Sopris Sun Correspondent
Fresh from his re-election victory last November, and set to dive into the 70th session of the Colorado General Assembly this week, Colorado Rep. Bob Rankin (R-Carbondale) already had been hard at work for more than two months in his new role as a member of the bi-partisan Joint Budget Committee (JBC), which oversees the state’s $26.9 billion annual budget.
“It’s really good to have a person from the Western Slope on that committee,” Rankin told The Sopris Sun during an interview on Jan. 3 in Carbondale, explaining that while he is the sole Western Slope member on the JBC, his position give him the chance to “ask questions about things that might affect us over here,” issues that might not be raised or addressed by representatives from districts in eastern Colorado.
Rankin, 72, says of himself on his Facebook page, “I am a constitutional and fiscal conservative who believes in limited government, less regulation and support of free market capitalism.” His district includes Garfield, Rio Blanco and Moffat counties in northwest Colorado.
Rankin said he already has two bills he plans to introduce this session, which is scheduled to run from Jan. 7 until May 11, 2015, barring unexpected extensions.
One bill he is certain he will be introducing is a “Federal Lands Coordination” bill, which calls for greater coordination between state government and the local governments at the county and city level in dealing with federal oversight of public lands in the state.
He termed this “a major bill that I’ve run two years in a row, that I’m going to get passed this year.”
He said that 70 percent of the lands in Western Colorado are federally controlled, a circumstance that often generates friction between federal land managers and local governments for a variety of reasons.
For example, he pointed to the ongoing debate over the status of different wildlife species that the federal government has listed as threatened with extinction, such as the sage grouse.
He pointed out that Garfield County has come up with its own sage grouse management plan, which he felt is as good as anything the federal agencies have in mind, but local governments have trouble convincing federal authorities to accept local management ideas.
“If there’s a species that comes up on the radar, and we’re doing a good job protecting it, it works better with local protection,” Rankin declared, adding that the same is true for resource management plans concerning such areas as the Roan Plateau in western Garfield County, where environmentalists and the energy industry have clashed over oil and gas drilling proposals.
Rankin said he was involved in negotiation of a recent compromise settlement regarding the Roan Plateau, and predicted, “We’re going to try to do that with the Thompson Divide,” an area near Carbondale where a similar dispute over oil and gas drilling plans has done on for the past five or six years.
His bill, he said, would bring the state government into such disputes on the side of local governments, and would result in negotiated settlements that meet the needs of environmentalists, industrialists, ranchers and area communities.
“We can make it a win for everybody,” Rankin said, calling his approach a way of creating “a better partnership with the federal government” and avoiding the cost and time of bureaucratic battles and possibly court action over everything from species protection to mineral extraction and cattle grazing.
Asked if his approach has anything common with the old Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s and 1980s, when westerners tried to wrest control of public lands from federal hands and turn control over to state and local governments, Ranking conceded, “There’s some of that going on.”
But, he said, “That’s not what my bill is all about.” He maintained that federal land managers “love it” when local governments offer to form partnerships in these matters, and that his bill will help that to happen.
Another bill he has in his pocket would provide state funding to help the 20 Boards of Cooperative Educational Services, known as BOCES (pronounced “bo-seez”), which provide a variety of services and programs to school district throughout the state.
The goal of his bill, Rankin said, is to help school districts pay for such things as informational technology (computers and related equipment), transportation services and teacher training.
“It’s not a new idea,” he conceded, “but (currently) there’s no funding channeled to the BOCES network to do all this.”
He said there is “pressure” from some officials to further consolidate school districts to improve efficiency in education, but that school districts mostly object to such proposals in order to preserve local control over schools.
So, Rankin continued, “Rather than consolidate the districts, we’ll consolidate the ‘back-room’ functions, the overhead functions, so we can operate a lot more efficiently” to achieve the core mission of a good-quality education.
His bill, he said, will ask for $500,000 in grants to the BOCES, plus smaller grants later, in a “three-year pilot program” that probably will be limited to assistance to a few of the BOCES initially.
He explained that there are 174 school districts, the smallest of which has only 12 students in a northeastern section of the state, “and they do not want to consolidate” but are in need of assistance such as that offered in his bill.
A key part of his reasoning, he said, is a shortfall in state funding for schools due to state budgetary problems, to the tune of $894 million that was earmarked in a statewide constitutional amendment, Amendment 23, approved by voters in 2000 to reverse a decade of budget cuts in the 1990s.
Rankin said there are other bills he is thinking about, noting that JBC members can put forward “as many bills as we like” during a legislative session, compared to the five-bill limit imposed on the other members of the General Assembly.
Rankin and his wife, Joyce, 67 (who works as his legislative aide at a wage of $11.50 per hour) also have started in an outreach program that engages high school students in monitoring and reporting on the state legislature. The program was started last year, said Joyce Rankin, and in that first year involved at least one student from every county in his district.
Beyond that, he encouraged residents of his district to pay attention to the legislative process as it unfolds in Denver.
“I’ve met people who think we go to Washington, D.C.” to conduct legislative business, Rankin said with a shake of his head. “They don’t even know they have a state representative.”
He also urged voters to monitor his Facebook page for ongoing updates about statehouse business, and to e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions, concerns or suggestions.