DENVER – A bipartisan bill to establish a firefighting aerial fleet to protect lives, property and water in Colorado stalled Thursday when Senate Agriculture Committee chair Sen. Gail Schwartz (D-Snowmass Village) postponed the vote until Monday.
The firefighting air corps bill, sponsored by Sen. Steve King (R-Grand Junction) and Senate President Morgan Carroll (D-Aurora), has limited time to win committee and floor approvals in the Senate and House chambers.
Committee members heard two hours of testimony by citizens and firefighting experts, including fire chiefs and Paul L. Cooke, director of the state Division of Fire. Cooke issued an extensive report last month on the cost and casualties of fires that have ravaged Colorado in recent years, and recommended a firefighting fleet.
Sen. Lucia Guzman (D-Denver) made several motions to move the bill and an amendment to the Senate Appropriations Committee.
“Colorado is about forests. It’s about plants, it’s about land and it’s about water,” said Guzman. “In the long run (the bill) helps with cleaner air, water and safer communities.”
Schwartz repeatedly asked if Guzman’s motion was to vote on an amendment – and refused to consider advancing the bill to the appropriations committee.
“I’m going to lay the bill over,” said Schwartz. “Personally I’ve not had enough time to look at the fiscal note, look at the report, look at the amended version of the bill.”
Sen. Lois Tochtrop (D-Thornton) said, “We are running out of time and I’m sure the appropriations committee is looking for this bill in particular” because the Senate voted to set aside $19 million in the state’s budget for SB 164.
Schwartz insisted on postponing the bill for “action only” until Monday at a “special meeting” of the committee.
“While this is a significant investment, I think it’s a smart investment on the front end that ultimately can prevent or minimize far greater losses on the tail end,” said Carroll.
In 2012, Cooke said, there were nearly 6,500 wildfires in Colorado that destroyed about 650 structures, killed six people and charred more than 260,000 acres. The property loss cost more than $538 million.
“A catastrophic fire on the Western Slope could damage Colorado’s watersheds for generations to come,” said King. The watersheds are the primary sources of water for 40 million people living in southwestern states.