Meet your state lawmakers | AspenTimes.com

Meet your state lawmakers

A long-running joke suggests that Aspen should rename itself the People’s Republic of Aspen in deference to its left-leaning politics.

But in the state Legislature – where everything from Highway 82 funding to water rights issues affecting the Roaring Fork River gets settled – Aspen relies on two men who are anything but a couple of “lefties.”

Aspen and all of Pitkin County are relying on a Republican potato farmer from the San Luis Valley and a Republican road paver from Glenwood Springs to represent their interests in the state Senate and House.

How exactly did that happen?

Last year, the highly political process of legislative reapportionment brought big changes for Aspen – one that made perfect sense and one that left people scratching their heads.

In the House, lines were redrawn to place the entire Roaring Fork Valley in one district. Supporters said that made sense because the valley has many shared interests.

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The upper Roaring Fork Valley was added to the district held by Glenwood Springs Republican Gregg Rippy, who was appointed to Russell George’s seat in 2000 after term limits forced George to step down. Rippy first won election late that year and won re-election in November 2002.

The boundary adjustment to Rippy’s district made geographic sense, but it also added a bunch of upper valley Democrats to Rippy’s Republican-dominated constituency.

Democrats, who enjoyed a majority in the Senate at the time, largely influenced the reapportionment process.

“Politically it made it a swing district,” said Rippy.

House District 61 stretches from Silt to Aspen in the Colorado River and Roaring Fork valleys. It also includes Gunnison and Hinsdale counties. By Rippy’s count, there are 15,000 Republicans, 14,000 Democrats and 22,000 unaffiliated registered voters in the district.

In the Senate, the results of redistricting were a little more puzzling. Rural Colorado lost population to urban areas between 1990 and 2000, so rural districts increased in size. Senate District 5, represented by Lewis Entz, a Republican farmer from the tiny town of Hooper, went from large to immense. Entz now represents 11 counties, from Alamosa in south-central Colorado to Delta County in the west.

Making a loop around his district requires a drive of 463 miles, he noted. During the winter, when Highway 82 is closed over Independence Pass, Pitkin County is even farther out of the way.

“Aspen is one tough place to get to,” Entz said, though he vowed to visit come summer.

Pitkin County is one of his few areas that isn’t heavily farmed or ranched. There is a dichotomy between his ranching and farming constituents, who are on the ropes due to drought and economics, and the second-home haven of Aspen.

When he learned the results of redistricting last year, Entz wondered, “What in the world am I doing in Pitkin County?”

Entz keeps them guessing

Rippy won election for two years and Entz for four in the 2002 election, so Pitkin County must learn to get along with Republicans to accomplish anything in the Legislature.

But are the two Republicans willing, or capable, of representing the People’s Republic of Aspen? When The Aspen Times visited them recently at the state capitol, both men insisted they can.

“I’ve always represented people, regardless of affiliation,” said Entz.

That appears to be more than just a convenient political platitude. Sam Mamet, associate director of the Colorado Municipal League and a 25-year lobbyist, said Entz places the interests of his district before the interests of his party. And he uses his independence to his advantage.

“When the Senate is split 18 (Republicans) to 17 (Democrats), that makes you a player,” Mamet said of Entz’s role. “I don’t think he’s held in contempt because he’s an independently minded individual.”

Entz has shown numerous times since this session started in January that he doesn’t always toe the party line. Last month he was the only Republican among the senate majority of 18 to vote against an experimental school voucher program for Colorado.

Vouchers allow parents to send their kids to schools of their choice and get a credit for some or all of the property tax they pay to their local school district.

“I hate ’em,” Entz explained.

He has numerous small public schools in his district and believes they need all the funding they can get. They won’t be able to budget for vouchers because they wouldn’t know how many students will use them, he said.

The state senate narrowly passed the voucher proposal, 18 to 17.

On an even bigger issue for Aspen and Pitkin County last week, Entz again broke ranks with his party and voted against a bill that would have made it tougher for municipalities and counties to force developers to build affordable housing.

He was one of only three senate Republicans to vote against the anti-affordable housing bill. It was defeated 20-15.

Entz said he listened to his constituency on the matter. He was heavily lobbied by officials from Pitkin County and Crested Butte, among others, to oppose the bill. He deferred to their wishes.

One of the people doing the lobbying was Pitkin County Commissioner Mick Ireland, a liberal Democrat. When asked via e-mail by The Aspen Times to assess his experiences with Entz, Ireland replied that the senator always takes the time to meet with him when he visits the capitol and responds to written messages.

“Working with Senator Entz has been a pleasant surprise,” Ireland wrote. “I did not know him prior to this session, as we are new to his district. While I do not agree with him on all issues, I have felt that he was very attentive to our arguments …”

Entz, a former Marine and an affable man of 71, indicated he relishes the role of a maverick who often defies expectations.

“They don’t know where I’m at,” he said. “I keep ’em guessing.”

Rippy also shows flexibility

Rippy also portrayed himself as able to vote in a way that is best for his constituency rather than his party. He said he feels his voting reflects the general profile of his district.

“I am certainly more moderate than some of my Republican colleagues,” he said. “[On social issues] I’m more left than most of my colleagues. I’m probably regarded as too soft for them.”

Rippy was the only Republican in the House who voted March 27 against a bill that would remove protections for gays and lesbians seeking medical treatment under rules set by the Medical Services Board. The controversial bill would mean a doctor couldn’t be disciplined for refusing to treat someone simply because he or she is gay.

Observers noted that Rippy supported the bill when individual votes weren’t recorded, but then voted against it when votes were recorded. Rippy explained that he voted for the measure so it would receive full debate on the floor, but voted against it because it was wrong.

“It sends absolutely the wrong message – a message of discrimination,” he said.

In another example of going counter to his party, Rippy is trying to retain funding for the Colorado Council for the Arts at a time when the cash-strapped state is attempting to cut its budget. The arts council doles out grants for individual artists and organizations across the state.

Funding for the organization was eliminated in the proposed budget for 2003. Rippy hopes to restore at least $613,000 in funding – the minimum needed to secure matching grants from the federal government.

Rippy said the arts council funding is important to his district. Arts and cultural organizations employ people and attract tourists, he said.

“I’m going to have to get Democrats to do this,” Rippy said. “This is not a Republican issue.”

Rippy is also trying to amend state water law to allow water users to temporarily cease using their water without permanently surrendering their water rights. That bill is a response, in part, to a situation last summer in which the Roaring Fork River was running practically dry, but the owners of the Salvation Ditch in Aspen couldn’t stop their water diversions for fear of losing their water rights.

Construction bill at eye of storm

But Rippy’s performance during the 2003 session will be best remembered for a bill that would limit litigation against contractors for construction defects. Rippy said he has been seeking passage of such a bill all three of the sessions he has been in office.

Different versions of the bill were passed this session by the House and Senate, so a conference committee patched the differences and sent it back Tuesday to the full Senate. It will go back to the House if it survives the Senate.

Rippy said two major provisions that he proposed are still part of the bill. The bill requires a property owner to give “construction professionals,” such as contractors and architects, a list of alleged defects and give them the opportunity to make repairs or reach a cash settlement before litigation can be considered. The bill also limits judgments to actual damages lost, not “probable damages” that could result. And finally, the bill limits treble damage claims, above actual damages, to $250,000 including lawyer’s fees.

The construction industry is lobbying hard for the bill’s passage, and lawyers are doggedly pursuing its defeat.

Supporters contend the bill will control financial awards stemming from litigation and make insurance premiums more reasonable for builders. Critics contend it strips homeowners of basic protections.

The debate has also raised questions about Rippy’s allegiances. He is president of Grand River Construction Co., a road-paving firm owned by his family. It employs 30 workers and operates asphalt plants in Gypsum and south of Glenwood Springs.

The Denver Post disclosed recently that Rippy has received at least $17,650 in campaign funds from groups affiliated with homebuilders since he took office in 2000.

Rippy stands behind his bill as important to the many small construction companies that make up a big part of his constituency.

The Colorado Municipal League opposes Rippy on this bill, but Mamet said the Glenwood legislator has worked with the organization on its interests.

Rippy is chair of the Local Government Committee. He received the committee chairmanship as a freshman, perhaps showing how his party regards him. He also sits on the House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee and the Capital Development Committee.

Mamet said Rippy was a “quick study” who tries to accomplish his goals in a quieter way than many legislators.

“He’s not a guy who goes to the microphone every day. He picks his issues carefully,” Mamet said.

Ireland, an attorney, has heatedly criticized Rippy for sponsoring the construction defects bill three sessions in a row and fighting so hard for its passage.

“I bear no personal animosity toward Gregg Rippy, but I find his legislative priorities in important instances to be out of sync with much of the district,” Ireland wrote in response to an Aspen Times question about Rippy’s performance.

“I don’t believe his support for contractor immunity from lawsuits stems from either his occupation as a contractor or his receipt of generous support from the industry,” Ireland wrote. “I believe he is sincerely convinced that protecting contractors from the consequences of their mistakes will lower their insurance costs and hence benefit the public.”

But Ireland criticized the bill as a “consumer nightmare.” Eliminating the ability to collect for probable damages means a homeowner couldn’t sue for faulty construction until the house begins to fall apart or the foundation cracks, he said. Another problem with the prohibition on probable damages is that a poorly built foundation, for instance, could render a house essentially worthless, because no one will buy it.

How environmentalists view them

While both legislators have demonstrated they will lend Aspen and Pitkin County their ear, there are still fundamental differences between the men and their core constituents in the upper Roaring Fork Valley.

Entz’s biography on ColoradoSenate.com said he is a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association, and he gives the appearance of a professional politician, despite his farming roots. Entz served 20 years as a county commissioner in Alamosa County. He served in the Colorado House of Representatives from 1983 to 1998, when he was forced out by term limits enacted well after he took office.

Entz is chairman of the Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee, which reflects his interest in farming and ranching issues. He is also a member of the Local Government Committee.

He is carrying a bill that would add the study of an extraordinary idea to an ordinary appropriations measure for water projects. Entz’s Senate Bill 110 would authorize $500,000 to study the Colorado River Return Project, also known as the Big Straw. His idea is that water from the Colorado River could be captured at the Utah line and diverted back to Colorado cities.

“This would allow Colorado to lay claim each year to enough water to fill up 1.2 million football fields one foot deep,” Entz said in a press release.

Critics contend that diverting the water would come at too steep a price to make it feasible.

Entz’s bill also originally contemplated funding a study of the “logging for water” concept. Some officials, including the heads of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, believe Colorado should increase timber sales so that more water would run off forest lands and become available for irrigation and other human use.

Water bills are part of the picture used to determine a legislative scorecard on all Senate and House members by Colorado Conservation Voters. That organization gave Entz a score of only 14 out of 100 on environmentally-friendly legislation during the 2001 session. The organization increased his score to 58 in last year’s session.

Rippy scored 24 in the 2001 session but his score increased to 58 last session.

Both men supported a bill that sparked some controversy in Aspen last year. Entz introduced a bill to allow hunting for black bears to start as early as June 25. He reasoned that hunting was needed to eliminate “problem bears” involved in human-bear conflicts.

Conservationists countered that conflicts were increasing due to Colorado’s population boom and sprawl into wildlife habitat.

Rippy supported the bill when it passed in the House on a 35-29 vote. A different version of the bill was passed by the Senate, keeping the hunting season’s start in mid-September, when cubs can theoretically survive without their mothers.

In a representative peek at his Colorado Conservation Voters scorecard, Rippy got high marks for supporting open space preservation efforts and stricter emissions standards for power plants. He got a low mark for supporting the bear bill.

Entz got high marks for supporting legislation designed to keep more water in streams during times of drought, but low marks for opposing master plan requirements for Colorado cities and towns and for opposing school impact fees to make new development pay for new schools.

Elise Jones, executive director of the Colorado Environmental Coalition, said the golden rule of lobbying at the capitol is to target only those legislators who have proven they will listen with an open mind. Both Entz and Rippy fall into that category, she said.

“They are some of those rare beasts called moderate Republicans,” Jones said. “Rare is key because there aren’t a lot of moderate Republicans in Colorado.”

Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com.

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