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Colorado's Weed War Swindle

Public Virtue and Private Vice Under the Dome

by PHIL DOE

I ventured down to the Colorado Capitol last Thursday to listen to the debate on Senate Bill 10-089. Like always, I couldn’t hear anything because the senate committee room, where agriculture bills such as this one are argued, isn’t adequately miked. Maybe it’s by design given what often transpires there. Your options are to go see and not be able to hear, or stay home and not be able to see. I recorded the proceedings off the Internet and went to see what I could not hear. Why this has not been corrected over the years is simply a mystery, and an exasperating one at that.

SB 10-089 would take $7.5 million from the state’s Conservation Trust Fund, which is used to fund local parks and open space across the state, and give it over in perpetuity to county weed control and private land conservation districts–$5 million to county conservation districts and $2.5 million to weed control.

The bill was introduced in the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. The committee is all about lavishing public money and public resources on industrial agriculture. This bill fits the mold.

Still, a little background information is probably necessary to fully understand the proposed larceny.

By law, money from the Colorado Lottery goes to three sources, all purportedly designed to protect and expand the public’s enjoyment of the state’s natural beauty. Confession, I voted against the establishment of the Lottery.

Greater Outdoor Colorado, known as GOCO, gets 50 percent of the funds from the Colorado Lottery. Over recent years this has meant over 50 million annually in real dollars for protecting the outdoors, though the program has been fraught with controversy, mainly from landowners and appraisers colluding to inflate the value of conservation easements. The owners are rewarded with huge tax write offs by entering into these easements, the higher the appraisal, the higher write off. These easement contracts do not carry, however, a right of public use or access. The direct benefits, both monetary and environmental, are reserved for the enjoyment of the owner.

State parks get 10 percent of the take from lottery funds, the smallest percentage.

The Conservation Trust fund gets the remaining 40 percent, or roughly $48 million annually in recent years. The money is allocated to local entities on a population density based formula—the most populated counties theoretically get the most money from the fund.

A couple of people reminded the committee that the Trust Fund is statutorily very specific about uses, that they have to be public and that weed control and conservation on private land might not comport with the idea of public benefits. The committee was undeterred and seemed to grow bolder as rural supporters rose in defense of the bill.

For example, one testifier, from either the Farm Bureau or the Association of Conservation Districts, explained that weeds were a part of the war on terrorism, or should be since they threatened the food supply of this great nation. There was no nervous coughing over this vague hyperbole, not even a good-natured question from the senate panel about how we might recognize these terrorist weeds, would they adorn themselves with distinctive headgear? See, if you stay home you can’t measure embarrassed reactions. I’m here to report there were none on the faces of the seven senators listening to this daring man’s testimony.

Another advocate for the public’s $7.5 million reminded those assembled that tamarisk was still invading the west and that more effort was needed to stanch the invasion. I don’t think he thought the threat rose to level-red on Homeland Security’s terrorism scale, but it was an insidious threat that only more public money could vanquish.

In the end, the committee voted unanimously to approve the bill and send it on its way to the full senate and thence to the House. Ms Cashmere, Senator Gail Schwartz of Snowmass Village, did offer an amendment so as to wrap the bill in a veneer of probity. She said the legislation should expressly relate that the money was to be used to kill weeds on public land.

No questions were asked about how much this requirement might cost in terms of oversight or if it were even feasible since most of the conservation and weed control land is private. Neither did anyone ask if we weren’t already killing weeds on public and private land with other public money, or was this crisis newly evolving? Nevertheless, the committee adjourned to their suppers having done another day’s work in perfecting the state of Colorado for private interests.

Here are a couple of things that might have been discussed. They should certainly be brought up in any future discussions as this bill works it way through the legislature.

First, the pilfering of the public’s park and open space funds has been attempted before. The folks under the Dome tried to take some of this money for prisons and in another case for capitol construction. Both times the public had to beat these attempts back by direct vote. Apparently, we must stay eternally vigilant, for memories seem to be short among legislators, maybe because penalties are nonexistent.

Then there is the whole business of big agriculture and public hand outs. The fact is agribusiness has fared very well in terms of public money, even in the throes of our Great Recession. Does it really need more? Colorado farmers, for instance, received $3.14 billion between 1995 and 2006 in farm subsidy payments–this according to the Environmental Working Group website. Most of this money goes to the top 10 percent of big farms, really a handful of people, numbering fewer than a small town. Almost 70 percent of farms, the smaller farms, receive nothing. They survive on their own. Only the biggest need apply.

Within Colorado, the largest component of the overall federal farm subsidy program is—yep, you guessed it–the Land Conservation program. It’s bagged over $870 million in taxpayer money between 1995 and 2006. Mostly, this is a kind of welfare program where we pay farmers and ranchers not to work their land, to conserve it since much of it is highly erodible or only marginally productive. Some wag once referred to it, somewhat cavalierly, as a hedge fund for the landed rich against foolishly working their worthless land. Yip Harburg might have set it to music with the line, “so the idle rich don’t become the idle poor.” In many cases, the record shows, public handouts to these landowners have greatly exceeded the value of the land itself.

If you think self-dealing is too common in government at every level, you might not wonder that the House sponsor of this bill is Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling. He recently received ”legislator of the year” award from the Association of Conservation Districts, one of the groups favoring 10-098. Twice he has been recognized as the “guardian of the taxpayers” by the conservative Colorado Union of Taxpayers. They will be mortified, I suspect, to find Sonnenberg has received about $500,000 in federal subsidy payments, some for land conservation, but mostly payments in wheat and disaster subsidies, on his 2500-acre farm. In fact, the whole Sonnenberg tribe in and around Sterling has received over $1.4 million in public subsidies in recent years.

But Sonnenberg is not alone among legislators who have their hand in the farm subsidy honey pot and are also supporting this bill. Greg Brophy of Wray is covered in the gooey sweet stuff. He is assistant senate minority leader and sits on the Senate Ag Committee. He voted in favor of this bill. He’s received almost $100 thousand in subsidies since getting into the business of farming-the-Treasury after graduating from CSU. The Brophy tribe make the Sonnenbergs look nouveau, for they’ve received over $2.6 million in recent years, mostly in corn and wheat subsidies, with corn being almost certainly the largest water gulper in the state.

In the shabbiest of ironies, both these men are very big on shrinking government, but apparently not the government that greases their palm. Brophy has written a blog entry condemning any attempt at a publicly financed health initiative, even though he admits to being graced with a legislator’s health plan costing about $1200 monthly, with the public picking up 80 percent of the costs.

He also advocates reducing public employee salaries by .25 percent and a 4.4 percent across the board cut in the general fund to help stem the state’s budget crisis. It is unclear if he intended to include the legislators and their benefit package in this scheme.

Talleyrand, the French diplomat whose name has become synonymous with duplicity and double dealing, was once described by one of his detractors as a turd wrapped in silk. I think we should start referring to legislation like SB 10-089 as Talleyranders, they have a certain appealing sheen, but only to disguise the underlying stench and corruption. There are more and bigger Talleyranders coming down the pike, particularly with regard to our water. Be on your guard so as recognize the telltale sheen and what lies beneath.

And in the name of sanity, allow the people to keep their recycled lottery loses for parks and open spaces. Some may have to sleep in them if the new economy championed by people like Sonnenberg and Brophy takes hold. Welfare for the rich, that’s ok. But it’s got to be private enterprise for the poor in these hard times.

Oh, and if you’re worried about the war on weeds, just know that the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Interior have been fighting weeds with millions of dollars of your money every year practically since antediluvian times and will continue to do so. Old programs, even worthless ones, are hard to kill in large bureaucracies, for there is always a powerful constituency that has grown used to the hand out.

Moreover, the state’s supplemental agriculture bill has $38 million in it for this fiscal year. Surely a paltry $7.5 million could be redirected for weeds and conservation. Might I suggest they start with the $500,000 for the wine promotion board? I like wine, for like Ben Franklin I believe it “is constant proof that god loves us and loves to see us happy,” but does it really need promotion with our money when we are fighting the all-important war on weeds? Anyway, like with the much larger tourism subsidies, isn’t it the business of business to promote itself? Are we broke or not?

Too, tamarisk eradication has been getting millions of dollars each and every year for as long as I can remember in the budget of the Bureau of Reclamation. Other agencies within Interior, EPA, the Department of Agriculture, and Colorado’s own Department of Natural Resources—by Executive Order D002 03–have been long at work on the problem. The extent of the effort is perhaps underscored by the fact that in 2006 George Bush set aside $85 million, under PL 109-320, for tamarisk eradication. Surely, these folks must know about this money and are hard at getting their share of the hand out. After all, it is part of the their business model. Should I mention that none of these ongoing programs were mentioned at Thursday’s hearing?

All in all, the hearing on SB10-089 was anything but a scintillating performance in government of, by, and for the people.

Phillip Doe lives in Colorado. He can be reached at: ptdoe@comcast.net