State treasurer calls for consistent energy policy

Walker Stapleton
Walker Stapleton

Phil Castle, The Business Times

A statewide energy policy would offer more certainty to an industry that plays an important role in the Colorado economy, according to State Treasurer Walker Stapleton.

“We absolutely need a consistent policy,” Stapleton said during a presentation hosted by the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce.

While Stapleton discussed several issues related to the energy sector during the chamber’s monthly energy briefing, his wide-ranging talk also touched on transportation funding, health care and the state budget.

A Republican now in his second term as state treasurer, Stapleton is responsible for investing tax revenues and returning unclaimed property back to lawful owners. He also serves on the board of the Public Employee Retirement Association. But Stapleton also has been mentioned as potential gubernatorial candidate in 2018.

Stapleton said the energy industry directly and indirectly accounts for about 50,000 jobs in Colorado, yet faces what he called a “no man’s land” in terms of energy policy in the state.

What was billed as a compromise last year to avert a battle over competing energy development ballot measures won’t amount to much of a compromise if rules governing energy development ultimately are allowed to vary from county to county, Stapleton said. That could result in uncertainty that would prompt some exploration and production operators to move elsewhere, he added.

A task force was created to address land use conflicts related to energy development as an alternative to what was shaping up as a fierce election battle.

Two proposed ballot measures would have bolstered local control over energy development by adding what was dubbed as an environmental bill of rights to the state  constitution and requiring a 2,000-foot setback for drilling operations from homes.

Walker said he supported two counter measures proposed in the State Legislature, one that would have required a study of the economic costs of ballot initiatives and another that would have withheld state oil and gas revenues from communities banning drilling. “I would like to see those back on the ballot,” he said.

It’s still unclear what will result from the task force and its recommendations to the Legislature, but Stapleton said a consistent statewide energy policy would be helpful.

Meanwhile, infrastructure remains a pressing need in many areas of Colorado, Stapleton said — including roads and bridges, but also Internet access.

Stapleton said he supports a plan to renew state transportation bonds that could raise $3.5 billion for road projects over the next 20 years.

But officials with the Colorado Department of Transportation have come out against that plan because the bonds would be paid back through revenues from gasoline taxes — money they say is needed for ongoing operations and maintenance.

One alternative to the bonds would be to ask voters to increase gasoline taxes. But polling shows voters don’t support such tax increases, Stapleton said. “That is a nonstarter from a policy standpoint.”

Meanwhile, there’s a possibility the state could offer low-interest loans to areas involved in efforts to improve broadband infrastructure, Stapleton said. Under one federal program, subsidies of up to
85 percent are available to connect schools to broadband systems. The loans would help communities come up with the 15 percent match, he said.

As for health care, Stapleton said many of the county officials with which he’s talked across the state are concerned about paying for the expanding Medicaid rolls that have followed federal health care reforms. He questioned whether the added liability for the growing rolls is ultimately sustainable if something were happen to the subsidies that support the program.

Meanwhile, the Colorado health exchange developed under federal reforms is losing money, Stapleton said, although an audit has yet to determine how much.

Colorado also faces ongoing issues with its state budget, Stapleton said — issues he described as “many and mighty.”

Those issues are a result in large part of what he called a “Gordian knot” of provisions in the state constitution, including amendments limiting tax collections and spending, governing property tax collections and dictating minimum funding levels for public education.

While taxing and spending limits imposed under the so-called Taxpayer Bill of Rights are “the popular whipping post for our budget problems,” Stapleton said he supports the requirement that voters approve tax increases. That places the onus on state government to explain why a tax increases is needed, he said.

It would help, though, if the State Legislature would address funding for infrastructure, health care and public education sooner in the session rather than later, Stapleton said. “Let’s have some of the important decisions early in the session.”