State legislature considering hunter access fee hike

— A bill aimed at helping farmers and ranchers cope with big game damage to their crops continued to undergo changes in the House Committee on Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources this week.

Over the objection of some sportsmen's groups, the committee increased from $100 to $500 the maximum amount a landowner can charge a hunter in access fees and still qualify for game damage assistance from the Division of Wildlife.

The original Senate Bill 24, as introduced by Sen. Al White, R-Hayden, would have allowed a $2,500 access fee, but that provision was stripped before the measure left the Senate.

"The bill originally dealt with game damage, but it turned into a bill solely about game damage materials," said Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling. "Now it sets up a better process for landowners to put up prevention material so we don't have some of the conflicts we have right now."

DOW Director Tom Remington agreed the current $100 limit on access fees probably is too low and did not fight Sonnenberg's amendment to bump it to $500.

The bill still has to go to the House Appropriations Committee before it reaches the full House for debate.

The House Agriculture Committee also took final action this week on a hotly-contested bill aimed at saving the last live horse racing track in Colorado - Arapahoe Park in Aurora - and approved it for debate by the full House.

Senate Bill 158 would allow Arapahoe Park and two off-track betting parlors to simulcast greyhound races from other states even though there is no live greyhound racing left in Colorado. It is aimed at generating higher purse money that could then be funneled back into horse racing.

Colorado's greyhound breeders, who saw the last greyhound race track in Colorado close last June, complained the bill guarantees live dog racing never will return to Colorado if it is not required for simulcast racing.

Without the bill, advocates claim, all live racing will be gone in Colorado.

"We have only Arapahoe Park left," said lobbyist Dan Williams during an earlier committee hearing. "If this bill doesn't pass, the lights go out and everything goes away."

Rep. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, introduced another bill earlier this year to help the greyhound racing industry by reducing the state tax on betting on dog races from 4.5 percent to .75 percent.

It was killed after a contentious hearing in the House Finance Committee because of the potential loss in revenue to the state.

The House Agriculture Committee also figured prominently in the demise the week of a supplemental appropriations bill that would have led to an immediate increase in fees for such things as water well permits, dam safety inspections and administration of substitute water supply plans.

After weeks of political and parliamentary maneuvering, the House on Tuesday killed a bill that originally was intended to implement the higher fees March 1 to fund the state engineer's office during the current budget crisis.

Senate Bill 216 was one of dozens of so-called negative supplemental bills that lawmakers considered this year to plug a $600 million hole in this year's general fund budget. The budget deficit grew to more than $700 million after new revenue estimates were released last month.

"I am thrilled that we did not impose huge fee increases on our ag producers," Sonnenberg said after a voice vote to lay over the bill until June 6, well after the General Assembly adjourns.

Before the debate-ending motion, which was made by House Majority Leader Paul Weissmann, D-Louisville, rural lawmakers successfully defended their work on SB 216. The committee voted 8-4 last month to fund this year's proposed fee increases with $500,000 from leftover weatherization funds in the Governor Energy Office.

The fee increases proposed in the original bill included from $100 to $665 for a new water well; from $300 to $2,000 annually for the administration of a substitute water supply plan; and removed the $3,000 cap on dam design review.

The same fee increases, designed to raise $2.5 million a year to pay the expenses of the Division of Water Resources, are expected to be included in the budget for each of the next two fiscal years. The Senate is scheduled to begin debate on the budget bill next week.

Another bill (House Bill 1308) scheduled for consideration next by the House Appropriations Committee would replace some of the water user fee increases with funding from severance tax revenue. However, competition for severance tax dollars is especially fierce this year because of dwindling revenue.

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