Hickenlooper, GOP lawmakers call for hiking gas tax
The Colorado Statesman
GRAND JUNCTION — At a roundtable meeting with Club 20 on Thursday, Gov. John Hickenlooper called for a 10- to 12-cent hike in the state gasoline tax in order to fund road and bridge repairs.
Two newly elected Western Slope legislators, both Republicans, state Reps. Yeulin Willett of Grand Junction and J. Paul Brown of Ignacio, joined the governor calling for a ballot proposal to ask Colorado voters to approve increasing the gas tax.
“Ask the people under TABOR, ‘Do you want to keep your refund or put it in the Highway Users Tax Fund?’” said Brown. “Do you know what kind of shape our roads are in? There’s no way to keep with inflation.”
Gov. John Hickenlooper talks with a Club 20 member as executive committee chairman Les Mergelman looks on at the Western Slope advocacy group’s roundtable meeting on Aug. 20 at the Mesa County Workforce Center in Grand Junction.
Photo by Ron Bain/The Colorado Statesman
Hickenlooper pointed out there had been no increase in the state gas tax since 1992, the year the Taxpayer Bill of Rights was approved by state voters. He observed that, historically, the Western Slope has opposed increasing the gas tax but said he saw that opposition lessening.
The governor, who was asked to respond to a host of topics, including questions about transportation, the Animas River spill, the threatened shutdown of the ColoWyo Mine and the struggling North Fork Valley coal mines, natural gas production, the Colorado Water Plan, the Gunnison sage grouse, forest management, TABOR rebates and other Western Slope issues. He explained he drank a bottle of water from the Animas River in an attempt to restore Colorado’s damaged reputation as a vacation destination and to convince the Environmental Protection Association to speed up reopening the river, rather than waiting seven days.
An EPA contractor has been blamed for accidentally triggering the release of 3 million gallons of toxic orange slush into the Animas on Aug. 5.
Hickenlooper said he was reluctant to file lawsuits against the EPA, either for the Animas River spill or for the Clean Power rules that could make it nearly impossible to burn coal in Colorado.
The ColoWyo mine is one of two that supply Tri-State Generation and Transmission’s coal-fired power plant at Craig. An environmental assessment of the mine will be released on Sept. 6, according to Tri-State representative Amy Robertson. She thanked the governor and Club 20 for their support for keeping the mine and the plant operating.
“There are other coal mines in the state that need help. The coal mines are cornerstones of the rural economy,” Robertson said, noting that it would takes millions of dollars to build a state-of-the-art coal-fired power plant that would meet the proposed EPA regulations. “Leaving coal in the ground means zero returns.”
The North Fork Valley has lost 500 high-paying jobs from its coal mines, Robertson said. The West Elk mine is operating, although with lower production levels, she said.
“I think coal’s going to be here a long time and this country is going to slowly continue moving toward clean energy,” Hickenlooper said. “I don’t think coal is going to go out of business.”
The governor was enthusiastic about the prospects of exporting another of Colorado’s fossil fuels, natural gas, and threw his support behind a WPX proposal to build a plant to produce liquified natural gas. LNG sells in Asia at four times the price in the United States, Hickenlooper said.
Natural gas “will continue to play a central role in reducing CO2 emissions and should be a part of any clean energy plan,” said Pam Roth, a WPX representative.
Although the meeting was friendly, Ouray County Attorney Marty Whitmore let Hickenlooper know that the Western Slope is not 100 percent behind his Colorado Water Plan.
“There is a piece of the Colorado Water Plan that western Colorado is concerned about,” she said, referring to another proposed trans-mountain water diversion in the plan’s seven points of consensus. “It is not a legally binding agreement.”
Whitmore expressed concern that a municipality with eminent domain rights, such as Denver, would use that method to take Western Slope water.
In response, Hickenlooper predicted more droughts and dry weather would be in the state’s future.
“Let’s look at our broader self-interest,” he said. “I will go back and revisit the seven points in the next few weeks to make sure they don’t imply that this is a done deal.”
The governor praised the work of John Swartout, a Republican serving in Hickenlooper’s administration and tasked with fighting an endangered listing for the Gunnison sage-grouse. Swartout predicted the Bureau of Land Management would rule in late September that an endangered listing for the bird is “not warranted.”
“No guarantee, but if we can pull this off it will be historic,” Hickenlooper said, referring to the efforts of local activists and agencies to improve grouse habitat without the intervention of the federal government.
Hickenlooper said the key to the local protection plan was to give the BLM an “iron-clad plan that can survive a Wild Earth Guardians lawsuit.”
The governor also endorsed a proposal to build a biomass power plant that would process beetle-killed trees. He called the argument that dead trees should remain standing “wrong.”
Regarding TABOR rebates due to taxpayers this year because of excess government revenues, Hickenlooper said, “I am worried about this budget coming up. We’re going to end up with larger rebates.”
The governor blamed the excess on fees, which courts have ruled are exempt from TABOR. He particularly stressed the role played by the Hospital Provider Fee, instituted in 2009 to fund health care for indigents.
“That fee is what put us over the top,” he said.
Hickenlooper also questioned the need for government grants to bring broadband Internet service to the Western Slope because it would compete with private companies trying to provide the same service.