Roberts’ gas tax bill gets the ax

DENVER – A Senate panel on Monday killed Sen. Ellen Roberts’ bill to protect natural-gas and oil tax money for local governments.

Roberts, R-Durango, expected the outcome. Her Senate Bill 35 died on a 3-2 vote in the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee.

The state Legislature has diverted $235 million from the accounts that pay for grants to local governments in gas-producing areas. The money has gone to balance the state budget – a practice Roberts wants to halt.

“These local governments are surviving on ether, on fumes here,” Roberts said.

The three Democrats who voted against the bill said they did so reluctantly.

Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, said the voters in 2008 had a chance to raise the severance tax to help colleges, but they didn’t. Now, the Legislature needs all the flexibility it can get to minimize cuts to schools and colleges.

“In a vacuum, I would love to support this bill,” Heath said. “But we’re living not in a vacuum. We’re here, Feb. 7, 2011, with the biggest financial crisis this state has ever seen in front of us, and we can’t tie our hands anymore.”

Roberts is the Senate sponsor of Rep. Don Coram’s House Bill 1123, which is identical to her SB 35. It has a better chance to pass the House.

Despite SB 35’s loss, the same committee handed Roberts a victory Monday afternoon, passing her Senate Joint Resolution 5 on a 5-0 vote.

The resolution protests the federal government’s imposition of unfunded mandates on the state government and pledges that the Legislature will not do the same to Colorado cities and counties.

Past legislatures and governors have adopted laws and policies against unfunded requirements on local governments, but they have not always been followed.

The resolution is nonbinding, but Roberts said it would serve as an important reminder to legislators “to be much more conscious about it, to truly say no to bills that might be nice policy or good policy, but if they have an unfunded mandate component, we don’t do it.”

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