believe, should not be confused with conservancy districts which are much smaller. They are huge taxing entities. For instance, the Southwestern Water Conservation District raises over $1million in taxes annually; yet, it is unresponsive to public concerns and is, without exaggeration, a dinosaur created in a bygone age when the popular wisdom was that Colorado needed to develop its water through diversions and privatization or lose it to California by allowing it to remain in our rivers. Note: I am unalterably opposed to transbasin diversions, for a number of reasons. So, the foregoing should not be considered a backdoor argument for same.

8. Finally, our organization, Citizens Progressive Alliance, has long argued that the public should get something for its water, just like it gets something for its oil and minerals. But we don’t, we give our water away, and have to pay most of the costs for development and maintenance in one of the most cockeyed exploitations of a valuable public resource imaginable. That is what the CWCB is all about, really–Seeing to it that the same old water user groups continue to get public handouts through a myriad of backdoor slush funds.

We suggest that discussions on the use of Colorado’s remaining share of the Colorado River be made to include by statute, if necessary, an honest assessment of leasing to downstream users, with the revenue used for public purposes such as retirement of marginal agricultural land from willing sellers, environmental enhancement of rivers and streams, and general public wellbeing. John Wesley Powell said, long ago, those who control the water in the west will control the west. Don’t you think it’s time we started paying attention to obvious wisdom?

We have worked on the water leasing idea for some time and would be delighted to talk to legislators about it. Downstream leasing has the advantage of creating a revenue stream of maybe $500 million annually, without increasing taxes. But just as importantly it could help protect our rivers from further degradation if properly managed. We use, on average, 14 million acre feet of water in this state annually, most of it for agriculture. Agriculture is way down the list of important economic producers in the state, and 14 million acre feet of water is enough for the domestic needs of 140 million people. Perish the thought!

Phil Doe

Citizens Progressive Alliance