The Post editorial: Audit of Great Outdoors Colorado is good news
Along-awaited audit of Great Outdoors Colorado is out and, as it turns out, there was no reason for officials to resist, as its findings were mostly positive.
Last year we were among those calling for an audit in the face of resistance from the heads of Great Outdoors Colorado, commonly known as GOCO. It seemed suspicious enough that we are relieved the audit found minimal quibbles with how the state agency is run.
GOCO is tasked in the Colorado Constitution with administering millions of dollars in lottery proceeds every year for the benefit of Colorado parks, open spaces and wildlife. The entity is outside traditional state governance, and last week the state auditor released the first performance audit of the program.
The most significant finding of fault was in a random sample of 87 of the 4,900 grants GOCO has issued over 22 years. That study showed GOCO had “some problems … categorizing some grants.” In other words the grants were all awarded to projects that complied with GOCO’s mission, but were “miscatergorized” for the purpose of ensuring GOCO provides equal resources to its four main missions: wildlife, outdoor recreation, local government and open space.
GOCO should tighten the way it labels the grants, paying particular attention to wildlife funding, which was intended to go through Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
But on the whole, we are glad no substantial misspending was found with the program.
Investing in our open spaces, our parks and our wildlife is critical to Colorado, where outdoor recreation is a substantial economic driver and residents value the quality of life that comes with access to the great outdoors. Negative audits, like one critical of the conservation easement tax credit program earlier this year, can have repercussions on public trust and result in a reluc- tance to invest future taxpayer dollars in public lands.
The tax credit program gives millions in state dollars back to taxpayers willing to permanently forgo development on their property. The audit found that the state agency administering the program awarding those tax credits was unable to show that the lands preserved were high-priority properties.
Helping restore faith in the program, however, is a report issued by Colorado State University that delved into how the tax credit program and GOCO grants for land conservation have worked over the years.
According to the analysis done by CSU professors and funded by a gift from Robert L. Tate, “Residents of Colorado have received an estimated $5.5 billion to $13.7 billion of economic benefits from land conserved by conservation easements while the state has invested roughly $1.1 billion — through approximately $280 million from GOCO and $772 million from the conservation easement tax credit program on these efforts since 1995.”
Critically, the study also found that the state was setting aside lands considered important habitats, based on analysis by the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. We’d still like more transparency in Colorado’s tax credit programs, but this report is a good start.
The moral of the story for our public lands advocates is that transparency shouldn’t be resisted but embraced. The more the public knows about the good work they are doing with taxpayer dollars, the less likely they are to operate under a cloud of suspicion.
Public dollars are being expended for the public good, and the public should know exactly where these lands, trails and other projects are located and how much money they cost. The members of The Denver Post’s editorial board are William Dean Singleton, chairman; Mac Tully, CEO and publisher; Chuck Plunkett, editor of the editorial pages; Megan Schrader, editorial writer; and Cohen Peart, opinion editor.