Senators boost Fort Lewis, firefighting fleet

DENVER – Senate Republicans gave an extra boost to Fort Lewis College on Thursday, amending the state budget to speed up funding the college needs to rebuild its science and engineering building.

The Senate also voted to pay $21 million to rent helicopters and small planes for firefighting this summer.

Thursday’s action was the latest twist in two weeks of squabbling over college construction projects. Fort Lewis students and officials were shocked when legislators did not include $22 million in the budget to rebuild Berndt Hall. But last week, the House voted to give the college the money in September, as long as state finances improve as expected.

And Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman won approval of his plan to give Fort Lewis $10 million from a fund in Gov. John Hickenlooper’s office to promote advanced industries. There’s no guarantee his plan will survive through next week, but if it does, Fort Lewis would get about half its funding in time to start construction in the summer.

“To me, it’s more important to invest in something that’s had a need for a decade now, rather than creating a new grant program,” said Cadman, R-Colorado Springs.

Fort Lewis officials did not push for Cadman’s amendment, said Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango. But she supported the idea, because if Fort Lewis doesn’t get any money until September, the weather might be too bad to start construction this year.

The Legislature has prioritized science and engineering, and if Fort Lewis doesn’t get funded soon, it will have to start turning away students from its engineering program, Roberts said.

Students should be the priority in the state’s campaign to attract advanced companies, she said.

“I think they are the seed corn for the advanced industries program,” Roberts said.

Final resolution on when Fort Lewis gets the money should happen next week.

Also next week, legislators should figure out exactly how they will pay for aerial firefighting. Senators committed $21 million Thursday, although the source is still in doubt.

Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, has been pushing for a fleet for two years and was happy with Thursday’s show of support.

“An air corps doesn’t put out fires. An air corps contains fires and makes it safer for our heroes on the ground to put out fires,” King said.

Hickenlooper backs the effort, too, said his budget director, Henry Sobanet. The aircraft will be most helpful in finding and fighting small fires before they get big, according to Hickenlooper’s advisers.

“I think an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. We don’t throw $20 million around lightly,” Sobanet said.

The intrigue over colleges and the firefighting fleet overshadowed the much larger parts of the budget, of which K-12 schools are the largest expense. Schools should see an average increase of $400 per student, Sobanet said. That’s not nearly enough to patch the holes the recession blew in school budgets, though.

Colleges, also are in for a $100 million increase, of which $40 million will go to student financial aid.

“Restoring funding to public education and higher education is one of the bright spots of this budget,” said Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, vice-chairman of the Joint Budget Committee.

The Legislature should wrap up work on the budget next week, and Hickenlooper is largely in support of what legislators have done, Sobanet said.