For us on the Western Slope, action in Denver is showing its consequences

Last week had some serious bumps in the road not boding well for rural Colorado.

Repeatedly, it’s been stated this year there’s no war on rural Colorado, that the phrase is a partisan myth created for political purposes. After what transpired last session and now what’s happening during this year’s budget process, I dispute that denial. If it’s not a war on rural Colorado, it’s much more than benign neglect.

Here’s what I’m talking about: After waiting 10 years to receive funding to build a new science building on the Fort Lewis College campus and that project rising to the No. 2 position on the list to receive funding, all of a sudden, FLC is dumped for projects almost entirely benefiting the metro areas – none as high on the priority list as Fort Lewis College.

The Joint Budget Committee, composed of six Front Range legislators, overrode the work of the legislative Capital Development Committee and bypassed its recommendations based on extensive meetings, site visits and consideration by the latter committee. One wonders why a legislator would spend the large amount of time required to be a CDC member if their project list will be discarded as easily as it has been this year.

The Durango Herald printed a graph illustrating the short shrift dealt the Western Slope projects (March 27) after this upsetting development, and the point was made all too clearly. Now, if revenue exceeds what’s forecasted, Fort Lewis may receive its funding in the fall – hardly the time of year to start a new construction project at higher elevations.

Secondly, last week, high-level staff in the governor’s administration failed to recognize the urgency of the recommendations of the report on the advisability of a Colorado wildfire air fleet. The report was only released after the budget bill had passed the House, making funding the recommendations a Gordian knot problem now. To make matters worse, instead of the report being first disclosed to the JBC and all other legislators as required by the bill passed last year, certain portions of the report were leaked by the administration to a Denver television reporter.

Why does this matter to rural, forested Colorado? Because the 2014 wildfire season already has begun, and the report recommends putting in place more aerial and additional ground firefighting resources this year. You can see the report online at www.dfs.state.co.us.

I have tremendous respect for the author of the report, Paul Cooke, who heads Colorado’s Division of Fire Prevention and Control. He’s worked closely with the Wildfire Matters Review Committee that I’m a member of and was a huge help when I chaired the Lower North Fork Wildfire Commission. The report sums up the conclusions of a group of Colorado wildfire experts and stakeholders greatly affected by wildfires across the state. If the recommendations aren’t funded in this budget bill, then it’s yet another year going by with Coloradans and their homes at greater risk from wildfires.

My frustration with the disregard for the needs of rural Colorado is compounded by the fact, since 2009, $450 million in mineral severance taxes, intended to support rural Colorado and state infrastructure, were diverted to backfill the state’s budget.

These developments are more than benign neglect.

Roberts represents Senate District 6 in Colorado’s General Assembly. The district encompasses Montezuma, Dolores, La Plata, Archuleta, Montrose, San Miguel, San Juan and Ouray counties. Contact Roberts at (303) 866-4884 or ellen.roberts.senate@state.co.us.

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