By Leslie Jorgensen
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
COLORADO SPRINGS — As rays of afternoon sun rippled across the Carnegie Room of the Penrose Library, Gov. Bill Ritter was buoyant as he signed bills sponsored by local Democrats Sen. John Morse and representatives Michael Merrifield and Dennis Apuan.
The trio of lawmakers is in the majority party at the Capitol, but they’re in the minority in an El Paso County legislative delegation dominated by eight Republican lawmakers, none of whom were invited to the bill-signing ceremony.
Comments made in the waning minutes of the two-hour event revealed just how rankled Republicans are over Apuan’s brand of legislative representation.
During an informal question-and-answer session, one of Apuan’s friends voiced support for House Bill 1317, which aims to impede the Army’s proposed expansion of Fort Carson’s Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site. The bill prohibits the sale or lease of state-owned land within the proposed training area, which would riddle the acreage with off-limit areas.
“Governor, I want you to know that there are a lot of people in this town who support this bill,” asserted Bill Sulzman, a former Catholic priest and anti-war activist.
“Representative Apuan, exactly what was Fort Carson’s position on that bill? And who did you talk to on the base?” asked Kit Roupe, the Republican candidate who ran unsuccessfully against Apuan last year.
“I was opposed to the bill,” Apuan answered meekly. He explained that his vote against the measure was based on the loud outcry from his House District 17 constituents. HD 17 includes Fort Carson.
Dissatisfied by the answer, Roupe repeated her question.
“It was my own vote … and that was Fort Carson’s stand,” Apuan muttered.
As he observed the showdown from the sidelines, Rep. Larry Liston, R-Colorado Springs, whispered, “Apuan voted against it, but he never went to the House well and spoke against it. He didn’t do anything.”
Liston and other Republican lawmakers from El Paso County have wondered if Apuan secretly supported the bill and voted against it reluctantly.
Apuan is chairman and program director of the Pikes Peak Justice and Peace Commission, the Web site of which links to the Piñon Canyon Expansion Opposition Coalition, among other organizations. Sulzman is head of Citizens for Peace in Space, a subsidiary of the commission.
“I’m very disappointed in Representative Apuan’s lack of action and leadership on this bill. He’s supposed to be representing Fort Carson,” said Liston. “He talks like he supports the men and women at Fort Carson, but when push comes to shove — he’s AWOL.”
“To do what he’s done would be akin to me not fighting a bill to shut down UCCS, which is in my district,” Liston said.
“He neither went to the well to oppose this bill nor attempted to build a coalition against it,” said Liston. “He needs to march into Governor Ritter’s office to demand a veto on HB 1317.”
Rep. Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, was equally dismayed with Apuan’s lack of courage.
“Representative Apuan was silent on the issue. That’s an endorsement of the bill regardless of how he voted,” said Waller.
Waller said that Rep. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, “was silent, too, but he voted for the bill. At least he is honest.”
Rep. Amy Stephens, R-Colorado Springs, wasn’t the least bit surprised by Apuan’s silence.
“Apuan will do what his party tells him to do — pure and simple,” she said.
According to Rep. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, if Ritter signs HB 1317 into law, there will be harmful repercussions on national defense and on Colorado’s economy.
“It will make it difficult for Colorado to maintain or expand any of its military facilities in any future base alignment. It also will prevent our service members from getting the training they need to defend our nation,” said Gardner.
Gardner said that although Apuan didn’t speak against the bill, his failure to support it shows a lack of understanding of security implications at the national level and of economic implications at the state level.
“Politics — and particularly the populist brand of politics — sometimes trumps policy,” Gardner said.
Apuan refused repeated requests from The Colorado Statesman for him to answer questions about his stand on HB 1317 and to respond to criticisms aired by his fellow El Paso County lawmakers on the Republican side of the aisle.
The freshman legislator’s image began to tarnish in February when he promoted Senate Bill 108 – coined the FASTER (Funding Advancement for Surface Transportation & Economic Recovery) bill at a town hall meeting in February.
The bill, signed into law on March 2, will create jobs to repair 125 structurally deficient bridges. Apuan’s constituents were dismayed to hear that the work would be financed through a hike in the cost of vehicle registrations, adding $31 to $37 to annual registration fees for average-size cars.
“That isn’t a lot money to you. But it is to me, considering that I’ve been laid off,” protested Valerie Beverly. Her sentiment was echoed by others in the room.
Roupe, who was also at the February town hall, asked how many jobs would be created in El Paso County. Apuan and Sen. John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, said they didn’t know.
After touting the bill, Apuan cast the final vote against it on the third reading in the House. By then, however, his vote meant nothing — Democrats were assured it would pass despite his “nay.”
Republicans have targeted Apuan’s seat in 2010. During the next session, Apuan may be able to boost his stature in the House.
Meanwhile his record is being noted and assessed.
For example, Rep. Marsha Looper, R-Colorado Springs, said she was stunned that he cast a “yea” vote on House Bill 1274, which would have repealed the death penalty. Overall, Looper assessed his voting record as pro-union.
Others believe Apuan was usually cautious about casting votes — waiting to see whether a bill would pass before voting against his party line.
“Pass… pass… pass,” said Liston, mimicking Apuan’s response to votes on House bills.
As for the bill-signing ceremony, several Republican lawmakers called it a publicity gimmick to bolster Apuan’s image.
That same day, U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn held a task force meeting at his 5th Congressional District office to develop strategy for a war on HB 1317. The goal of the task force is to educate the public on the need for Fort Carson to expand the training site and to lobby Ritter to veto the bill.
The task force includes Republican legislators Sen. Dave Schultheis and Representatives Kent Lambert, Looper and Waller; El Paso County Commissioners Dennis Hisey, Amy Lathen, Sallie Clark and Wayne Williams; Brian Binn, director of military affairs for the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce; Scott Bryan, chairman of the Colorado Springs Economic Development Corp.; and Marvin Stein, a small business owner in Pueblo.
“We couldn’t come up with a strategy,” said a member, who wished to remain anonymous. “It would help if the Chamber would get defense contractors to have a one-on-one conversation with Governor Ritter. But, apparently, the Chamber doesn’t want to help get them to do it.”
“I can’t say that anything earthshaking happened,” said another member. “We did agree to open a dialogue with the ranchers and talk with people in Pueblo.”
Lamborn communications director, Catherine Mortensen, acknowledged that the task force didn’t write a mission statement, develop a strategy plan or set a date for the next meeting.
Lamborn has called Ritter and sent a letter imploring him to veto the legislation.
As for the public education and lobbying campaign — it’s a tight turnaround. Ritter hasn’t revealed his position on the bill, but it could be signed into law between now and early June.
“This misguided bill would prohibit the Colorado State Land board from selling or leasing land adjacent to the U.S. Army at the Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site (PCMS),” said Lamborn.
“The Army’s proposed military construction package is worth more than $140 million, with more than 100 new, full-time, permanent staff, resulting in a combined payroll and operations budget of $9 million a year. These economic benefits can only be realized if PCMS is expanded. While Las Animas County would benefit most directly from the expanded training site, there are larger implications for the state’s second largest employer, Fort Carson,” he said.
The Army had planned to add a Brigade Combat Team with about 5,000 soldiers and support personnel to Fort Carson. However, Lamborn said, that “hangs in the balance” — not only because of HB 1317, but also because of the Obama administration’s penchant for cutting the defense budget.
“If the 47th BCT is cut, it will mean the loss of 5,000 jobs in Colorado directly, with a large number of additional jobs lost indirectly,” Lamborn warned.