Daily Camera article on GOP education proposals uncritically repeated disputed Roan drilling estimate, omitted Democratic comment

››› ››› MEDIA MATTERS STAFF

Reporting on state Republican legislators' proposals "to reform higher education," the Boulder Daily Camera on October 24 offered details about the measures but no comments on them from state Democrats. Additionally, while noting that one of the plans would "tap into natural-gas revenue from the Western Slope's Roan Plateau," the Daily Camera did not mention widely reported public criticism of the plan's revenue projection assumptions.

An October 24 Boulder Daily Camera article reporting on a "package" of Republican proposals "to reform higher education" in Colorado included no comments about the measures from Democratic legislators. In contrast, articles about the GOP plans in the Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, and The Gazette of Colorado Springs (accessed through the newspaper's electronic edition) featured reactions from Colorado House Speaker Andrew Romanoff (D-Denver), Senate President pro tem Peter Groff (D-Denver), and House Education Committee Chairman Mike Merrifield (D-Colorado Springs). Unlike the Daily Camera, the News also reported that "Democrats will unveil their education proposals after Gov. Bill Ritter's P-20 Council issues its recommendations next month."

Moreover, the Daily Camera article by Brittany Anas also reported that one of the GOP proposals "would tap into natural-gas revenue from the Western Slope's Roan Plateau" and "pump an estimated $500 million to $1 billion in leasing fees to Colorado's state government and another $100 million annually for the next two to three decades in mineral royalties and state and local energy taxes," allowing for half of it to "be funneled into a trust fund for the state's colleges and universities." However, the article did not note that, as Colorado Media Matters has pointed out, critics of the drilling proposal, developed by state Sen. Josh Penry (R-Fruita) and state Rep. Al White (R-Winter Park), contend that estimates of the "potential federal revenues" upon which the proposal is based have been overstated dramatically and would not justify the environmental impacts that would result from development.

As the Daily Camera reported, "Republican state leaders unveiled a package of proposals Tuesday to reform higher education, including plans to lock in-state tuition rates and use oil and gas profits for a higher-education trust." The article continued:

One of the measures -- co-sponsored by Sen. Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield -- is intended to help Colorado families more accurately budget for college. The proposal would require colleges to offer an optional tuition guarantee for students who earn their degrees in four years.

"Higher education has been skyrocketing out of control for years, if not decades," Mitchell said. "This proposal would give families a more predictable cost so they could plan and budget."

[...]

Another GOP proposal would tap into natural-gas revenue from the Western Slope's Roan Plateau. That plan would pump an estimated $500 million to $1 billion in leasing fees to Colorado's state government and another $100 million annually for the next two to three decades in mineral royalties and state and local energy taxes.

Half of the money from natural gas production would be funneled into a trust fund for the state's colleges and universities. The other half would be dedicated to a trust fund for the energy-impacted cities and towns, with the interest providing money for Western Slope roads and bridges.

While the Daily Camera quoted Mitchell's remark about higher education costs "skyrocketing out of control," the article failed to include comments or reactions to the Republican proposals from Democratic legislators.

In contrast, the News reported that Romanoff "said he was happy to see higher education earning some attention from the GOP" and quoted him as saying, "If my Republican colleagues are now interested in showing up for the colleges and universities in the state and making higher education more affordable for more kids, I say welcome aboard ... We've been trying to make that case for last three years." Similarly, the Post reported that Groff "said he supported some of the GOP ideas, including graduation requirements and English-proficiency exams," but that he also "pointed out that he and Romanoff started the conversation on school reform and said he 'welcomes' Republicans to the discussion."

In addition, the Gazette noted that Merrifield "said he was pleased to hear about the low-income scholarship idea" proposed by the Republicans. The Gazette further reported:

He also said he'd be willing to work with Republicans on setting up the trust fund if they would consider raising severance taxes -- fees paid by companies that extract minerals from Colorado's ground -- to the same level as surrounding states such as Wyoming and New Mexico.

But he questioned where the money would come from on some of the programs and said the idea of penalizing school districts for students' needing remedial classes is "blatantly unfair."

"The districts that are suffering the most are those in the low-income neighborhoods, and they are suffering because of the lack of resources," Merrifield said.

Additionally, while the Daily Camera reported that the GOP proposal to "tap into natural-gas revenue" would provide additional funding for higher education in the state, the article failed to mention widely reported public criticism of the revenue projections included in the proposal.

As the Post reported on July 27 (accessed through the Nexis database), Penry and White's proposal "to channel revenue from the Roan Plateau into a fund for higher education overestimates the amount of money it will bring in," according to Mary Ellen Denomy, an "expert on petroleum accounting" who "researched recent lease deals in the area at the request of some statehouse Democrats." According to the article, "Penry dismissed Denomy's analysis as a politically motivated attack on his proposal" and "said his numbers -- backed by the oil and gas industry -- show that the land on the Roan Plateau could command bonus payments of $40,000 an acre. Penry cited two nearby deals that raised between $43,000 and $50,000 an acre." But the article further noted:

Denomy analyzed 19 transactions involving leases on land controlled by the Bureau of Land Management. Based on her analysis of 20,661 acres of land on the plateau or adjacent to it, the average bonus payment was $220 an acre.

"Show me where the BLM has leased any property for $40,000 an acre," Denomy said. "Not anywhere in our state."

Similarly, as the AP reported on August 11 about the battle over drilling on the Roan Plateau, "There's also debate over how much money the state will get from [BLM] lease payments and royalties":

First, federal legislation is needed to give the state any money. Currently, revenue from fees and royalties on land already leased in the planning area goes to a special fund for the cleanup of a site on the plateau where oil shale research took place decades ago.

BLM officials have said there's more than enough money for the cleanup. [U.S.] Sen. [Wayne] Allard has proposed a bill to give the state its share of the revenue.

But even if the money starts flowing, it likely won't be as much as predicted by supporters of development, said Mary Ellen Denomy, a petroleum accountant.

Based on 19 federal tracts leased in the area over the last year, an analysis by Denomy, done for environmental groups and Democratic legislators, concluded the state's share of lease revenue over 20 years would be $8.1 million at most.

"For the largest gas reserve in the lower 48, that's not credible," state Sen. Josh Penry, R-Fruita, said of Denomy's analysis.

Penry believes the figure would be closer to $1 billion, based on recent sales in the area. He is co-sponsoring a bill to funnel the state's proceeds to two permanent trust funds, one for higher education and one for energy-impact assistance.

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