President’s Column – October 2001

Title: A Legislative Update of Geological Interest

Author: Susan Landon

Publication: The Outcrop, October 2001, p. 3, 7

Politics can be frustrating. The following is a recent example from Colorado. This past legislative session saw a troubling series of events regarding the status of the Colorado Geological Survey (CGS). The current State statutes contain conflicting statements regarding the position of the CGS. One states that the Survey is an independent agency (Division) within the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The other states that it is part of the Division of Minerals and Geology (DMG), the mining regulatory agency within the DNR. The bipartisan Joint Budget Committee (JBC) introduced a bill near the end of the legislative session that would have eliminated the conflicting language and clearly re-establish the CGS as a Division within the DNR. The State Senate passed the proposed bill with only one dissenting vote, and the House passed the bill unanimously. Governor Owens then delayed action on the bill until the legislative session ended (and with it any possibility of an override) and vetoed the bill.

Late last year, the DNR submitted their proposed budget for the 2001-2002 fiscal year to the JBC with a major change that would merge the roughly $4 million budget of the CGS into the roughly $6 million budget of the DMG. For those of us in the geological community who have helped work on building a relevant and effective Survey over the past 10 years, this merger is inappropriate. When the Executive Director of the DNR first made a public statement indicating his plans to merge these budgets, two geologists (one from the petroleum community and one from the hydrogeologic community) met with him and explained their concerns regarding the proposed merger. He told them that it was not a topic of discussion because he had decided to go forward with the merger.

How did this state of affairs come to be? To understand the current situation, some history needs to be provided. The CGS was re-established as a Division within the DNR in 1967 after several decades of inactivity. As financial constraints developed in the 1980’s, the CGS was forced to work on a “cash-funded” basis and significant conflicts with the geological consulting community developed. A task force was established to evaluate the CGS. Its report was supportive of a state geological survey and made twelve recommendations including one to form an advisory group. An Executive Order, in 1991, established the CGS Advisory Committee. The primary role of this independent body was to monitor potential conflicts resulting from cash funding and identify new sources of funding.

In 1992, the legislature created the Division of Minerals and Geology within the DNR and established the Minerals, Energy, and Geology Advisory (MEGA) Policy Board. Thus, the DNR avoided dealing with an administrative problem directly. The MEGA Board was given the initial task of making a recommendation on the future of the CGS. This was an interesting process as the Board, in simple majority, voted to maintain the CGS as a Division within the DNR. Some members of the Board argued that, due to the nature of the motion, a supermajority was necessary to leave the CGS as a Division. Therefore, the CGS became, on paper, part of the DMG. At that point the MEGA Board sent a compromise recommendation to the Governor regarding the location of the CGS and details of how it should be managed within the DNR. From the MEGA Board recommendation, an Executive Order was issued that stated that the CGS would become part of the DMG contingent upon certain criteria:

 

  1. The name shall remain the Colorado Geological Survey and the Advisory Committee shall continue,
  2. The salary level of the State Geologist shall continue at the Division Director level,
  3. The State Geologist shall have appointing authority for Survey staff,
  4. The State Geologist shall retain authority to represent Colorado in all geologic matters, including representation on Boards and Commissions,
  5. The State Geologist shall have freedom to solicit and negotiate grants from all sectors of the economy,
  6. The State Geologist shall administer funds and grants received that result from work performed by the Survey, and
  7. The State Geologist shall be represented at all Department Director meetings, functions, etc. This includes presentations and justification of the Survey’s annual budget and decision item requests.

During this time, the former State Geologist had retired and a new State Geologist was hired at a Division Director level.

When the current administration took office in 2000, the first action that affected the CGS was the abolishment of the Advisory Committee. This was reported to be a cost-cutting action so the administration must have been surprised to learn that the Advisory Committee existed without financial support from state funds. Since then, the Executive Director of the DNR has been determined to follow through with the merger of the budgets, although there is no financial savings associated with the merger.

Why should the geological community care about these changes? The functions and statutory purposes of the DMG and CGS are very different. The CGS is primarily a science agency that addresses issues as diverse as geologic hazards (including avalanche hazards), water quality, geologic mapping, and geologic investigations that result in reports that benefit many communities: oil and gas, mining, engineering, environmental, local government, and other public users. The DMG is a regulatory agency with the purpose of regulating the development, operation, and reclamation of mining properties. In a letter to the Governor, Peter Dea, at the time Chairman of the Board and CEO of Barrett, wrote: the state geologist “has done an exemplary job of bringing the CGS to a high level of accountability and respect over the last several years. She has recruited a very professional team of geologists, engineers, and support staff. Ms. Cowart and her qualified team provide objective science to the citizens of Colorado. This includes geologic hazard analysis for highways and residential areas, environmental and hydrologic baseline measurements, and resources evaluation.”

When the budget proposal became public last fall, several members of the geological community decided to work with the JBC on this issue. Constituent geologists met with their legislator-members of the JBC explaining the reasons not to merge the budgets. In response to the DNR proposal to merge the budgets, the JBC’s Budget Analyst recommended against this request and noted that the merger between the CGS and DMG had never occurred, as many of the conditions were unmet or undone. The Budget Analyst also identified the numerous inconsistencies and cited conflicting statutes. The JBC subsequently introduced the proposed legislation to eliminate the conflicting language. It is disappointing that Colorado’s Governor chose to veto their bill, particularly after it had received overwhelming, bipartisan approval from both the House and the Senate and widespread support from the geological community.

The next legislative session will probably address the status of the CGS again. Stay tuned for chapter two or, better yet, help us write the next chapter. Contact your legislator and urge him or her to support the JBC’s efforts if you believe the CGS should continue to help the citizens of Colorado as a free standing science agency within the DNR.

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