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Calamity Jane

Colorado's once and future governor wins points with bullets, not ballots.

The last time the big guns of the National Rifle Association came to town, the blood spilled at Columbine was barely dry. Mayor Wellington Webb had urged the group to cancel its annual convention set for Denver in early May 1999, and when the NRA came anyway, Governor Bill Owens -- just four months into his first term -- declined to send an official representative to welcome the attendees, much less do the honors himself. (Embattled Colorado Secretary of State Vikki Buckley, already under fire for activities -- or lack thereof -- at her office, took it upon herself to greet the group, in one of her last unofficially official acts before she unexpectedly passed away.)

But when the NRA dropped by again two weeks ago, propping up president Charlton Heston to tout its "Vote Freedom First" campaign, Owens made sure that his soon-to-be second in command, lieutenant-governor nominee Jane Norton, laid out the welcome mat. And she laid it on thick for hundreds of NRA supporters at the rally.

As director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment -- a position for which she'd been recommended by Trish Nagel, the nursing-home mogul who'd dropped big bucks into Owens's squeaker of a 1998 campaign (she repeated the favor in 2002) and had subsequently served on Owens's transition committee -- Norton had gone gunning for Planned Parenthood of Colorado. And she shot down state funding of rural women's health-care clinics not once, but twice, most recently arguing that the low rent that Planned Parenthood charged those clinics violated a 1984 amendment to the state constitution prohibiting the use of public funds for abortions. (Last April, the state auditor's office took issue with that assessment, noting that the health department had "relied on its own interpretation of the constitution and case law" in prohibiting rural health-care funds from going to clinics that Planned Parenthood had spun off specifically to comply with the law; in the process, Norton had left the state open to "legal challenge." As a nonprofit organization, Planned Parenthood was "capped" in what it could charge as rent, the auditor determined, adding that, arguably, the clinics were "paying the fair-market rental rate.")

Now elevated to Owens's official sidekick, Norton took careful aim at NRA members (and Heston fans) who filled the hotel meeting room, ticking off the ways that Owens's first-term administration had made the state more firearm-friendly.

Thanks to a bill Owens had signed into law, it was now possible to transport guns through the city of Denver. And it was on the governor's agenda "to enact a uniform legal standard for issuance of a right-to-carry permit," she said.

That vow generated applause almost -- almost -- as loud as the cracks about Rosie O'Donnell and Hillary Clinton in the speeches that followed.

But Norton wasn't done. She ended her welcome with this promise: "We're going to work to identify state-owned land that might be suitable for private gun ranges."

Apparently, Colorado's ban on fires on public lands -- announced by Owens this past summer, just after he got burned by his comment that the entire state was burning -- doesn't extend to a ban on firearms. And in fact, Colorado already has one such gun range, which dates to the days of Governor Roy Romer, an ardent (gasp!) Democrat.

A private outfit, one of five concessionaires at Cherry Creek State Park, runs a shooting range in that suburban oasis. "It's been there ten years, and it's pretty successful," says Owens spokesman Dan Hopkins. In fiscal year 2001, the private gun range paid $18,452 to the state. "They also sell parks passes and collected $31,882 from those," Hopkins adds.

Hopkins is unaware of any other entrepreneurs eager to turn state property into shooting galleries. For now. But as more private gun ranges are gobbled up by urban sprawl, he suggests that more people will be looking for alternatives.

And with Colorado under the gun to take another bite out of its $13.8 billion budget, Owens and company will be looking at any possible revenue sources. Next week, the Joint Budget Committee is slated to get the full, grim details from Owens, who'd carefully waited until after the election to share them with lawmakers. The budget was already cut by $220 million this spring; with little discretionary funding remaining, the next round could be lethal.

The possibility of furloughs for state workers has already been raised. And, hey, if any Colorado employee is going to take a holiday, why not the lieutenant governor? Permanently, if possible. After all, the office is largely ceremonial, and cost-conscious politicos have taken aim at abolishing the lieutenant-governor slot many times before -- usually with good reason. George Brown, Dick Lamm's first lieutenant governor, is primarily remembered for his fictitious claims to having been branded by the KKK. A decade later, while serving under Roy Romer, Mike Callihan displayed his political finesse by suggesting that Native Americans (one of the areas in which the lieutenant governor is actually supposed to have some oversight) enjoy Thanksgiving dinner in a Mayflower van parked in front of the State Capitol; he proved his business acumen by leaving public life to invest in Kenny Rogers Roasters.

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