Debate over fossil fuels or renewables imperils funding for state energy office

The money necessary to continue most of the operations of the Colorado Energy Office, which has been instrumental in promoting non-fossil fuel energy for the past decade, will ratchet down on July 1 after legislative budget writers on Tuesday failed to agree to fully fund another year of the office’s programs and staff.

The Joint Budget Committee, which is made up of three Republicans and three Democrats, deadlocked along party lines on a request from Gov. John Hickenlooper to fully fund the energy office for the 2017-18 year.

During the recently-concluded legislative session, the energy office became a political football between Senate Republicans, who wanted to change its mission to focus more on fossil fuel promotion and away from renewables, and House Democrats, who wanted its work to continue mostly as-is. The Energy Office director, Kathleen Staks, agreed during the session that some of the renewable programs offered weren’t working as intended and was in favor of allowing some of those programs to shut down.

The stalemate over the funding continued this week, when Hickenlooper asked the Joint Budget Committee to put $3.1 million into the office for 2017-18, which would continue all of its operations for one more year. The request was backed by JBC staff analyst Kevin Neimond, who said that one of two things would have to happen: either the General Assembly would bring up the issue again in the 2018 legislative session, or that the office needed to be fully funded for another year in order to prepare to shut down some of its operations and lay off most of its staff. Neimond explained that the office had been authorized by law to operate and that new legislation would be required to shut it down.

Even if the JBC refused the request, the office would need funding to pay for “close out costs” such as unemployment and vacation leave accrued by the staff of 24. The state is still obligated to pay those costs although there isn’t any money authorized for those purposes in the 2017-18 budget, Neimond said.

The office is slated to receive $6.5 million in federal funds in 2017-18 to continue to operate a weatherization program that modifies homes for energy efficiency owned by low-income Coloradans, and another $313,000 to operate natural gas stations throughout the state. Those operations will continue with the remaining staff, which under the 2017-18 budget could be cut from 24 to eight.

Rep. Millie Hamner, a Dillon Democrat who is vice chair of the JBC, pointed out that the General Assembly had set aside the $3.1 million necessary to fund the office for one more year, and raised the possibility that the JBC could revisit the issue in September, but she questioned whether the office could stay open at its current staffing levels until then. While the money had been set aside by the legislature, the JBC must authorize its spending when the General Assembly is out of session. The question of what happens on July 1, when funding for 16 staff ends, remains unanswered.

Republican Rep. Bob Rankin of Carbondale, a JBC member, said that to Republicans, the energy office’s mission has been “controversial for years” and hoped that 2017 legislation would have come up with a “more acceptable definition of its job,” meaning a greater focus on fossil fuels.

The committee’s deadlocked 3-3 vote means the issue of the office’s purpose remains unresolved, at least for now.

In a post-session press conference in May, Hickenlooper pledged to find a way to keep the office open and that the 16  employees, who are not part of the state personnel system and are at-will, would not be laid off.  

Yesterday, the governor expressed his disappointment at the JBC’s refusal to fund the program for at least one more year, stating that he believed the request was going to be approved.

“Based on my conversations with leadership, I had hoped for a different result. The Colorado Energy Office plays a vital role in promoting innovative production and efficient consumption practices for all energy resources…We will continue to explore all options to fund this important work.” He did not address what would happen to the 16 employees.

Sen. Ray Scott, a Grand Junction Republican who authored the rewrite of the energy office mission during the last session, said in a statement that the ”future of the governor’s Energy Office was extensively debated during session and is neither urgent nor unforeseen,” and blamed House Democrats for refusing to compromise or to consider alternative futures for the energy office. His views were shared by Senate President Kevin Grantham of Cañon City, who said the Senate Republicans would hold fast to their views on the energy office as expressed by the 2017 legislation. He added that the governor’s request on Tuesday was an effort to circumvent the General Assembly’s final decision to halt additional monies for the office.

But he did indicate a willingness to continue talking with Democrats, stating that bipartisan conversations were still in progress for a bill on the energy office for the 2018 session.

JBC member Sen. Dominick Moreno, a Democrat from Commerce City, said he was disappointed in the 3-3 vote, but added he also is optimistic about continued discussions around the energy office and its mission.

Outside the Capitol, the vote was also met with disappointment from the conservation community.  Conservation Colorado’s Jessica Goad said in a statement that “Republicans’ refusal to simply restore funding to this critical office means that Colorado’s status as a clean energy leader could be jeopardized, not to mention the ripple effects on our booming clean energy economy.”


Photo by Zak Zak, via Creative Commons license, Flickr