The battle of Colorado bureaucrats

Jan 3, 2006 2:15 AM

Colorado’s gaming commission appears to be locked in a power struggle with the state’s Department of Revenue over taxes, staff shortages and controlling its own budget.

Those were the inferences following an emergency meeting called by the gaming commission last week.

During the meeting, the Colorado Limited Gaming Control Commission, which regulates the state’s 46 casinos, said the revenue department has caused staff shortages that have resulted in a delay of casino audits.

Commissioners also complained that the state department has interfered by controlling its expenditures and ability to increase its staff.

"We are facing extreme circumstances," said Natalie Meyer, chairwoman of the commission. "The problems are preventing us from exercising our constitutional authority."

One of those responsibilities is ensuring gambling taxes are funneled into state programs, but a persistent shortage of auditors has failed to produce a casino audit since last March.

"We don’t know whether the taxes coming in are anywhere near appropriate," said Barbara Jenkins, an accountant who serves on the gaming commission.

In 2004, casinos reported revenues of about $726 million and paid taxes of $99.5 million. Through November 2005, casinos have reported revenues of $698 million and paid taxes of almost $92 million.

The commission also blamed the revenue department for the slow hiring process, which has left five vacancies among the 13 auditor positions in the gaming division. One of the jobs has been vacant since December 2004.

The commission’s dispute with the revenue department, which oversees the gaming division, also includes who has authority over the commission’s budget.

In one instance, commissioners objected to the department’s denial of their budget request to hold a two-day retreat at the Table Mountain Inn in Golden.

Department officials said the $3,100 cost of the proposed meeting was "excessive," adding that it involved an overnight stay and dinner for the commissioners.

The head of the department of revenue, M. Michael Cooke, defended her office.

"These are issues that I feel for some reason or another have been blown somewhat out of proportion," Cooke said.

Cooke said she rejected the retreat request because "it was not consistent with or policies," and said that the department hasn’t instituted a hiring freeze.

She said she had to reject an auditor applicant whose salary request was more than 30 percent above the baseline salary, but that her department was still trying to fill the auditor positions.

At the end of last week’s meeting, the gaming commission passed a resolution seeking action from Governor Bill Owens and other legislative leaders.

The five-member commission was appointed by Owens and falls under the jurisdiction of the Department of Revenue.

A state attorney general, however, has reviewed Colorado statutes and concluded that the gaming commission should have control over its own budget.

A spokesman for the governor said he would meet with both sides to the dispute as soon as possible.

"He has been following it for the last couple of weeks and he does not believe it is a constitutional crisis," said spokesman Dan Hopkins. "It’s a disagreement between two entities and he will resolve it."

Hopkins added that "there needs to be some sort of a fiduciary watchdog over (the commission’s) budget," perhaps tipping which side the governor might take in the dispute over the commission’s budget.

"These are public funds and need to be handled prudently," Hopkins said.