Tax-free Colorado: Coming soon to a legislature near you?

Almost a month ago, I put out the call for ideas on saving our sinking economic ship. I received a great deal of feedback. It was all insightful, and — to my surprise, given that the subject was how to address a terrible local economy — mostly positive. The best news, though, comes from the fact that most folks think we have the tools we need right now to make a difference.

A couple of themes dominated the responses: that Colorado Mesa University is our best vehicle for developing the workforce we need to thrive, that a healthy airport is vitally important to our future, and the outdoor recreation opportunities are unrivaled. Here is a sampling:

■ “Let’s build an educated workforce using CMU by offering tuition breaks to city and county residents above the in-state tuition rates.”

■ “We need to get our airport back on the right track. This asset is critical to the economy of Grand Junction and we should do everything we can to see that it succeeds.”

■ “A young friend, born and raised in this area, left today because, although imminently qualified in her chosen field, she could not find steady work.”

■ “We need to develop a strategy for success. Success needs to be defined in small victories, such as retaining local jobs, small increases, and helping local entrepreneurs.”

■ “We need to beautify our city. I know it takes money and personnel, but I think it says more to those visiting or looking to relocate that we don’t take care of our city.”

■ “To get away from the historic boom/bust cycle, the area needs an economic engine that is neither medical, education or governmental. (Luring Google from Boulder) could be that engine.

■ “We have great outdoor recreational opportunities. Are we doing enough to promote world-class events/competition? Is there more we can do?”

■ “Consider: Less traffic, local university, extraordinary outdoor recreation opportunities, lower prices for real estate, no mountain passes or tunnels to access ski areas.”

■ “The partnership with CU’s engineering program creates huge opportunity for CMU to start turning out large numbers of high-performing young engineers. The question is, how do we keep them here?”

That last question — how do we keep the brains we are developing at CMU in our community? — is vitally important. We know that CMU had an economic impact to our region of around $417 million last year. That’s looking at things like salaries, spending by faculty and students, construction projects and visitors to campus.

That economic impact is significant and real. But it’s a mere drop in the bucket compared to the potential impact we’d feel if we were able to offer good, local jobs to CMU graduates. CMU President Tim Foster told The Daily Sentinel editorial board on Friday that “almost all” CMU graduates would prefer to stay in the community. But a lack of good, well-paying jobs here creates a giant sucking sound from the Front Range — to our enormous detriment.

Losing graduates of our CU/CMU engineering program is especially painful. Engineers are important to any community’s growth, but especially ours because they are job creators themselves. Indeed, this was one of the reasons CMU created the engineering partnership with CU — so that its graduates would stick around, create or join companies and build things locally.

Every time an engineering or any graduate moves to the Front Range because he or she can’t find a job in this valley, we take a double hit. The first hit comes because we lose that potential job creator; the second comes because growing companies take advantage of state incentives for job growth. The more the Front Range grows, the more state tax credits (and some tax dollars) are diverted to the Front Range. 

So, without ready jobs in the area, how do we retain the young, energized minds that CMU is creating?

The state of New York had been experiencing a very similar dynamic: The high-performing graduates its colleges and universities were churning out in economically-struggling upstate New York were leaving those communities upon graduation for better opportunity in New York City or out of state.

In response, in 2013, New York passed legislation known as Start Up New York. Under this program, qualifying start-up companies with a nexus to the mission of the university in the economically distressed areas of the state are able to operate for 10 years free of sales tax, property tax, corporate tax, business tax and franchise fees. And the employees don’t pay personal income tax to the state.

The early indications are that the program is working.

Last year, New York ran an ad during the Super Bowl for Start Up New York. The national and international resonance, as you might imagine, was gigantic. As you watch today’s game, imagine the beautiful mountains of western Colorado starring in an advertisement for “Tax-Free Colorado.”

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. This is an idea our lawmakers should embrace.

Now.

Jay Seaton is the publisher of The Daily Sentinel. More to come on Tax-free Colorado next Sunday.


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