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Will The 'War On Rural Colorado' Play At The Ballot Box?

Bente Birkeland
A farm on the rolling plains of Yuma County, June, 2014.

There’s often a divide between Colorado’s rural lawmakers and those representing larger communities along the urban Front Range. That dynamic was apparent during the 2014 legislative session with Republicans routinely blaming Democrats for waging what they said is a "war on rural Colorado."

The seeds of the GOP discontent can largely be traced back to the 2013 legislative session. That’s when Democrats – who were and are still in the majority – passed stricter gun laws and a renewable energy mandate for rural electric coops. Yuma county commissioner Robin Wiley said he was also disappointed when Governor John Hickenlooper put into place statewide air quality rules for oil and gas drilling, to reduce pollution from methane emissions.

“That is going to be a, I feel, a huge burden on the gas industry in Yuma County, cause most of the wells are small stripper wells,” Wiley said. “And I think that’s a slippery slope when we start regulating methane on oil and gas, how long is it until we regulate methane on agriculture?”

"This expression, the 'war on rural Colorado,' is really overused, and I'm sorry that political interests try to gravitate to those comments."

Wiley would like to see those types of decisions left up to local leaders.

“When you try to and pass bills or implement rules across the state this diverse, that’s a problem,” Wiley said. “What works for parts of eastern Colorado is not going to work for the Front Range, or sometimes it won’t work for the Western Slope, and we feel that we should be heard.”

It’s a point Republican lawmakers tried to make when singling out several of their bills they said would’ve benefited rural Colorado but didn’t pass during the session. That includes a measure to reduce the renewable energy mandate, another to allow non-licensed plumbers to work in rural counties, and a bill to give owners of farm and ranch vehicles some wiggle room on license renewals.

“This expression, the 'war on rural Colorado,' is really overused, and I’m sorry that political interests try to gravitate to those comments,” said state Senator Gail Schwartz (D-Snowmass Village). She said she believes lawmakers passed a good balance of bills for the entire state, saying “I think people were very sensitive having represented for the last eight years rural interests.”

Representative Don Coram (R-Montrose) said he doesn’t believe any legislator intends to be vicious or mean.

“You know it’s over 450 miles from the end of my district to Denver,” said Coram. “I don’t think urban legislators understand the ramifications, and what can happen with unintended consequences to legislation.”

Coram did call the recent session one of his best legislative sessions ever, and as a member of the minority he said he passed a record number of bills compared to previous years.

“There’s things that you know you would certainly do different,” Coram said. “But politics is kind of a pendulum, you know it swings one way for a while and then it swings the other way. When it’s the most powerful is when it’s in the middle”

In fact lawmakers in both parties did come together to pass a number of bills to help rural areas. A telecom reform package would put more money into getting broadband in rural Colorado. The state will also set up sites for people to remotely testifying on bills so members of the public don’t have to make the trek to Denver. Senator Gail Schwartz sponsored a measure to require the state’s new water plan to include public input from every water basin with hearings across Colorado.

“It will be one more element that will feed into the development of the plan,” said Schwartz.

Still, the divide between rural and urban remains apparent with the subject coming up in political debates. The four GOP candidates in the 4th Congressional district are using it to paint Democrats, including Governor John Hickenlooper, as out of touch. Political science professor John Straayer from Colorado State University is not convinced it will make a difference in the November election or the Governor’s race.

“You know, who is it going to move? A lot of rural Colorado leans to the Republican side anyway,” Straayer said. “I’m not sure that the eight or nine Front Range counties up and down the interstate, Interstate 25, that’s going to move very many urban or suburban voters at all.”

But while it could energize some in the Republican base, most pundits say gun control, oil and gas issues and President Barack Obama’s low approval ratings will play a more significant role the 2014 election cycle.

Bente Birkeland has been reporting on state legislative issues for KUNC and Rocky Mountain Community Radio since 2006. Originally, from Minnesota, Bente likes to hike and ski in her spare time. She keeps track of state politics throughout the year but is especially busy during the annual legislative session from January through early May.
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