MOUNTAIN VILLAGE - Western Colorado’s representative in Congress, Rep. Scott Tipton (R) of Cortez, held a town hall forum at the Mountain Village Town Hall on Friday, marking his first visit to the liberal precincts of eastern San Miguel County since he unseated Rep. John Salazar in 2008. County residents asked Tipton a series of questions about his positions on the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act, the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, the recent government shutdown and his pressuring Washington to distribute Payments in Lieu of Taxes to rural counties.
San Miguel County Commissioner Elaine Fischer was the first to ask Tipton about his stance on PILT funding, which are federal payments made to local governments that help offset losses in property taxes due to non-taxable federal lands within their boundaries. Each year, counties across the western United States forecast how much PILT funding they’ll need for the following year as many of them rely on the payments to fund schools, road repair and construction and emergency services. Over the past three years, San Miguel County has budgeted an average of $705,000 per year in PILT funding.
Since Tipton was elected in 2010, PILT funding in San Miguel County has exceeded the county’s budget forecasts. But because he campaigned on platforms of austerity and belt-tightening, local officials are left feeling uncertain about future PILT funding.
“What are you doing to further maximize PILT funding in the coming years?” asked Fischer.
“I fully support PILT funding, I believe it's an important program," Tipton answered.
Tipton was also confronted over his unwillingness to take a stand on the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act, a piece of legislation that is stuck in the United States Senate.
Introduced by Colorado Senator Mark Udall (and with co-sponsorship from Colorado’s junior Senator Michael Bennet) and passed by the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act, S. 341, would designate nearly 60,000 acres of land in southwestern Colorado as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System. Supporters of the bill assert that it would increase tourism while further protecting region’s forest, preventing development, pollution and illegal use.
“I own 240 acres in Naturita,” said resident Dave Foley. “I’d like to see [the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act] pass because it’d protect me and my land.”
Telluride Mayor Stu Fraser asked Tipton for assurance that the congressman is doing what he can to ensure the bill’s passage.
“I support protecting the wilderness of Southwest Colorado – I grew up here,” answered Tipton, adding that he fondly remembers skiing the Telluride Ski Resort years ago and hunting with his father near Cortez, where he was raised.
“But I sponsored the Hermosa Creek Wilderness proposal and the Chimney Rock National Monument, and I think that the best outcome for this land is to continue protecting it through alternative approaches including conservation areas as well as working with existing protections.”
Fraser and Fischer were not satisfied with the answers they received from the Congressman. Fischer later told The Watch that Tipton was noncommittal, only responding with enthusiasm for the PILT program, but not outlining the details of what he or his staff are doing to maximize the payments to rural counties in southwestern Colorado.
Similarly, Stu Fraser said that working with Tipton’s predecessor John Salazar was easier as San Miguel County and Salazar had more common goals for the region.
“[The Act] has been around for so long,” Fraser told The Watch after Friday’s meeting, “the stumbling block is when Congressman Tipton came in.”
At a town hall in Montrose last week, Tipton was berated by some in the crowd for standing with the Republicans who staunchly opposed the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, holding government funding hostage in exchange for defunding the health care overhaul.
Echoing much of the nation’s sentiment against obstructionist Republican politics on Friday, San Miguel County, too, criticized Tipton for his unwavering stance over the implementation of Obamacare and for being a part of the ultraconservative faction of House members that many Americans blame for Congress’s inability to confront the country’s mounting problems, according to an AP survey.
“…I need to criticize you,” said local attorney George Allen. “You have thought the most important thing was to vote over 40 times to repeal the Affordable Care Act. While the tourism and wilderness in San Miguel County and surrounding regions is important, you repeatedly support the [House] leadership that has stalled out the government,” Allen added, accusing Tipton of being in step with the uncompromising political approach of House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and majority leader Eric Cantor (R-VA).
After taking a sip of coffee, Tipton fired back at Allen, saying that he’s introduced a number of bills that have made it to the House floor, contributed in bipartisan legislative efforts that include bills the Water Rights Protection Act (which features co-sponsorship from Democrat Utah Congressman Jim Matheson) and H.R. 1916, a bill that would American protect small business exports. To date, H.R. 1916 has six Democratic signatures.
“But anybody can put a bill out there -- anyone!” said Allen. “The hard thing is getting it to a floor vote, and you voted over 40 times to repeal large parts of the Affordable Care Act. All of us will hold you accountable for these votes.”
“Are you open to compromise or are you welded in?” Allen concluded, before the meeting room erupted in applause.
Tipton fired back, saying that he’s stood firm against Republican leadership. “I’ve voted with [Speaker Boehner], but I’ve also voted against him,” said Tipton. “On Syria - I was the first in saying no,” he added, referring to President Obama’s request for Congressional approval to intervene militarily in the country’s the two-year old regional conflict.