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Growth? What Growth? 

Sprawl, extremism take a back seat at the Capitol in crucial election year

Do you remember, way back in 2001, when everybody in Colorado was worrying about growth and cursing urban sprawl as they sat stuck in perpetual traffic jams, and the folks at the state Capitol in Denver promised they would do something about it, even if they had to hold special legislative sessions and stay up all night under the dome until they could all agree on something?

That was so last year.

In case you haven't noticed, growth is no longer a big deal. At least not according to Gov. Bill Owens or Senate President Stan Matsunaka, both of whom visited Colorado Springs recently to discuss their respective priorities for the new legislative session, which kicked off last week.

Owens listed the economy, education, transportation and health care as his top issues. Matsunaka, a Loveland Democrat who wants to run against Owens for the governor's office, identified exactly the same priorities. Neither mentioned growth, which has been identified by a majority of Coloradans as the most pressing issue facing the state.

Due to the current economic recession, Colorado's growth has slowed, "which obviously takes it off the front burner," Owens said when questioned during a news conference. Moreover, lawmakers addressed the issue when they finally passed growth-related bills after two special sessions held last year, the governor said.

"We accomplished some major deeds," Owens proclaimed.


Feeling abandoned

That's all news to Colorado's environmental lobby, which was promised significant legislative action after voters defeated Amendment 24, the statewide citizens initiative to manage growth, in 2000. According to the enviros, the few bills passed into law last year amounted to virtually nothing.

"The people of Colorado will not notice a change in growth in Colorado because of those bills," said Susan LeFever, Rocky Mountain regional director of the Sierra Club.

And despite its conspicuous absence from Owens' and Matsunaka's to-do lists, tackling growth continues to be a top concern on the minds of Coloradans, the environmentalists maintain.

"I don't believe it's being paid the attention it's due," said Ann Livingston, a land-use attorney for the Colorado Public Interest Research Group (CoPIRG).

Neither the Sierra Club nor CoPIRG, both closely allied with the Democrats, would admit to feeling disappointed with the party's leadership for having all but abandoned the issue. But John Fielder, the renowned nature photographer who helped the groups spearhead Amendment 24, had few kind words for Matsunaka.

Despite Matsunaka's high public profile on the growth issue last year, "he didn't understand it very well, and I'm not really sure he had his heart in it," Fielder charged. "I just don't think the environment and growth management is high on Matsunaka's priority list, nor has it ever been."


Still smarting

Some Democrats say they'll introduce some growth-related bills in an effort to attack the issue in a more low-profile, piecemeal fashion. Sen. Ron Tupa, D-Boulder, said many in his party still care about the issue but just aren't ready for another big, bruising fight over it.

"We expended a lot of political capital falling on our swords on this one," Tupa said.

Bob Loevy, a political scientist at Colorado College, agreed that the Democrats "took a beating" over the issue. Having gained control over the Senate for the first time in decades, they thought they could stand down the Republicans on growth, Loevy said. But the press portrayed the Democrats as unreasonable, and in the end they were forced to compromise and settle for a few minor reforms.

"It backfired on them," Loevy said.

However, the main reason why growth control is on the legislative back burner is the economy, Loevy said. With Colorado facing budget shortfalls for the first time in years, the current session will be dominated by fights over where to cut state spending. Other issues will be crowded out by "the rather overwhelming budgetary issues we're facing," Loevy said.


Backing off the pledge

That could also account for the apparent dearth this year of the kind of ideologically driven, right-wing legislation for which El Paso County's all-Republican delegation has become infamous.

Last year, for example, Sen. Doug Lamborn introduced bills to ban late-term abortions, establish a "pregnancy and infant loss remembrance day" and name a portion of Interstate 25 "Ronald Reagan Highway" -- which was later adopted by the all-Republican El Paso County Board of Commissioners. So far this year, Lamborn has introduced bills pertaining to less ideological matters, such as DNA-testing of felons, repealing outmoded laws, and helping gambling addicts get treatment.

Sen. Andy McElhany, meanwhile, has backed off a pledge to not introduce a single bill this session in order to focus on fighting the Democrats' agenda. One of his bills would allow casino employees to run for public office, which is currently prohibited. Gaming interests have contributed to McElhany's past campaigns.

Though Rep. Dave Schultheis took a beating last year over his efforts to state-mandate divorce counseling, he reportedly plans to reintroduce the proposal that would require married couples with children to undergo a year of counseling before they can seek a divorce. Though a previous version of the bill died in committee last session, it drew national attention and became known as the "Dr. Laura Bill," because Schultheis planned to have controversial radio psychologist Laura Schlessinger testify on its behalf.

In addition to the budgetary issues, the fact that it's an election year may also have a sobering effect on politicians, Loevy said. Democrats will be attempting to hold on to their razor-thin, one-vote majority in the state Senate, while Republicans will be aiming to take it away.

"With the balance between the two parties so close, that puts pressure on you to tread lightly," Loevy said.

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