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Publish Date: 5/9/2005

Colorado GOP learns to play role of underdog


DENVER — Republican Rep. Joe Stengel has spent the legislative session on the attack, accusing Democrats of being “antibusiness” and labeling their proposed fix for Colorado’s fiscal crisis a tax increase.

Stengel said he learned a lot about playing the role of the pit bull from watching the other party, who were relegated to the minority in the House for more than 40 years. But the House minority leader and other Republicans concede they didn’t use another key part of the Democrats’ strategy this session — sticking together on votes.

“We tend to vote the issue rather than the party,” Sen. Norma Anderson said shortly after teasing Sen. Jim Dyer, a critic of big government, after the fellow Republican voted in favor of allowing police to pull over people who aren’t wearing seat belts.

“Hey, Dyer, don’t ever talk about nanny government anymore,” she yelled after the vote as Dyer left the chamber.

There was a lot of this from the Republicans this session as “nanny state” became a buzzword of sorts for the new minority, a derisive term attached to legislation the GOP believed reeked of government intrusion or overspending. It was used to describe bills ranging from a statewide smoking ban to requiring businesses to give time off to parents so they could attend school activities. Some of the criticism was also directed at proposals from Republicans, including one that would bar new teen drivers from driving with other teens.

Dyer himself complained that some of his colleagues seemed more interested in pursuing their own agendas than advancing the GOP’s key principles. “We haven’t spoken with a unified voice on almost anything,” he said.

The biggest split in the party came over a ballot proposal that will ask voters in November to let the state keep $3.1 billion that would normally be refunded to taxpayers. A majority of Republicans voted against it even though Gov. Bill Owens endorsed it after negotiating the terms with Democrats.

Dyer and others who voted against it think more budget cuts can be made, and they seemed stunned that Owens would actually make a deal with the Democrats. Anderson and those who supported it say there is no where else to cut.

Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, who backed the plan, recalled her frustration when El Paso County Republicans, who all voted against it, fought to restore corporate tax breaks to next year’s budget after Democrats cut them. Using leverage from the governor’s office, they were able to get half of the money, taking $1.4 million from the state education fund.

There have been other sharper divisions.

Stengel stood with the supporters of the proposed budget fix as Owens announced he had come on board. A week later, he came out against it after he said a poll of his Littleton district proved it wasn’t popular. That prompted Owens to quip that Stengel wouldn’t be included in the next volume of “Profiles in Courage.”

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