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As difficult as this legislative session was — and with all of the money wrangling it was a real doozy — first-term northwest Colorado senator Al White expects next year’s session to be even tougher.
“I’m very concerned about next year,” said White, a Republican from Hayden, whose district includes Rio Blanco County. “The drastic measures we had to take this year, there’s nothing left. There are no rabbits left in the hat to soften the blow. They will all be difficult cuts.
“(This year), I don’t want to say we plundered … but we made transfers from every tax fund we can think of,” White said. “Next year, there will be no more transfers. We will have to make absolute cuts. The federal dollars will only go so far. They were huge in our ability to avoid cuts. Those cuts won’t be avoidable next year.”
Meaning, for example, higher-education institutions in the state, such as Colorado Northwestern Commun-ity College in Rangely, may not be spared next time around, as they were this year.
“I don’t see how they escape,” White said. “This year, they escaped almost unscathed.”
At one point, higher education was looking at a $300 million reduction in state funding, prompting an outcry from colleges and universities.
“It’s going to be difficult for everyone,” Rhonda Bentz, a spokeswoman for the Colorado Community College System, said at the time. “I don’t know … whether some will not survive. We were prepared (for some cuts). But with the $300 million, that puts everything on the table. Everybody will feel this.”
With their funding in jeopardy, the colleges made their voices heard. CNCC President John Boyd, writing in an op-ed piece for the Herald Times, said, “Whatever the magnitude of the final budget cuts … I can say with confidence that we will not succumb to apathy or sympathy. Recessions have and will continue to come and go; CNCC has and will continue to provide northwestern Colorado with quality education opportunities.”
In the end, other revenue was found to make up the budget shortfall.
“We never intended to cut $300 million,” said White, who, as a member of the Joint Budget Committee, found himself at the center of the firestorm on several issues. “We hoped to get the higher education community on our side, to help us find a solution.”
This was White’s first year in the Senate, after four terms in the House, and it was a memorable one, though maybe not for the best reasons.
“Oh, boy, it was the toughest (session) I’ve been involved in in the nine years of my legislative career,” White said. “And it was the toughest one for me, personally. Even in the difficult years after 9/11, they didn’t have it as hard as we did this time around. The economy is worse now. Money available then is not available to us now, for some of the same kinds of tricks, if you will.”
Not that it gets any easier to take the political hits, even after having been around the legislative block a few times.
“I received e-mails and phone calls from people saying, ‘I supported you in the campaign, I put a sign in my yard, but I’m sorry I voted for you,’” White said. “That really gets to you. They blame me personally. They don’t understand the process, and they are willing to throw me under the bus. It leaves me scratching my head.
“Despite what they say about politicians being thick skinned, after nine years, it still hurts,” White said.
Even so, there were some successes in the recently completed legislative session, White said.
“We had our wins and our losses,” White said. “I was pleased we were able to save the Rifle prison. That was to go on the blocks for closure. I’m glad tourism suffered only a 25-percent reduction instead of a 50-percent reduction the governor’s office proposed.
“I was disappointed we lost as many dollars to local mineral severance tax grants,” White continued. “We’ll see about a 30-percent decrease to local grants from those funds as opposed to prior years. That was a big pot of money. We took a relatively small amount, compared to the size of dollars in the fund, but still it has a big impact on my district.”
White was the only Republican to oppose a bill that proposed a phaseout of the state’s tax on business equipment, the so-called business personal-property tax. The Colorado Chamber of Commerce supported the measure.
“That was a major piece of Republican legislation, and I had to oppose it. It would have been critical to at least three of my counties,” White said.
Renae Neilson, Rio Blanco County assessor, was troubled by the bill.
“This is very concerning to me,” she said during the session. “Our county stands to lose a great amount of taxable value, thus shifting the burden to the commercial real estate owners and other property classes, not including residential, as they are protected by the Gallagher Amendment. There is already a law in place that provides a threshold exemption for small business personal property tax.”
While the bill was still alive, other local leaders, like Mary Strang, president of the Meeker School Board, spoke out against the move to do away with the business property tax.
“It cripples Rio Blanco County and its citizens from ever realizing any benefit from (energy) development in the future, as well as now,” Strang said. “If energy development continues to be a reality, we have to be able to access some revenue to deal with the impact. Were we to lose tax revenue from energy’s personal property, it would be disastrous.”
Ultimately, the bill was tabled for further study.
“I felt OK about the way it ended up,” White said. “There will be an interim task force to study the issue. It was a way for the bill sponsor to save face at the end of the day. We’ve studied it before. Honestly, I don’t believe they’ll find a resolution, unless we find a way to supplant the lost revenue.”
As one of two Republicans on the six-member Joint Budget Committee — made up of three senators and three representatives — White was in a position to wield considerable influence on budget matters, and be a target for criticism.
“A lot of people don’t understand how it works,” White said of the budget committee. “The JBC initiated almost 60 bills this year, of all sorts of varieties. They dole them out, so no single member has too much of a load. I would say it’s the luck of the draw. I ended up on a lot of bills I took heat for, that had my name on it. As a consequence, I suffered for that. I could’ve said, no, I didn’t want to take this or take that, but I wanted to do my share.”
While serving as a member of the Joint Budget Committee sometimes put White on the hot seat, he said it put him in a position to do the most good.
“At the end of the day, the reason I do what I do is I still feel like I make a positive difference,” White said. “And I serve a more important purpose as a member of the JBC, rather than being a back-bench minority member.”