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Lawmakers laud the Colorado State Fair on opening night in Pueblo, but tax support grows thin

August 26, 2017 Updated: August 26, 2017 at 2:34 pm
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Gov. John Hickenlooper left, and state Senate President Kevin Gratham chat at the legislative barbecue at the Colorado State Fair Friday night. (Photo by Joey Bunch/Colorado Politics)

State lawmakers were out in force at the Colorado State Fair in Pueblo Friday night.

The celebration of Colorado's farming, ranching and funnel cakes started Friday and runs through Sept. 4. After the rodeo Friday night, Joe Diffie sang, "If the Devil Danced in Empty Pants."

If the devil got tired of dancing, there was plenty room to sit down on the fair's opening night. Crowds were light.

The fair is perpetually underfunded and can't seem to attract crowds big enough to sustain itself in Pueblo without taxpayers' support.

At the legislative barbecue and, later, the Governor's Beef Show, in the spirit for crops and livestock was pitched.

"This is the best time of year, the changing of the seasons, we're getting ready to harvest all our agricultural production for the year, and we get to see all our old friends," Gov. John Hickenlooper said on stage at the legislative barbecue put on by the Greater Pueblo Chamber of Commerce, before reading a long list of members of his administration at the fair Friday night.

The list included Donna Lynne, the former health care executive turned lieutenant turned potential gubernatorial candidate, who didn't win when she showed a steer in the exhibition show put on by the Colorado Farm Bureau that pairs politicians and young 4-H mentors. The governor pointed out Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers, the former state attorney general, in the crowd.

"Here's my short speech," Hickenlooper said as he began a two-minute address to the politicians, lobbyists and various political hangers-on. "The speech is about how important ag is to Colorado and how important you are to ag."

He noted the bipartisan support on some major issues in the last legislative session, including a lot of ag issues.

"I'm going to challenge you to a better session in 2018," Hickenlooper told lawmakers in the crowd.

He turned his attention to the financially hamstrung fair.

"The state fair is a time-honored tradition,"

Hickenlooper said, telling of its history that dates back to 1872, four years before Colorado's statehood.

"Right here is one of the cultural highlights of the state and best represents our strong ag groups who pour billions of dollars into our economy every year, over 107,000 employees, 34,000 farms and ranches, basically more entrepreneurs in agriculture than every other business combined."

Each new legislature usually includes a few from other parts of the state who talk of moving the fair out of Pueblo, usually to metro Denver to put it closer to more Coloradans and tourists. With hundreds of millions of dollars flowing into the renovations of the National Western Complex in Denver, those talks are like gasoline on a leaf fire these days.

In 2015, House Bill 1344 - sponsored by then-House Majority Leader Crisanta Duran, D-Denver and Rep. Jon Becker, R-Fort Morgan - authorized the state to issue $350 million worth of bonds to upgrade the Denver grounds to help support an $856 million project.

For the state fair, lawmakers are called on regularly to help the it balance its books. Some are getting tired of paying.

Last year, for instance, Rep. Daneya Esgar and Sen. Leroy Garcia, both Democrats from Pueblo, sponsored legislation that would put in $100,000 to go with $140,000 approved by Pueblo voters for renovations to the horse arena at the fairgrounds, along with money from the fair's foundation and other sources.. The goal was to help attract more non-fair events to Pueblo, as well as maintain the facility as a draw for 4-H competitions. Half the legislature's proposed contribution would have come from the marijuana tax haul.

"The junior livestock sale is instrumental in supporting the future of Colorado's agribusiness," Garcia told the committee. "It demonstrates to the youth the importance of raising quality livestock and the work required by those who pursue careers in agriculture."

The bill passed the Democratic-led House on a 39-25 vote, but Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee killed it. During questioning they asked about local support for the fair in Pueblo, and business practices in running the fair that might be the reasons it's not attracting crowds, rather than repeatedly turning to the state taxpayers.

Legislative support Friday night, however, sounded clear and strong.

"It highlights one of the greatest economic drivers of our state," he said. "That's what this is all about. One of the things we all have in common is we all have to eat,"

But will the State Fair be in Pueblo?

"If I have anything to say about it, yes," Grantham said.

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