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Polis, D-Boulder, and Gardner, R-Yuma, hold opposing views on some key issues important to Northern Colorado, including water projects and oil and gas development.
Northern Colorado has seen its fair share of the partisanship that has deeply divided the country. But having Polis now representing Larimer County while Gardner represents Weld County may mean even more political discord in the region.
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It hasn’t always been like this.
Reps. Marilyn Musgrave, a Republican who once represented Gardner’s 4th Congressional District, and Mark Udall, a former representative of the 2nd Congressional District now serving in the U.S. Senate, worked well together in the 2000s.
Getting lawmakers to collaborate today isn’t impossible; it’s just harder than it used to be, said Robert Duffy, chair of CSU’s political science department.
“More and more issues have been caught up in … (a) partisan swirl,” he said.
Polis and Gardner may differ most sharply on the raging controversy over hydraulic fracturing near urban areas.
Gardner has generally expressed a more favorable attitude toward the oil industry than Polis. Gardner believes the federal government should take care not to over-regulate drilling. By contrast, Polis once introduced an amendment to extend buffer zones between hydraulic fracturing activity and schools to 1,000 feet, nearly three times the distance of current setbacks.
“I think Congressman Gardner probably is supportive of more of the issues that we are engaged in,´ said Stan Dempsey, president of the Colorado Petroleum Association and a contributor to Gardner’s re-election campaign.
Polis believes cities should be able to decide whether to allow hydraulic fracturing. The contentious drilling technique involves pumping water, sand and chemicals into a drilled hole to extract oil and gas from shale formations.
“I think it’s obvious cities and counties should be able to do whatever they want in their area in regard to zoning,” Polis said. “Longmont just banned fracking, actually, in this last election.”
The Hickenlooper administration, however, has taken a stance on setbacks that is more in line with the oil industry’s position.
On renewable energy, Polis said the congressmen agree about the importance of extending a wind production tax credit set to expire at the end of the year. Vestas, the Danish wind turbine maker that runs factories in Brighton and Windsor, has cut jobs in both congressional districts partly due to Congress’ inaction on renewing the incentive this year.
“A lot of the technology comes out of my district, a lot of the plants are deploying in his district for solar and wind,” Polis said. “The two complement each other well.”
Congress so far has declined to renew the credit.
Meanwhile, the congressmen’s opinions notably vary on the Northern Integrated Supply Project, which would provide 40,000 acre-feet of water to 15 Northern Colorado cities, towns and water districts by building two new reservoirs. An acre-foot is the amount of water required by about four typical suburban families for a year.
Weld County Commission Chairman Sean Conway believes the project presents an opportunity for Polis and Gardner to save farmland that is drying up in Weld and Larimer counties. He thinks Republicans and Democrats have begun to agree on the project’s importance.
“This is a project, quite frankly, that can accomplish a lot of positive things,” Conway said.
But a united front by Polis and Gardner on NISP has yet to materialize.
Polis, who has remained largely silent on the matter, believes the project would benefit Weld County as well as some areas he represents.
But he also believes the proposal deserves a close analysis by the federal government based on concerns about water quality and the environment.
Environmentalists contend the project would diminish significantly flows of the Cache La Poudre River.
“I want to make sure that the concerns of residents of the district I represent are met in the process,´ said Polis, noting that he doesn’t intend to attend rallies in support or opposition of the project.
Gardner, on the other hand, has supported the project at every turn, attending rallies and promoting it via Twitter.
“If NISP isn’t constructed, if we don’t start storing more water, it will result in the buy-up and dry-up of Colorado agriculture,” he said. “The agriculture economy in Northern Colorado is a bright spot, so I look forward to talking with Congressman Polis and hopefully gaining his support on NISP.”
Gardner and Polis have marked some progress together, including steering funding toward Larimer County for High Park Fire restoration efforts.
There’s also some hope for collaboration on another big Northern Colorado issue: transportation.
The congressmen have expressed frustration about a major transportation bill that was criticized for covering just two years in funding and for expressing a lackluster vision for future transportation.
“The transportation reauthorization has been very frustrating,” Polis said. “It had been continually delayed and we have a short-term version now.”
“But Rep. Gardner and I are working for a long-term reauthorization, so we can have some predictability and stability,” he said.
Gardner agreed. “We can’t have a six-month reauthorization, then another six-month reauthorization,” he said.
However, troubles with the transportation bill stemmed from broader, partisan disagreements over spending in general, so progress may not happen any time soon.
On the array of issues and where the two men stand, Polis puts it this way:
“Larimer and Weld counties’ interests align most of the time, and when they diverge, Rep. Gardner will be on one side and I’ll be on the other,” he said. “Certainly it has nothing to do with party.”