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Colorado ballot measure pits roads vs. wildlife

Judith Kohler
The Associated Press
Aspen, CO Colorado

DENVER ” As if one ballot measure on severance taxes weren’t enough, Colorado voters get to plod through two this election.

Amendment 58 would eliminate a credit that allows oil and gas companies to deduct property taxes from their severance tax. Amendment 52 maintains Colorado’s severance tax rate but distributes more revenue to highways.

Backers of 58 accuse Amendment 52 sponsors of trying to confuse voters to derail their proposal.

“I think in part, (state Sen.) Josh Penry put the amendment on the ballot because he believed it could be a nuisance,” said Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter, Amendment 58’s leading supporter.

Penry, a Republican from western Colorado, said he and other sponsors of Amendment 52 believe voters should have a choice on severance taxes.

What neither side can say for sure is what happens if both measures pass.

Amendment 52 is designed to become a constitutional amendment, which could trump Amendment 58, designed to become a law. But lawyers with the nonpartisan Colorado Legislative Council say the courts haven’t ruled on this type of question.

Severance taxes are levied when minerals are extracted, or “severed,” to compensate for the loss of the nonrenewable resources. In Colorado, the revenue is split evenly between local governments and state programs that include water projects, wildlife conservation and low-income energy assistance.

Amendment 52 would maintain the current severance tax rate but, even if revenues increase, cap the money going to those state programs at the previous year’s amount, plus inflation.

The rest of the state’s share would go to highways ” especially to relieve congestion on Interstate 70, Colorado’s main east-west artery and the gateway to most of its ski areas.

State analysts say the Colorado Department of Natural Resources would get $181 million next year under current law but $92 million if Amendment 52 passes. The rest, $89 million, would be shifted to highway projects.

“There’s an enormous backlog of highway improvements,” Penry said. “This governor and past legislatures have utterly failed in meeting this need.”

A governor’s task force has found that Colorado needs $500 million a year to fix and maintain its crumbling roads and bridges. New roads and transit to ease congestion would cost another $1 billion.

Penry denied that his proposal is intended to sabotage Amendment 58. He said he made it clear that he would sponsor his own measure if Ritter pursued a constitutional initiative on severance taxes rather than legislation.

“It was ultimately a slap in the face of the Legislature,” Penry said of Ritter’s measure.

Supporters include Action 22, a group representing southern Colorado counties, the Colorado Association of Realtors, the Colorado Asphalt Pavement Association and the Colorado Retail Council.

The group Better Roads Now has raised about $310,000, mostly from three oil and gas companies, to promote the amendment.

Environmental, hunting and fishing groups are fighting the proposal.

“Certainly transportation needs are important, but wildlife and wildlife habitat are some of the biggest things being jeopardized” by energy development, said John Smeltzer, who retired in 2004 as an assistant director with the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

Smeltzer supports Amendment 58, which would allocate some of the new severance tax revenue to acquire and maintain wildlife habitat. Some of Colorado’s most intense gas development is in the western part of the state, home to large deer and elk herds.

State officials say shifting severance tax revenue to highways would decrease funding to battle the bark beetle epidemic, which has killed about 1.5 million acres of lodgepole pines in central Colorado.

Heidi Van Huysen, on leave from the Department of Natural Resources to campaign against the measure, said efforts to stem the spread of invasive mussels in Colorado lakes also would take a hit. A state program to protect species would suffer 40 percent funding cuts over the next three years, and there would be less money for water projects, Van Huysen said.

Another common complaint: Amendment 52, if passed, could only be changed by voters. A law can be modified by the Legislature.

Colorado needs to remove some of the “fiscal handcuffs” in the state Constitution, not insert more, said Reeves Brown, executive director of Club 20, a group representing western Colorado counties that oppose the measure.


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