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Know the West

Colorado voters decide fate of 3 million acres


Anyone who has read Amendment 16 in Colorado knows that it will fundamentally change the way the state manages its 3 million acres of school trust lands.

Instead of maximizing revenues from these lands through leases or outright sales, the state land board would only be required to produce "reasonable and consistent income over time." The land could thus be managed for values other than money, including open space, agriculture and wildlife. The measure would also direct the board to permanently protect 300,000 acres of the most beautiful state lands from developers.

This sounds like a boon for the environment and recreationists. But would the change hobble public schools?

Yes, say opponents to the measure, including the Colorado Board of Education, the Colorado Farm Bureau and Bob Mailander, a state land commissioner appointed by Gov. Roy Romer. They say the proposal will dramatically reduce the $25 million annual revenue the state receives from the trust lands. "I think parks, open spaces and recreation are important," Mailander told The Denver Post, "but they're not as important as school children."

Romer, who has worked with environmental groups to push the amendment, says the $25 million in state-land revenues represents just 1.4 percent of the annual $18 billion state-school budget. He also says that the amendment allows school districts to use the $260 million school-land trust fund for loans to construct new facilities and for guaranteeing school district bonds. The governor even argues that the 300,000 acres of protected lands will increase the value of surrounding homes, which should increase property-tax monies for local schools.

But the state Legislative Council, which puts together a nonpartisan analysis of ballot initiatives for the state's citizens, didn't buy the governor's pitch. In its booklet, the council said that if Amendment 16 passes "either the schools will lose money or the state will need to take approximately $25 million annually from other budgets to satisfy the requirements for schools."

"It's such an irresponsible action that I can't believe it," an irate Romer said after learning of the council's language.

If Colorado voters agree with Romer, they will save one additional small pot of money. Bob Mailander and his two fellow land commissioners will lose their $39,000-a-year salaries. The amendment replaces the paid three-member board with an unpaid five-member board.

Note: this article is part of a feature package on ballot initiatives that includes the following articles:

- Has big money doomed direct democracy?

- Polluted waters divide Oregon

- An 'unfair, inflexible' bid to clean Montana's water

- Will Idaho voters derail nuclear trains?

- Western hunters debate ethics tooth and claw