Legislature session had 'its ups and downs'

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— Term-limited District 8 Sen. Jack Taylor believes the 2008 session of the Colorado Legislature did a good job of protecting local impact severance tax funds until asked about Gov. Bill Ritter's support of higher taxes on oil and gas production to fund college scholarships.

"The governor campaigned on the fact that severance tax dollars would go back to impacted areas," said Taylor, R-Steamboat Springs. "I doubt all those scholarships are going to kids in impacted communities."

Ritter has thrown his whole-hearted support behind a petition drive for a November ballot issue on severance taxes. It would ask voters to end the credit that oil and gas companies get for paying local property taxes on land and equipment.

Eliminating the ad valorem tax credit would raise an estimated $200 million to $250 million in severance tax revenue.

Under the Ritter plan, which is backed by a consortium of educational, environmental and business groups, 60 percent of the additional revenue would go to so-called "Colorado Promise" scholarships. The rest would be used to mitigate local impacts of energy development and support wildlife habit and renewal energy projects.

"We've done all these things to keep kids in school. At the end of the day, we have to have something for them," Ritter said. "This is meaningful money that will go to those working families who can't afford higher tuition rates."

Taylor focused on the impact of energy development for much of his past of 16 years in the Colorado Legislature. He also battled the Division of Wildlife with a couple of bills that eventually passed in watered-down versions and remained a staunch advocate of Colorado's doctrine of prior appropriation when it comes to water rights.

"The session went fast and had its ups and downs," he said. "One of the ups was doing a decent job of getting as much money as possible back to the impacted communities. That's what severance tax is for."

Ritter signed Taylor's two hunting-related bills. The least controversial was one to extend the lives of two game management programs for elk in northwest Colorado and for antelope in eastern Colorado.

However, the original version of Taylor's Senate Bill 69 was highly contentious and dubbed the "poacher protection act" because of its impact on alleged hunting violations. The bill grew out of a felony conviction of an Evergreen man who legally shot a mountain goat but left its carcass on the side of a mountain.

A significantly weakened version of Taylor's bill eventually won legislative approval.

"It didn't change (DOW practices) as much as we would have liked," Taylor said. "But it changed enough to say the division is going to have to take a closer look at this before they start piling on more charges and fees."

One of Taylor's final votes on the Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee was against a measure that would have allowed South Platte River well users to take advantage of this winter's heavy snowpack by expanding the use of substitute water supply plans.

Senate Bill 247 was introduced only five days before adjournment and killed a few hours after its introduction on a 4-3 committee vote.

"It was not an east-west thing, but asking for this the last few days of the session is not the way to change Colorado water law," Taylor said.

The man who hopes to replace Taylor in the Senate is Rep. Al White, R-Hayden, who just completed is eighth year in the Colorado House. He also opposes the ballot initiative on severance taxes but for a different reason than Taylor.

"I'm not going to suggest we don't need to review severance taxes, but it's premature to do it on this ballot," White said. "The industry is facing one of the most sweeping regulatory reforms in Colorado history and needs to get a feel for how that will affect their cost of doing business in Colorado."

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission will hold formal hearings next month on draft rules for adding protections for wildlife, environment and public health in the permitting process.

"The industry might be more willing to come to the table about severance taxes once they know if the new rules will be a barrier to doing business," White said.

Many of White's bills during the 2008 session were appropriations measures introduced on behalf of the Joint Budget Committee. White was the lone House Republican on the 6-member JBC.

His biggest accomplishment, however, may have been brokering a compromise on the only significant proposed constitutional amendment to emerge from the legislature this year.

Voters will be asked in November to approve a major change in the way citizen initiatives get on the ballot.

Currently, it takes 76,000 valid signatures to get a measure on the ballot to amend either the constitution or statute. All the signatures can come from any geographic area.

Senate Concurrent Resolution 3, which White sponsored in the House and mustered the two-thirds majority vote required for passage, would raise the signature requirement for a constitutional change to about 93,000, with a minimum of 8 percent of the signatures coming for each of Colorado's seven congressional districts.

The signature threshold would be reduced for a change in the state law and they still could come from one geographic area.

"I've been interested in doing something with the constitutional process for a long time," White said. "There's a lot of crap in the constitution because it's too easy to amend. There's no difference in the threshold for changing the constitution or statute and there should be."

White and Taylor sponsored successful bills to help communities cope with the catastrophic damage to forests from the mountain pine beetle. However, they admitted that without federal help, the state's efforts are miniscule.

"We could have spent hundreds of millions and not do enough," White said. "All we did was nip around the edges, helping to clear wildland interfaces and mitigate the damage to watersheds that will ultimately occur if there is a fire."

Taylor and White said they also would have voted against a bi-partisan plan to increase car registration and rental car fees to fund repairs to unsafe bridges if the plan had not been dropped.

"The bridges bill was a no-brainer," Taylor said. "We all got hundreds of phone calls and e-mails against it. It would be hard to vote against our constituents on that one."

Taylor also said he regretted not being able to reverse what he sees as a breakdown of integrity in the legislative process. In his final speech to the Senate late Tuesday, he challenged his colleagues to stand by their promises.

"If I give my word to support a bill and then vote another way, I can never be trusted again," Taylor said. "That part of the process is breaking down. I also stopped talking to some of these people in the lobby who work for companies that believe they can lobby both sides of a bill. That's not ethical."

In a final self-assessment, Taylor said, "I believe I always had the ability to reach across the (political) aisle to get things done."

The Democratic chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee agreed.

"Jack was never on the other side of me," said Sen. Jim Isgar, D-Hesperus. "We did an awfully lot of things together and when we went to the microphone together, it took the partisanship out of it."

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