No election grudge for Aspen’s new congressman
ASPEN – The Roaring Fork Valley has a good chance of landing a $25 million grant for an expanded bus system, but local elected officials must prepare for a different way of doing business with the federal government, Congressman-elect Scott Tipton said at a meeting in Aspen Friday.
Officials from Pitkin County to Glenwood Springs lobbied Tipton to support the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority’s efforts to secure the federal grant.
“It sounds admirable to me,” said Tipton after hearing a 30-minute presentation about RFTA’s bus rapid transit plan. But the conservative Republican from Cortez also warned that local elected officials cannot count on a steady stream of federal funds in the future now that Republicans have regained control of the U.S. House.
Tipton vowed during the campaign to cut federal spending. He successfully unseated U.S. Rep. John Salazar in the November election and he takes office next month.
He told elected officials on RFTA’s board of directors that less spending by the federal government will require everyone in the country to tighten their belts. “We’ve got real economic challenges,” Tipton said.
The warning was repeated by Mike Hesse, Tipton’s chief of staff. He stressed that RFTA must look ahead to plan on operating its bus system without much financial help from the federal government.
“It’s going to be a different era for a while,” Hess said. “It’s gotta be.”
He probed to find out how much the agency relies on federal funding.
RFTA receives about $800,000 annually from the feds in operating funds, according to CEO Dan Blankenship. The total operating fund is about $22 million, he said, so the federal dollars aren’t vital. RFTA also gets federal grants to help replace buses.
The grant from the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) is hung up in the federal budget process. The FTA recommended issuing the grant and President Obama included the expenditure in his proposed budget. The House approved the budget earlier this year, but the Senate didn’t take action before the November election. It’s now questionable that action will be taken on a spending bill to get the government through its fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, before the new Congress is seated next month.
The new emphasis on fiscal caution has raised concerns among RFTA officials that the grant funding might not be approved by the new Congress.
RFTA board members such as Bruce Christensen, mayor of Glenwood Springs, and Jacque Whitsitt, councilwoman from Basalt, tried to impress upon Tipton Friday that RFTA has widespread support in the valley. Voters in all eight member jurisdictions approved a tax and bond proposal in 2008 to raise $14.3 million for matching funds for the bus rapid transit system.
Tipton acknowledged that the RFTA project is in a good position since it is so far along in the system. Hesse stressed that RFTA officials should contact Tipton’s office with any concerns about the grant, indicating the Congressman-elect will help secure the funding.
But Tipton waved “a cautionary flag” about future funding.
In a separate meeting with the Pitkin County commissioners earlier on Friday, Tipton indicated bygones will be bygones with liberal Pitkin County, which voted overwhelmingly against him in November.
Salazar picked up 5,059 votes to only 2,085 for Tipton in November. Clearly it wouldn’t have hurt his political stock much to skip Aspen while on his rounds in the 3rd Congressional District. Tipton has spent the last month visiting with local elected officials to learn about their concerns before he takes office.
Tipton said he came to Pitkin County because all residents of the district are his constituents, even the ones who didn’t vote for him.
“I am a Republican. Obviously the registration isn’t here but I’ve often found that if you’re willing to step out of your comfort zones and you’re willing to sit down and talk to folks, we’re going to [find areas of agreement.] We’re not going to agree on everything,” Tipton said.
Pitkin County Commissioner Michael Owsley admitted to Tipton he didn’t know much about him, in large part because he didn’t conceive of the notion before the election that a Republican would be representing the district. Owsley then asked Tipton to tell a little bit about himself, including whether he owns dogs.
“Is this a Barbara Walter’s moment?” quipped Tipton before disclosing that he owns three dogs and 11 horses. He and his wife have two daughters, and one son-in-law is a graduate of the Air Force Academy.
Tipton, 54, grew up in Cortez and embraced an outdoor lifestyle. “Hunting, fishing and hiking, that’s what I grew up with,” he said.
He graduated from Fort Lewis College in Durango with a political science degree, then started a small business in Cortez. He works with Navajo Indians to sell pottery and other Native American arts.
Tipton attended Friday’s meetings in Aspen dressed in cowboy boots, blue jeans and a collared-shirt under a casual sweater. He fit in well.
Tipton served in the Colorado Legislature in 2008-09 but stressed he isn’t a career politician. He claimed he won’t engage in partisan politics in Washington, D.C. The quality of ideas is more important than who proposes the ideas, he said.
He predicted the federal government’s new way of doing business will require greater cooperation among Colorado congressional delegation, regardless of political parties.
“The House of Representatives will not allow earmarks of any sort,” he said. Earmarks are pork barrel projects that members of Congress wrangle funding for. They are blamed for excessive federal spending.
Tipton said Colorado’s congressional delegation will have to work together to secure its fair share of available federal funding, then communities in the state will have to work together to distribute the funding.
Tipton has been appointed to the U.S. House Committees of Natural Resources, Agriculture and Small Business.
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After nine months of being shuttered due to the COVID-19 crisis, the Wheeler Opera House will reopen for local acts. A touchless reservation system will be open to 53 people for in-person at the venue. Online live streaming also will be available.