Jane Mather, guest opinion: House district with Front-Range mountain communities a better match for Grand County
When my friend Eileen first told me about the reapportionment meeting, I of course had something else I thought was more important to do. Now a few weeks later, I realize what “reapportionment” is, how important it is, and I’ve traveled to Boulder to make a statement at the public hearing. I’ve also written this column to clarify some misunderstandings I’ve heard. Unlike what you might have heard or read, many Grand County residents – myself included – support the new proposed House District. In this proposal, Grand County is combined with Clear Creek, Gilpin and western parts of Boulder County. Most of the population in these communities share a reliance on tourism and recreation, a strong interest in preserving the environment for both residents and visitors, the challenges of education and public transportation in small communities, and concerns about our forests, fire-mitigation, pine-beetle infestation, and yes, as you will see, water. Admittedly, a House District that included Grand, Routt and Summit Counties, and whatever else would be added to reach the target of 77,372 residents, would be preferable, but might not be achievable. The reapportionment process is like a set of dominoes: Change one district and nearby districts no longer have their 77,372 people. My views reflect, in part, time visiting my parents near Allenspark, in the part of Boulder County included in new proposed House District. I could tell you lots of stories about my parents, their friends along the Peak-to-Peak Highway, which traverses the mountains on the Eastern side of the Divide, and my friends in other parts of the proposed District, but facts and data are more likely to explain why the proposed District has similar interests to Grand County. Here are four rebuttals to opponents’ concerns: • The district combines Grand County with Boulder and we aren’t like Boulder. The proposed district includes only part of Boulder County. More than 65 percent of the population in the proposed district lives in mountain areas, near ranch and farm land, or in small towns with a rural or tourist focus, such as Lyons, Hygiene and Eldorado Springs. Only 21 percent of the population lives in suburban residential communities in the city of Boulder. •Even though it might look like the proposed district meets the constitutional requirements for “compactness,” it isn’t compact because you can’t drive over the Continental Drive. It’s actually quicker for me to drive to Allenspark and Niwot, in the farthest corners of the proposed district, than to Rangely, on the far side of our current House district. From Fraser, I can reach Allenspark and Niwot, summer or winter, in 2.25 to 2.5 hours. From Kremmling, it’s 2.5 hours. In comparison, it takes 2 hours to drive to Steamboat Springs, the closest of the four counties in our current district. To reach Rangely on the far side of Rio Blanco County, it’s more than 4 hours. Opponents claim the Continental Divide means we won’t see our representatives. Jeanne Nicholson, our state senator, and Jared Polis, our U.S. House representative – both from the Front Range – have held meetings and town halls in Grand County numerous times. • Grand County is a West Slope county and thus has the same interests as the other West Slope counties. Not necessarily. Consider our economic base. Almost 40 percent of Grand County workers are employed in accommodations, arts, entertainment and recreation. Only 11 percent of workers in Garfield, Rio Blanco, and Moffat are employed in these industries, less than the 12 percent average for Colorado. Routt County is more similar, but only 24 percent of employment in these industries. So where are workers employed if not in tourism and recreation. Ranching and agriculture? No. Only 1 percent of workers in these counties are employed in agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting. Boulder County actually has more people employed in agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting, 382, than in Garfield, Rio Blanco, Moffat and Routt combined, 324. Grand County has just 58 people in these areas. While some of the employment difference is in health care and government, the majority is in mining. Driving through the northwestern counties, you will certainly see ranches, but you will also see lots of oil and gas wells. Close to 20 percent of their employment is in mining, while Grand County might reach 4 percent. Mining leads to another significant difference – higher incomes. Grand County’s average annual wage for an individual is $29,000. Average wage for an individual in these three northwestern counties is more than $43,000, 50 percent more than in Grand County. Average wages in Clear Creek and Gilpin is closer to ours at $37,000. The average for Colorado is $48,000. (Data isn’t readily available for just the part of Boulder County in the proposed House District.) • They just want our water. Actually they don’t. Many people in the proposed district are actively fighting the expansion of the Gross Reservoir, where the Denver Water Board would store the water they want to take with the new firming project. Jeanne Nicholson, the state senator for this area and for Grand County, and Clare Levy, the state House representative for this area, oppose the dam expansion. At the town hall they hosted, attendees noted the project would damage their environment while water would go to water lawns and support growth in Denver. Levy said, “We can’t keep sucking water out of a river and killing it.” Sound familiar? Our county commissioners recognize how important reapportionment is. When members of the Grand County Republican and Democratic parties claimed that we were united in opposing the Larimer/Jackson district and then the Boulder/Gilpin/Clear Creek County House districts, the commissioners said they would fight to stay represented on the West Slope. With only 14,843 people in Grand County and a target of 77,372 for each House district, they recognize we can only elect a state House representative who represents our interests if we are part of a House district with similar interests. With the new House district proposal, our county commissioners and the Reapportionment Commission still have heard primarily from those who object. When I spoke to County Commissioner Newberry, he said his comments reflected what the commissioners had heard at the time. With sufficient new evidence, they would reconsider challenging the Reapportionment Commission proposal. One piece of new evidence is the vote taken at the last Grand County Democrats meeting: 7 favored the new proposal with Clear Creek, Gilpin and parts of Boulder County; 4 opposed, believing a western-slope House District was necessary; and 2 abstained, saying they were just there to learn.