Colorado lawmakers spar over the Clean Power Plan

The Clean Power Plan and the funding for a state agency responsible for implementing it are still tying Colorado’s General Assembly in knots.

This week, the Republican-controlled Senate began work on the 2016-17 budget. Topping the list: a decision by the Senate Appropriations Committee to strip out the state’s Air Quality Control Division budget, under the Department of Public Health and Environment. The move is the latest in a game of chess between House Democrats, who support the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, and Senate Republicans who want the state to stop implementing it.

Cutting the budget for the Air Quality Control Division would halt the state’s work on the Clean Power Plan. It would also halt everything else that division does to enforce federal and state clean air rules. Such a move could open a door for the Environmental Protection Agency to walk in and oversee the state’s compliance with clean air mandates.

That’s a doomsday scenario no one from either party wants. But Republicans say Democrats won’t budge on an amendment that would just cut off the funds being spent to implement the plan, which is now on hold, on orders from the U.S. Supreme Court.

The fight over the air quality funds has been going on for weeks. It began when the Joint Budget Committee, which is responsible for writing the state budget, stalemated over the issue. Committee Democrats tried to put the entire funding, about $8.4 million, into the budget. Republicans responded by trying to cut out just the Clean Power Plan funds. When the budget committee finished work on the budget and sent it to the House, there was no funding for the air quality program.

Just how much money is being spent on the Clean Power Plan is a matter of debate. The department gave an initial estimate of about $110,000. Republicans say it’s closer to $500,000.

But Gov. John Hickenlooper told reporters Wednesday that the money really isn’t an issue. State employees who work on the Clean Power Plan work on a lot of other projects, he said, so cutting off those dollars and eliminating the two jobs would impact work on other air quality projects.

And the state is fully committed to clean air, Hickenlooper said Wednesday morning. He said the fight is not just about the Clean Power Plan. Fighting over one or two positions in the air quality program, when what’s really at issue is pollution, such as ozone and particulates, is “the height of ridiculousness,” he said.

Republicans seem to think eliminating the funding for the Clean Power Plan will somehow “help us burn more coal,” Hickenlooper said, although he was unsure just how that would work. “We are going to move toward cleaner air and that requires more renewable energy, wind and solar.”

Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, a Sterling Republican, responded to Hickenlooper’s comments on behalf of Senate Republicans prior to beginning their work on the budget.

“It’s bewildering that the governor seems prepared to go to the mat with us over this completely reasonable request for a little regulatory and fiscal restraint, given all the alarmist rhetoric he’s been using about the state’s alleged budget crisis,” Sonnenberg said. Hickenlooper’s refusal to halt the state’s work on the plan, despite a Supreme Court order, “is forcing us to use the power of the purse.”

The battle over just how much lawmakers should restore the air quality program raged on for close to an hour Wednesday, both on the floor of the Senate and on Twitter, pitting environmental activists against climate change deniers.

Senate Republicans approved an amendment to restore the air quality program’s budget, less than the roughly $360,000 they claim is being spent on the Clean Power Plan. On Thursday, they reduced that cut by $20,000.

Senate Democrats also sought an amendment to the budget bill that would restore the entire $8.4 million, including the money being spent on the Clean Power Plan. Despite support from their JBC representative, Sen. Pat Steadman of Denver, the amendment failed.

The budget bill passed the state Senate on Thursday. It now heads back to the Joint Budget Committee, which will work out differences between the House and Senate versions.


Photo credit: Andrew Hart, Creative Commons, Flickr

has been a political journalist since 1998. She covered the state capitol for the Silver & Gold Record from 1998 to 2009 and for The Colorado Statesman in 2010-11 and 2013-14. Since 2010 she also has covered the General Assembly for newspapers in northeastern Colorado. She was recognized with awards from the Colorado Press Association for feature writing and informational graphics for her work with the Statesman in 2012.