Candidates get down to business at forum

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Candidates running for election to the Mesa County Commission and Colorado Legislature tout their business experience as well as their positions on issues affecting businesses.

They differ, though, on some of the specifics, including the role of government in promoting job growth.

The Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce hosted a breakfast forum featuring five candidates running for two seats on the Mesa County Commission and three more candidates running for two seats in the Colorado Legislature.

Jana Bingham Gerow, John Justman and John Leane are all running for election as Mesa County commissioner in District 1. Gerow and Leane are unaffiliated. Justman is a Republican. Democrat David Edwards opposes Republican Rose Pugliese in the race for Mesa County commissioner in District 3.

In two races for the Colorado Legislature, Democrat Dan Robinson faces Republican Ray Scott in House District 55. Scott served one term in District 54 before redistricting changed the boundaries.

Libertarian Tim Menger opposes Republican Jared Wright  in House District 54.

Wright, who has faced questions and scrutiny about his performance as a Fruita police officer as well as his personal finances, declined to participate in the forum, chamber officials announced.

Many of the candidates cited their business experiences as part of their qualifications for election.

Gerow said she worked in construction management for several large companies before starting her own business in 1998, so she’s familiar with the operations of both large and small firms. County commissioners assume an executive role in overseeing large staffs and budgets, she added. “It’s like being a CEO for a major corporation.”

Justman said he’s worked as a farmer and small business owner for 30 years with a track record of success over that span. He’s also served on the Fruita Co-Op board and Mesa County Planning Commission. Justman said his experience working on the Grand Valley Irrigation District board gives him a better understanding of water issues.

Leane served as a county commissioner between 1989 and 1993. He acknowledged the county has changed since then, but said he still knows where to look to find answers. And his past term as a commissioner would help him in a new term, he added. “I could go to work on day 1.”

Edwards said his experience includes work as an accountant and auditor as well as the chief financial officer of several large hospitals. He also serves as a trustee and mayor pro tempore for the Town of Palisade. “I’ve made a difference in every organization I’ve been with.”

Edwards said he’s both a fiscal conservative and activist who would promote business expansion.

Pugliese, a lawyer who operates a practice in Grand Junction, described herself as a small business owner.

Menger said he and his wife owned a business for about three years before closing down the operation to take jobs. He praised entrepreneurs who’ve stuck with their ventures. “You are the winners.”

Having worked in many lines of employment, Menger said he’s learned a lot about the needs of different industries.

Robinson, a Grand Junction lawyer, was co-founder and the first executive director of Mesa County Partners. He subsequently has served on the Mesa County School District 51 Board and Colorado Mesa University Board of Trustees.

Scott said his experiences in both opening and closing businesses give him an important perspective. “I have a broad understanding of what you do.”

Even as they cited their business experiences, the candidates also touted differing positions on issues affecting businesses.

Asked directly how they’d promote job growth, the five candidates running for county commissioner offered different ideas.

“What we can do is stay out of the way of business,” Pugliese said, adding that  she’d work to limit regulations and ask business owners what county regulations or policies hinder hiring.

Edwards countered that government can play a role in encouraging job growth. He cited as an example efforts to promote plastics manufacturing using natural gas extracted in the region.

Mesa County should have applied for more federal stimulus funding for local projects that would have created jobs, he added.

Leane said his economic plan includes efforts to increase tourism, the creation of a part-time county position that would serve as a “concierge” for business development and cash bonuses for small businesses that hire at least four people on a full-time basis for a year and pay them at least $15 an hour.

Gerow and Justman said they’d work with the Grand Junction Economic Partnership, Colorado Mesa University and local chambers of commerce to help promote job growth. Justman added, though, that small business owners need more certainty on a national level

The three candidates running for the Colorado Legislature also offered differing viewpoints.

“We can’t legislate a job. … But what we can do is make things much easier for the business community,” Scott said.

Scott said his proposals for a second term include an effort to review and reduce state regulations by 20 percent, offer a severance tax holiday for energy production in Western Colorado and sell state buildings that are no longer needed in part to reduce maintenance costs.

Robinson said a new approach is needed to replace partisan bickering at the Capitol. “What’s needed is a thoughtful, measured, intelligent approach to problem-solving.”

Robinson said he’s interested in practical solutions to problems regardless of whether they come from Republicans or Democrats and that he’d represent everyone in the district regardless of their  political affiliation.

Robinson called for shorter legislative sessions and suggested the savings could be used to offer low-interest loans to small businesses facing crisis situations. He also proposed summer seminars for baby boomers and seniors at CMU as a way to increase tourism.

Menger said he would oppose new taxes as well tax increases disguised as fees.

All three Statehouse candidates said they support enterprise zones offering state tax credits to businesses in those zones that hire new employees and invest in equipment. The three also said they support the construction of an interchange on Interstate Highway 70 at 29 Road.

They three differed, though, on a proposal to offer video lottery terminals and horse racing to Western Colorado.

Scott said he supported the proposal last session and would do so again if elected to a second term. Robinson called the proposal a “terrible idea” Scott promulgated on behalf of special interests. Menger said he’d be willing to consider the proposal, but also said he’s concerned about additional gambling in the region.