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Effort to fund Colorado Energy Office fails after Republicans raise objections

June 20, 2017 Updated: June 20, 2017 at 4:41 pm
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The Rocky Mountains can be seen in the distance as wind mills generate electricity at the Ponnequin Wind Farm near Carr, Colo., on Monday, Jan. 29, 2007. (AP Photo/Ed Andrieski)

An effort to save much of the Colorado Energy Office failed on Tuesday after Republicans objected to a funding request made by the governor's office.

Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, asked for $3.1 million to preserve the Energy Office, which in addition to promoting renewable energy, also assists schools, the agriculture industry and developers reduce energy costs.

But in a 3-3 vote, the Joint Budget Committee killed the request down party lines.

"There was a request to carry this as a JBC bill originally and we in our discussions thought it was more of a policy question because this office and its mission has been somewhat controversial for years," said Rep. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale, a member of the JBC.

The debate by the JBC picked up where frustrations left off in the legislature this year. State lawmakers hit an impasse on the last day of the legislative session over a measure that also would have provided $3.1 million for the office.

"We hoped it would find its way through the legislature with a more acceptable definition of its mission and job, but that didn't happen," Rankin continued. "It's a policy issue and I would not be prepared to just continue it in its current form after that whole session of discussion."

Without the money, 24 staff positions could be cut. The Energy Office will be able to retain about 10 employees thanks to federal funds

"Based on my conversations with leadership, I had hoped for a different result," Hickenlooper said in a statement. "The Colorado Energy Office plays a vital role in promoting innovative production and efficient consumption practices for all energy resources. The Energy Office administers a wide range of programs that save Coloradans millions in energy costs ... We will continue to explore all options to fund this important work."

The JBC had a largely cordial discussion over the office. There appeared to be a will to come up with funding, but not through the JBC process and not without additional conversations.

Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, a member of the JBC, reminded her colleagues that it was simply a temporary funding fix.

"If we did approve the staff recommendation it would just be for one year of funding, and that would allow us to continue the office and continue the conversations moving forward," Hamner said.

Republicans felt it was inappropriate for the JBC to be approving a supplemental funding request from the governor's office after the legislature debated the issue and could not come to an agreement.

"We concur fully with the decision today of the Joint Budget Committee to not circumvent the legislature's decision to halt additional funding for the Energy Office," Senate President Kevin Grantham, R-Canon City, said in a statement. "Bipartisan discussions are ongoing to develop legislation for the 2018 session that will establish a Colorado Energy Office with the broad mission of promoting all sectors of the energy industry for the benefit of all Coloradans."

Much of the conversation this year became embroiled in partisan politics as Democrats called for greater oversight over the oil and gas industry, while Republicans sought to broaden the Energy Office's purpose to provide a greater voice to the industry.

Discussions became particularly tense following a home explosion in Firestone in April linked to natural gas leaking from an old pipeline. The incident killed two men.

The 57-page Senate Bill 301, which was bipartisan in sponsorship but opposed by many Democrats, would have provided the $3.1 million while also doing away with certain programs. It was supported by Hickenlooper's Energy Office, as the office was hoping to convince a split legislature to maintain funding.

The Republican-controlled Senate had included provisions that would have made changes to a host of renewable energy and other programs in the state, including eliminating some of those programs. The Senate version would have expanded the Colorado Energy Office's focus to include nuclear and hydropower, while giving the oil and gas industry a greater voice.

It also focused heavily on natural gas, aiming at eliminating a prohibition on investor-owned utilities owning natural gas reserves. An investor-owned utility is owned by private investors and members. The legislation would have directed the state to create rules allowing an investor-owned utility to acquire an interest in Colorado-based natural gas reserves for up to 50 percent of its needs.

A provision of the legislation also would have raised registration fees for electric vehicles, which had some Democratic lawmakers concerned.

Democrats approved a trimmed bill, which would have continued funding for the Colorado Energy Office, but it also would have stripped many of the provisions stemming from the Senate. In the end, the two legislative chambers could not find consensus.

"Republicans' refusal to simply restore funding to this critical office means that Colorado's status as a clean energy leader could be jeopardized, not to mention the ripple effects on our booming clean energy economy," Amelia Myers, energy advocate for Conservation Colorado, said following Tuesday's JBC vote. "Governor Hickenlooper should now use any means necessary to find funding for the Colorado Energy Office in order to keep its important work moving forward."

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