Michael Bennet reaches out to Western Slope
Michael Bennet, the newest U.S. Senator from Colorado, stopped in Gunnison on Friday, April 17 on his first official tour of the Western Slope. In just over an hour the senator covered topics ranging from health care and the economy to water and the environment.
The Gunnison Board of County Commissioners’ meeting room was packed, with people hoping to ask questions and hear what Bennet had to say about the newest economic stimulus bill, mining laws, education and other issues of concern.
County commission chairperson Paula Swenson said she was very pleased with the new senator and his willingness to take an interest in issues that are important to people in Gunnison County.
“Since he’s from the Front Range, he’s making a point to visit counties and communities on the Western Slope,” Swenson said. “There wasn’t any specific topic that I wanted him to cover—I was just glad we could meet and discuss some of the local issues.”
According to Bennet’s press secretary, Mike Amodeo, the purpose of the tour was to acquaint voters encountered on the three-day, 14-county tour with the senator, and to acquaint the senator with the issues most important to people across the state.
“We obviously heard about national issues, like the economy and health care. But we also heard about water and mining reform, which are issues the senator wants to learn more about,” said Amodeo.
Swenson also said she introduced Bennet to John McClow, the attorney for the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District, so the two could discuss water issues, including the diversion of water from Western Slope rivers and reservoirs to serve the growing needs of the Front Range.
“He’s just now learning about some of the issues we’re facing, so I was encouraged to see a willingness to follow up with John and talk about some of those things,” she said.
Although Bennet worked in politics as chief of staff to former Denver mayor John Hickenlooper, he worked largely in the private sector until he was hired as the superintendent of Denver Public Schools.
“If you look at [Sen. Bennet’s] background, he hasn’t taken the conventional path to the Senate. Every job he’s done has been very different and he wasn’t necessarily steeped in issues,” says Amodeo.
Although Bennet had no experience in agriculture, his only request upon appointment to the Senate was to be placed on the Agriculture Committee.
“[Sen. Bennet] will be the first to tell you that he has an extremely steep learning curve. But by sitting on the Agriculture Committee he has a chance to engage in the issues almost constantly and he is learning a lot from that,” said Amodeo. “He’s done that because he understands how important agriculture is to Colorado and he’s approaching mining and water issues the same way.”
Bennet’s apparent eagerness to learn about local issues seemed like a good sign to several people who attended the meeting.
“My impression of him was that he was well spoken and very intelligent and quick to learn about issues. More than anything you want someone that is capable of addressing issues,” says Dan Morse, public lands director for High Country Citizens’ Alliance.
In addition to water and mining issues, Bennet offered to work directly with the county commissioners to address the dwindling amount of funding available to the U.S. Forest Service to maintain campgrounds.
The funding shortfall has forced the Forest Service to close some campgrounds in the area. County commissioner Jim Starr suggested using some local labor to improve the amenities and Bennet said he liked this idea.
Perry Anderson, public relations officer for the Mt. Emmons Project, attended the meeting, but he didn’t go to it to talk about mining. Instead, he says, he just wanted to meet the new Senator.
“I was very pleased to meet him. I went to talk to him about the economic situation with the banks that have gotten federal bailout money and how those banks are interacting with the public,” says Anderson, who had difficulty in trying to refinance a loan, a process that was supposed to get easier after the stimulus bill passed.
In his first three months in office, Bennet has traveled to 40 of the state’s 64 counties.
Senator Bennet was appointed to replace former Senator Ken Salazar, who was chosen to lead the Interior Department in the Obama administration.
The following Saturday, April 25, the county welcomed another round of elected officials, as state senator Gale Schwartz and representative Kathleen Curry went to the Aspinall Wilson Center on the campus of Western State College to talk about the current legislative session.
There are nearly 120 days remaining in the current legislative session and more than 700 bills have been considered.
“It’s interesting to think of all the things we can do when we don’t have any money,” said Schwartz in her opening remarks.
“I feel like the session has been focused on the state budget and that’s appropriate, that’s our primary job to figure out how to spend the taxpayers’ money and how not to,” said Curry.
She said there is a $1.4 billion shortage in revenues for the 2009-2010 fiscal year, which starts in July.
“Out of the general fund which is about $10 billion, so we’re about 10 percent down on revenues for the general fund,” she said.
The deficit is being made up with cuts to many of the state’s vital services, like higher education, corrections, K-12 education and human services.
There was a glimmer of hope at the meeting when Schwartz reminded those in attendance that Colorado is more resilient than some other states because of its diversified economy.
She pointed to the foreclosure rate, which has increased by 7 percent nationally and decreased by 40 percent in Colorado. Data also shows the state’s unemployment rate is better than the nation as a whole.
“Vestas is coming in and opening up 2,500 new jobs in the state by creating the largest production of wind turbines. They’ve also brought in their marketing arm and we’re seeing some positive signs from that,” said Schwartz.