Kelly Sloan, The Business Times
Members of a Western Colorado coalition met with state legislators and other officials to address a list of 10 concerns. But the overarching concern during two days of meetings in Denver was a West Slope economy that lags behind the Front Range.
Steve Reynolds, president of Club 20, said he hoped the group delivered the message recovery remains slow in Western Colorado and the Legislature and state government can impede progress.
If nothing else, the conversation itself is an important one, Reynolds said. “The best thing about Club 20 being over here is to retain the relationships and dialogue and bring the voice of the Western Slope to the State Capitol.”
State Rep. Don Coram, a Republican from Montrose, was among the legislators who encouraged Club 20 to remain involved in the process. “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”
Members of Club 20 — a coalition of businesses, individuals and government entities that advocates for the interests of the region — met with a variety of officials during its latest legislative trip.
State Reps. Ray Scott of Grand Junction, Jared Wright of Fruita and Bob Rankin of Carbondale, all Republicans, joined with Coram in discussing the sluggish economic recovery in Western Colorado. They cited as problems over-regulation of key industries already struggling due to lower commodity prices, difficult terrain and restrictive policies on federally managed land.
Roxane White, chief of staff for Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, present a different viewpoint on the economy in reiterating the points her boss raised in his State of the State address in January. Colorado has climbed from 40th to fourth in a ranking of state job growth.
While acknowledging the Western Slope was “a bit behind,” White repeated Hickenlooper’s statement the monthly unemployment rate has dropped 30 percent in Mesa County and Grand Junction ranks among the top 20 metropolitan areas nationwide for tech startups.
Bonnie Peterson, executive director of Club 20, thanked the governor’s office for its support on local efforts to protect sage grouse and grouse habitat without imposing harsh federal restrictions. But Peterson challenged White’s take on the economy. “Nearly every municipality in our region is economically on the ropes.”
Club 20 officials said they had 10 main concerns they wished to see the Colorado Legislature address this session, chief among them rural broadband service and state cooperation regarding federal land management decisions.
On the second issue, Rankin said his bill provide for just that. The issue stems from ongoing concerns involving the potential listing of sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act and federal restrictions on agricultural and energy development activities.
Also on the Club 20 list of concerns were the development of a statewide water plan; regulatory relief for the energy industry; improved maintenance of the state’s transportation infrastructure; establishing priorities for higher education funding, as well as focusing capital construction dollars on projects, including state colleges and universities, beyond the I-25 corridor; lowering health insurance premiums on the Western Slope, and simplifying the health care exchange; and economic development for Western Colorado.
On this last point, Club 20 called on Gov. Hickenlooper to meet with representatives from the West Slope to discuss ways to improve the regional economy.
Scott strongly supported the organization for its call for a high-level economic summit with the governor, something he asked for in a letter in December. “We need to talk about economic development ideas that go beyond grapes, mountain bikes and tourism,” Scott said.
Wright weighed in on the public lands question, referring to proposed legislation to cede public lands back to the state. “The fiscal note predicts a $90 million increase in state revenues alone” if the measure were to be adopted, Wright said.
The largest draw of the Club 20 trip was a panel discussion on oil and natural gas featuring Paul Enockson of the law firm Baker Hostetler; Tim Wigley, chief executive officer of the Western Energy Alliance; and Tisha Schuller, CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association.
The panel discussed the potential for a ballot measure proposing a statewide ban on the use of hydraulic fracturing in oil and natural gas production. The initiative could transfer authority to ban fracking and other operations to local jurisdictions.
The speakers said a ban would be potentially devastating to Colorado’s economy by creating an unpredictable and unstable patchwork of different regulations for energy development across the state. Schuller said the measure would put 8 percent of the Colorado economy at risk and create an “extremely risky investment environment.”
Wigley said educational efforts are critical in shaping public sentiment on the issue. “We want to work with people across the state to let them know we are responsible operators.”
Schuller said the involvement of Club 20 members in the debate is important as well. “Groups like Club 20 need to be engaged in the conversation. People don’t want to hear the facts from me, but from people like you.”
The Club 20 trip to Denver concluded with a discussion on the the economic outlook with Charlie Brown, director of the Colorado Futures Center at Colorado State University, and Phyllis Resnick, lead economist at the center.
Brown and Resnick discussed changes in the spending habits of the newest generation entering the work force as evolving from “wanting to own things to wanting to own the services those things provide.” They said there’s a lack of interest among millenials in purchasing homes and cars. Moreover, student loan debt has become the second highest source of household debt, second only to mortgages.