DENVER — For all their recent protestations about Democrats allegedly waging a war on rural Colorado, Senate Republicans shot down a bill Tuesday aimed squarely at helping less populated regions of the state still trying to recover from bad economic times, a Western Slope senator said.
That happened when, without giving any reason, three Senate Republicans killed a bill designed to offer emergency grants to help people in the least populated regions of the state stay in their communities when they lose their jobs, as many Delta County coal miners did last year.
The measure, SB36, would have created a $2 million program to provide emergency grants to rural parts of the state that experience major layoffs or business closures.
Introduced by Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, the bill was designed to help such people as Delta County residents with re-employment training or other supportive services that keep them in their communities, rather than being forced to uproot to more populated cities to find new jobs.
“The reality is that there are still communities facing job losses, and I believe we can find ways to help rural Colorado maintain itself,” Donovan said. “This bill has gained broad support across party lines, across industry, even across county and city lines. A thousand jobs lost in Gunnison and Delta counties would equate to 19,000 jobs lost in a metro area. If 19,000 jobs were lost in Denver, we would be talking about little else.”
But the GOP-controlled Senate State, Veterans & Military Affairs Committee killed the bill on a party-line vote even though no one testified against it.
In fact, the bill had support from Colorado Counties Inc., the Colorado Municipal League, the Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado and the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, representatives of which all testified before the committee saying virtually the same thing: This bill will help rural Colorado.
The measure also had support from the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association and commissioners in Delta, Gunnison, Lake and Pitkin counties, all of which wrote to the committee urging it to support the measure.
Supporters said they were concerned more layoffs are to come, adding that when they hit less populated areas they have a devastating impact on other parts of those communities, such as retail businesses, hospitals and schools.
Jim Cole, a well known lobbyist in the statehouse for the Colorado Oil & Gas Association, said his group was discussing the bill, saying the industry’s long-term future in employing workers in rural Colorado was uncertain given the current low price of oil and natural gas.
“We don’t have a position on it, but I just wanted to make you aware we are looking at this bill in light of sustained oil prices,” Cole told the committee. “At $50 (a barrel) oil, who knows what’s going to happen, and it may be an opportunity to help support some of the basins if they are impacted.”
Regardless, the three Republicans on the committee thanked Donovan for carrying the bill, but said they would be voting against it, giving no reason as to why.
“Those voices were ignored in the hearing,” Donovan said. “Partisan politics won (Tuesday) and rural Colorado lost. People have dedicated their lives to these rural communities, and they deserve a fair shot at preserving them.”
Donovan won a hotly contested race last fall for her Senate district, which includes Delta County.
In an interview after the hearing, Sen. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction and chairman of the five-member panel, said it would cost too much, but then said it didn’t go far enough in helping more of rural Colorado.
He then couldn’t explain how expanding the bill would make it better without costing even more, but denied that politics was involved.
Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling and a member of the panel, had drafted an amendment to the bill to use severance tax dollars to pay for it, but declined to offer the change when the time came during the committee hearing to consider amendments.
Half of all severance tax revenues go to helping communities impacted by mineral extraction, such as coal in Delta County.
Just before voting on the measure, Scott put the hearing in a brief recess and walked into the hallway with Sonnenberg to discuss the bill in a private meeting. The two immediately returned and announced they wouldn’t be supporting the measure, but didn’t say why.
“I wanted to understand why he pulled the amendment,” Scott said of his private meeting with Sonnenberg. “We needed that amendment on there to pass the bill. There’s a lot of things I could have done, but I didn’t. The bill didn’t pass on its merits.”
Scott, however, refused to say why he didn’t offer the amendment himself. As chairman, he had the power to do so.
Regardless, Donovan said she isn’t done with the idea of helping rural Colorado.
She has another measure aimed at something similar that she’s sponsoring with House Republicans, including Rep. Yeulin Willett, R-Grand Junction.
That measure, HB1177 introduced just last week, would create a Rural Economic Development Initiative Grant Program to help diversify the economies in rural parts of the state.
If approved, the measure would provide up to $3 million in grants a year to help up to 30 of the most highly economically distressed areas of the state.