By Marianne Goodland
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
Monday’s dialogue between the General Assembly members and the congressional delegation also touched on the federal deficit, banking reform and problems with federal payments regarding forest and mineral leases.
The congressional delegation pointed to their accomplishments in the past two years. U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-CD 1, noted that Obama had reversed the restrictions on stem cell research put into place by President George W. Bush and that she was working to codify the changes in statute. The House also has passed an in-depth climate change bill and a comprehensive overhaul of food safety regulations, but both bills are sitting in the Senate. DeGette also mentioned the passage of health care legislation, to a smatter of applause and boo’s from the legislators.
“When our delegation is unified on interests for Colorado, we are a very powerful force,” said U.S. Rep. Ed Perlmutter, D-CD 7. He pointed to the new Veterans Administration Hospital that will be built at Fitzsimons, an effort begun by Udall and then-Sen. Wayne Allard. The delegation also has worked to improve or restore funding for the National Renewable Energy Labs in Golden, he explained.
U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-CD 2, discussed reauthorization and changes to No Child Left Behind, which he said he expected would happen this spring, and immigration reform. “I know it is frustrating for states” because immigration is fundamentally an issue that the federal government is responsible for, he said. But he also encouraged the General Assembly to pass legislation granting instate tuition to illegal immigrants.
Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass and Rep. Ed Vigil, D-Alamosa, pleaded for help from the delegation in dealing with a problem with federal forest and mineral lease revenue payments for rural counties. According to Jarrod Biggs of the Department of Local Affairs, the issue has to do with how the state currently reports the payments it gets from the U.S. Forest Service in the form of revenues from timber production that takes place in national forest lands. Counties where those activities take place get 100 percent of those funds but must distribute at least 5 percent of it to schools. In 2009, according to the state auditor, counties collected $18.3 million, but distributed more than 30 percent of the monies, or about $6.4 million, to their school districts.
Counties must then report the monies they receive from the Forest Service to the federal government for calculations of PILT payments. PILT are federal payments to local governments that help offset losses in property taxes due to nontaxable federal lands within their boundaries, according to the Department of the Interior.
Biggs explained that Colorado recently found out that its interpretation on how to report the forest revenue was outdated and fixing it could negatively impact counties that give large portions of their forest revenues to their school districts. Biggs said the state wanted to exclude from its calculation monies from the forest payments that counties give to their school districts. If the state cannot continue to use that interpretation, the impact to the counties that provide additional funds to school districts could be in the neighborhood of $5.4 million this year. Another $8.5 million in discretionary funds potentially could be in jeopardy for counties that receive federal mineral lease payments from the state, if FML dollars were subject to the same kind of interpretation, Biggs said.
Vigil noted that some of the poorest counties in the state, Conejos and Rio Grande, are heavily supported by the PILT and forest revenues. The state auditor reported that Conejos County got $773,000 in 2009 but could lose more than $730,000 of it; Rio Grande County got $315,000 but could lose all but $18,000 of it. Perlmutter told Schwartz to put together a congressional letter to the Department of the Interior, stating that he didn’t know whether the issue had risen to the point where it needed to be dealt with in law. “We know someone at Interior,” quipped DeGette, drawing laughter from the audience (the reference is to former Colorado Senator Ken Salazar, who heads the department).
Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver, asked the delegation to keep their eyes on banking reform, particularly “Too Big to Fail,” which he said the country could not repeat. He also mentioned the problems with traffic congestion on I-70 into the mountains, noting one study that said people were no longer going to the mountains because of the traffic problems. “We need guidance [from you] on what the state wants to do about this,” replied DeGette. Polis said that a solution to I-70 is “some years away” but that all the interested stakeholders need to get together on a plan.
Sen. Mike Kopp, R-Lakewood, applauded the opportunity to talk with the delegation and said it is something that should happen on a monthly basis. He also asked the delegation to support constitutional reform that would reverse the trend of growing federal power. States ought not be an outpost of the federal government, he said. U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-CD 6, said he is uncomfortable with opening up the entire constitution and instead suggested legislators supports a balanced budget amendment. “If we had to balance the budget” the federal government wouldn’t use states only as a conduit for federal spending, he said. U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-CD 5, also voiced his support for a balanced budget amendment.
There was a bit of partisan sniping among the delegation over the federal deficit, with Lamborn pointing out how high the federal deficit was growing under Obama. Perlmutter noted that the federal budget had been balanced with a surplus in 2000, but the deficit swelled under George W. Bush, with two wars and tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans. DeGette told the audience that a balanced budget amendment would not leave room for emergencies but that reducing the national debt and deficit reduction ought to be top priorities.