Local legislators weigh in on 2009 General Assembly

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First-term House District 57 Rep. Randy Baumgardner says there isn't much he would change from the first half of the 2009 General Assembly, even though three of the four bills he introduced never made it out of committee.

"I jumped in with both feet; that's usually how I start something," said Baumgardner. R-Hot Sulphur Springs. "If I get knocked down, that's OK because I get back up and just keep on going."

The Northwestern Colorado lawmaker admits he tackled some highly controversial issues with his bills to pump life into greyhound racing with lower taxes and more simulcast racing days, change the distribution of federal mineral lease revenue, and expedite the permitting of new coal-fired power plants with an emphasis on clean coal technology.

The first two were killed in the House Finance Committee, and the third was postponed indefinitely in the House Transportation and Energy Committee.

Baumgardner, a rancher and retired Colorado Department of Transportation employee, said he had no regrets for taking on the tough issues despite never having held elective office before.

"I think I'm a better legislator for doing that," he said. "Once you get beat up a couple of times, which I certainly did, you start looking at things a whole lot different. You're a little more cautious, and you start to prepare a little better."

Baumgardner has one non-controversial bill awaiting what he expects to be Gov. Bill Ritter's signature into law. House Bill 1161 reduces from 45 to 30 days the time an oil and gas operator has to document valuation statements with the county assessor.

For the second half of the session, which concludes May 6, Baumgardner has been asked to be the House sponsor of two Senate bills dealing with conservation easements and third-party lien waivers.

Sen. Al White, R-Hayden, meanwhile, will continue to work on the state's budget, present and future, as one of six members on the Joint Budget Committee.

White said he is keeping his fingers crossed that the new revenue estimates to be released March 20 won't require any more cuts in the current fiscal year that ends June 30. The Ritter administration and legislators already have cut about $600 million for the 2008-09 budget through program cuts, cash fund transfers, hiring freezes and federal waivers.

"Our options are getting pretty thin as the year winds down," White said. "We may have to take even more drastic actions than we have already."

The JBC is finishing up work on the so-called "long bill" which itemizes state spending for fiscal year 2009-10. It and the companion School Finance Act usually dominate legislative discussions during the final weeks.

"I'm still uncertain how the federal stimulus money is going to affect us when it comes to budget balancing," White said. "We're learning more about that on a weekly basis, like where it will be allocated and what kind of strings it will have attached to it."

White said he has had a successful first half of the session because of his work on the budget cuts, including stopping the closure of the Rifle Correctional Center.

"Honestly, with only 192 beds, they (Department of Corrections) view it as inefficient from an operational standpoint and have wanted to close it for a while," he said. "They were using the budget crisis as an opportunity to account for that."

White said the JBC basically made a deal with the administration to put more money into the department's budget for shift differentials (i.e. more pay for graveyards shifts) and vacancy replacements.

"We acceded to the governor's request in those two situations, and they kept Rifle open," he said.

White counted several other cases in which he used his JBC position to prevent budget cuts or the transfer of cash funds into the general fund that had been recommended in the Ritter Administration's budget-reduction package. Among them were:

• The transfer of $500,000 in the Brand Board fund to the general fund;

• Taking $2 million out of a senior citizens program to provide Meals on Wheels;

• Transferring $30 million during two years from the Department of Local Government's local grant funds for energy impacted communities;

• Enacting a new cash fee to fund the program for instant background checks on firearms purchases; and

• Cut in half the recommended 50 percent reduction in the amount going to tourism advertising. "That saved about $1 million that will make a big difference in our ability to market our state," White said.

White and Baumgardner expressed frustration at not being able to stop or significantly change the administration's overhaul of oil and gas development rules.

Department of Natural Resources Director Harris Sherman and the acting director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, David Neslin, have consistently defended the new rules as balancing the industry with protection of public health, environment and wildlife.

"I don't see any change coming," White said. "The party in power has written the rules and they want to stick with them. There doesn't seem to be any ability politically to change them so they are what they are."

White acknowledged changing economic conditions that have led to oil and gas companies shutting down and moving drilling rigs out of state."The price of natural gas is a piece of it, the lack of our ability to take gas out of the Piceance Basin is a piece of it, and the credit crunch is a piece of it," White said. "But I think concern over these new rules is at least a third of reallocation of dollars out of the Piceance."

Baumgardner was among 22 Republican lawmakers who signed a letter asking Ritter to dismiss Sherman and Neslin because of their entrenchment on the rules. White did not sign the letter.

"I just think we need to take another direction on some of the rules," Baumgardner said. "The Division of Wildlife seems to me more of a control factor, and I'm concerned about the direction that's going with Harris Sherman in charge of that."

As for the rest of the session, White said he would be concentrating on the budget, while Baumgardner said he would try to become knowledgeable about every bill before him.

"If everything was just black and white it would be a lot easier," Baumgardner said. "As it is there's a lot of grey area down here. Sometimes you just have to go with the way your gut feels."

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