DENVER - A Republican leader wants to eliminate Colorado's land-preservation tax credit and use the money for highways.
Legislators last year passed a major reform in the conservation-easement program after investigations revealed inflated appraisals and fraudulent claims for tax credits.
House Minority Leader Mike May said he will introduce resolution soon to ask voters to suspend the tax credits. May, R-Parker, thinks the credit costs the state $100 million a year.
His announcement comes during a debate about a major transportation bill. Republicans want a bill that does not raise auto-registration fees, so they have been looking for other ways to get money - including from the conservation-easement program.
"That money would go a long way toward getting our roads and bridges back up to par during these difficult economic times. This is another example of how we can use current dollars for transportation before hitting up Colorado families for more money," May said in a news release.
Sen. Jim Isgar, D-Hesperus, has been an advocate for the conservation-easement program, and he doesn't want to pull the plug on it.
In fact, he won passage of a bill Monday in the Senate Business, Labor and Technology Committee to follow up on last year's reform.
The 2008 reforms imposed fees of $600 per appraisal and up to $5,810 per conservation easement to pay for greater state scrutiny. However, not enough groups have registered, so the state doesn't have enough cash to get started on its oversight.
House Bill 1014 eliminates the fee caps. The major conservation-easement groups support the bill. It already has passed the House and is on its way to the Senate after Monday's 5-1 committee vote.
"With this tightening up of the process, you're going to get the fraud out of it," Isgar said.
Because of the fraud allegations and federal tax audits, landowners are reluctant to take out a conservation easement, he said. Because of the greater oversight and less interest by landowners, Isgar thinks eliminating the credit would save about $20 million a year, not the $100 million May says it will.
The conservation-easement tax credit pays farmers and ranchers for not developing their land. The tax credit has preserved 1.2 million acres statewide, said Jill Ozarski, executive director of the Colorado Coalition of Land Trusts.
"I think you're going to see that 90 percent of people are not going to do a conservation easement if there were no tax credit," Ozarski said.
May's bill has not yet been introduced.