Voters could see tourism bill
SUMMIT COUNTY – State Treasurer Mike Coffman plans to introduce a bill that would divert an estimated $14 million in gaming money from historic preservation projects and promote tourism.
The bill, which legislators believe will be sponsored by Ken Chlouber, a Republican from Leadville, needs a two-thirds approval in the House and Senate before it can be referred to the voters in November. If approved by voters, it would go into effect in July 2005.
“Tourism is Colorado’s
second-largest industry,” Coffman said Friday. “At a time when we should be doing all we can to boost our economy, it’s unconscionable that we spend less on tourism promotion than any of our neighboring states.”
The state Constitution allocates 28 percent of gaming tax revenues from casinos in Black Hawk, Central City and Cripple Creek to historical preservation. Since voters approved gaming in 1990, gambling tax revenue has generated about $120 million for historic preservation, Coffman’s executive assistant Chas Jones said.
In 1997, the state spent $14.5 million on historic preservation. In two years, that grew to $19.6 million, and in 2001, it grew to $23.5 million.
Jones said there’s no reason to think the pie won’t keep growing, despite a national and statewide economic downturn. Part of that growth could be in tourism, itself.
Coffman’s proposal would change the state Constitution to divert half of those monies to promote the state on a long-term basis. A similar bill proposed by Gov. Bill Owens would boost tourism funds by $10 million, but only for the upcoming year.
“I imagine I’ll be supportive of that,” said Democrat Sen. Joan Fitz-Gerald, who represents Summit County. “Colorado is the best-funded state in the nation for historic preservation. I don’t think when gaming was first envisioned anyone knew the tremendous amount of money that would be generated.”
According to Colorado Tourism Office studies, tourism generates about $7 billion in sales and $550 million in taxes. Tourism officials say the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the national economic downturn, wildfires and drought have brought sales receipts down $1.7 million last year alone.
“Colorado remains one of the best places in the world to visit, but we need to do a better job of getting the message out,” Coffman said.
Among those supporting the proposal are Colorado Ski Country USA, the Colorado Restaurant Association and Vail Resorts.
“I know the historical society has a problem because they’ve dedicated all their money for life-safety projects in the Capitol (building),” Fitz-Gerald said. “It’s a hard call, but gambling has generated more money than we ever dreamed possible. And desperate times call for doing what will jump-start the economy best.”
The historical society recently allocated $30 million over the next five years to repairs to the Capitol building. Fitz-Gerald said the stairs only reach to the second story, hallways are long and have no fire exits, the legislative staff is crammed in cubicles in the basement, and most legislators have been told they would have less than two minutes to get out of the building if it were to catch fire.
The society is required to send 20 percent of its budget back to the three gaming towns, and has numerous overhead expenses. While historians say the cut would prevent them from making grants, Coffman said the group has been operating inefficiently and needs to tighten its belt.
Jones said that while the proposed cut is large, gaming is growing at a rate that it would only take a few years before those funds were restored.
“You only have to go back to 1997 when the historical society only got $14 million,” he said. “It was only a few years before they were right back to where they are today.”
Fitz-Gerald, like state Rep. Carl Miller, a Democrat from Leadville, said the money allocated to tourism must be spent responsibly.
“It’s hard for a board that sits once a month to make decisions without guidance,” Fitz-Gerald said. “I want to make sure we’re not just throwing money at a problem without getting good results.”
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