No Compromise in Colorado.

Author:Martinez, Julia C.
Position:Population growth

With all new leaders in the Colorado legislature, diplomacy, compromise and civility seemed to come easy--until it came to managing the state's explosive population growth.

Those who thought the real Stan Matsunaka was the calm, unemotional Democrat who presided over the Colorado Senate, his party in control for the first time in 40 years, should have seen him after Republicans killed his party's growth plan.

Republican Governor Bill Owens and his army of advisers had intervened in the legislative negotiations at a critical point in the talks between House Republicans and Senate Democrats.

Matsunaka claimed the governor derailed the growth negotiations by jumping in at the last minute and then refusing to compromise. "I tell you I'm angry. I've become heavily invested in the idea of planning our future here in this state," Matsunaka says. "I'm passionate about what's good for Colorado."

After a remarkably civil session where lawmakers made strides in education reform, health care, transportation and other issues critical to the state, the tension between the Democrats and Republicans erupted into all-out war over how Colorado should plan for the 2 million people expected to flock to the state by 2020. The clash came over how to preserve open space and Colorado's natural beauty while protecting private property rights and developers' interests. Democrats wanted mandatory comprehensive planning for the long term, while Republicans were willing to stitch together incremental growth legislation over the next few years.

The House killed the Senate's growth bill. The Senate killed the House bill. The GOP governor sided with the Republicans who control the House and the 2001 Colorado General Assembly ended in a stalemate. Owens immediately signed an executive order calling the 100 lawmakers back to address growth management. It didn't happen.

The two-week special session was a bust. Lawmakers left the Capitol blaming one another for breaking a promise to voters to pass a law that would help manage growth.

"To paraphrase T.S. Eliot: This has ended not with a bang, but with a whimper," said Sam Mamet, a lobbyist with the Colorado Municipal League.


Colorado lawmakers have haggled for decades over how to manage growth. The debate intensified after the release of the 2000 census figures in March, which showed Colorado as the third fastest growing state, behind Nevada and Arizona. Between 1990 and 2000, the state's population jumped by nearly a third, from 3.3 million to 4.3 million. Douglas County, a suburban area south of Denver, was the nation's fastest growing county.

Democrats historically have favored a growth management plan, siding with environmentalists. Republicans, with developers and rural interests in their corner, have rejected it. Republicans need a plan to avoid a ballot initiative that could drive the 2002 election in the Democrats' favor.

When Owens was elected two years ago by a slim 8,300 votes, he was Colorado's first GOP governor in 24 years. His re-election in 2002 could hinge on whether he and the Republicans can come up with a plan to manage Colorado's explosive growth and solve the state's traffic jams. The same issues could be a factor in whether the Democrats keep their majority in the Senate; they hold an 18-17 edge over Republicans.

Matsunaka, a lawyer in real life who held weekend town meetings during the session to solicit citizen opinion on growth legislation, was installed as Senate president because of his unflappable temperament and ability to work both sides of the political aisle. On transportation, education and a host of other contentious issues, he was praised for his backroom negotiating skills, which yielded favorable solutions for all sides.

But on the growth debate, the gloves came off. The calm exterior disappeared, replaced by an anger and intensity that surprised even fellow Democrats. No longer was he the consummate diplomat. "If we can't pass legislation that will protect Colorado, we sure as hell can make sure that nothing...

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