September 20, 2008

Key Players Behind Amendment 58

By Todd Hartman

Key players behind Amendment 58

Gov. Bill Ritter

Colorado's governor is investing political capital in a measure that he sees as an investment in the state's future through higher education, environmental preservation, infrastructure and alternative energy projects. He's also taking on a powerful foe in the oil and gas industry, which hasn't been happy with a parallel effort by the Ritter administration to toughen environmental and public health regulations on energy drilling. A victory here would strengthen Ritter. A defeat, though, would diminish Ritter while highlighting the influence of the energy industry and perhaps derail any future efforts to wring more state revenues from drilling companies.

Energy industry

Oil and gas companies have long enjoyed a friendly political climate in Colorado, most recently with eight years under former Gov. Bill Owens, a lobbyist for the industry before he became governor. But the tone is changing. Nationally, the industry has come under attack in the wake of record gas prices and record industry profits. And in Colorado, environmental groups and local governments have pushed back as a drilling boom stretching back five years continues to spread across broad swaths of the state. Industry has pushed back hard, promoting its $23 billion impact on the state's economy as it fights tougher regulations under the Ritter administration. It has spent $10 million, so far, to fight Amendment 58, calling it a tax increase that could spur companies to take their drilling elsewhere.

College presidents

The state's major college presidents are backing the amendment after being initially lukewarm. That's because much of the money raised, should the amendment pass, would go to fund scholarships. College presidents, including Bruce Benson of the University of Colorado, wanted money to go directly into operating budgets to shore up state higher education funding some argue is almost the lowest in the country. Even so, presidents acknowledge the additional money could help university budgets by putting more kids - and their tuition - into college. The initiative put Republican college presidents in a political pickle as it targets an industry typically allied with the party. That's particularly true for Benson, a lifelong oil man, who tried to persuade Ritter to avoid a ballot fight with such a well-funded opponent.

Environmental groups

The land conservation group Nature Conservancy is the biggest contributor backing the plan. That's not only because environmental groups are trying to protect land from drilling, but because 25 percent of the revenue generated by Amendment 58 would be set aside for projects the groups support, such as developing alternative energy sources and preserving wildlife habitat and open spaces. Environment Colorado, one of the state's largest activist groups, has told its members that the energy boom is a "big bust" for the state's wild lands and public health and that the money is needed to lessen the damage that will be left behind once the oil and gas is out of the ground.

Energy regions

Pockets of the state where energy drilling is the most intense are nervous about the amendment. Some fear eliminating the ability of companies to deduct local property taxes from state severance taxes will make drillers wary of working in areas - like parts of Weld County - where local property taxes are higher. Some fear companies exposed to paying local property taxes will work to defeat local bond issues for schools and roads. Industry officials have suggested higher taxes could force them to reduce investments in the state, another factor that has some counties worried about losing a big economic player. Even so, local governments also stand to benefit from the amendment, as it directs 15 percent of the new revenues into local projects to ease the impact of the energy industry on roads, sewers and other infrastructure.

Originally published by Todd Hartman, Rocky Mountain News.

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