As the legislature reaches mid-session, lawmakers are receiving an “incomplete” grade for addressing rural Colorado; being told by rural interests that they still have much more work to do.
It appears unlikely that the Democratic-controlled legislature will end the session in May with applause from rural citizens. The frustration is likely to serve as a campaign call for Republicans, who say they are more connected with rural parts of the state than Democrats.
Democrats, however, contend that they are working with Republicans to sponsor bills that address needs in rural Colorado, including providing access to affordable health care, supplying money for economic development, expanding access to technology and assisting rural schools with budget needs.
Even though both sides of the aisle included rural Colorado in their talking points at the beginning of the session, provincial interests have watched as proposals they supported this year were killed. And they have not seen other bills move to address several important issues to them, including lowering health care premiums and addressing transportation needs.
Much of the anger grew out of a secession movement last year in which voters in 11 counties in northern Colorado were asked whether they would like to secede from the state. Six of those counties rejected the proposal, halting the 51st state initiative. But the outcry was still heard.
The secession movement itself stemmed from frustrations with the legislature, including a bill backed by Democrats last year and signed by Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper that raised the rural renewable energy standard. Ratepayers in more remote parts of the state are complaining that their electric bills are spiking.
A package of gun control bills also raised ire, including measures that banned high-capacity ammunition magazines and required universal background checks. Second Amendment issues resonate loudly in rural areas.
Acknowledging the groundswell of criticism, leaders from both sides of the aisle opened the session with comments specifically addressing rural Colorado. Republicans used the anger from remote parts of the state as fodder, promising to make rural Colorado their priority focus and pressuring Democrats to follow their lead.
“What cannot be ignored are the many parts of Colorado that still struggle today,” House Minority Leader Brian DelGrosso, R-Loveland, said during his opening remarks in January. “Outside the Front Range we have communities stricken with stagnant or in many cases declining economies.”
House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, called on the legislature to put aside differences to work for the greater good of the state, including contemplating rural Colorado. But he believes that has always been the focus of the legislature.
“I can cite one example after another from the work we’ve done these past few years to show that the pundits and partisans who say Colorado is a fractured state, split between left and right, rural and urban, are simply wrong,” he surmised during opening remarks.
Is the legislature listening?
But if you ask rural Coloradans, they believe a rift is apparent and growing. One example they give is on the rural renewable energy standard. Several attempts this session to either repeal or reduce the 20 percent by 2020 mandate failed. The proposals were killed on Democratic party-line votes.
Democrats also rejected a Republican proposal that would have added hydropower to the list of acceptable renewable energy resources, infuriating GOP lawmakers who had hoped to make it easier for electric cooperatives to comply with mandates.
Similarly, attempts to repeal the gun laws also failed, with Democrats voting down the proposals. Democrats then killed a measure that would have allowed local school boards to permit teachers and staff to carry concealed weapons at public schools. Several rural school boards had supported the measure.
Republicans also point to Democrats rejecting a measure this year that would have allowed voters in counties with less than 70,000 people to elect commissioners exclusively within that district.
House Democrats earlier voted to cap enterprise zone tax credits for business investment in rural counties, to the outrage of Republicans, who said the move would limit economic development in rural areas.
The GOP also attacked Democrats after the majority caucus rejected a measure that would have allowed unlicensed plumbers to perform work in areas with populations of 30,000 or less. The bill aimed to expand access to plumbers for residents in less populated regions of the state.
Republicans pounced last month as well when Democrats rejected their proposal to remove agricultural burning from a measure that would grant county commissioners additional authority to limit certain forms of controlled burns, requiring farmers and ranchers to obtain permits before implementing such a strategy.
For groups like Club 20 and Action 22, which represent rural Colorado, the session has been more of the same — a focus on urban areas without truly considering remote parts of the state.
Bonnie Petersen, executive director of Club 20 representing the Western Slope, said that while the legislature so far has not done anything harmful to rural Colorado, it also hasn’t done anything to really help.
“Rural areas as well as metro areas need to have as much help as possible…” said Petersen.
“My sense is that there may be some hearing, I don’t know if there’s listening…” she added. “I haven’t seen anything that is necessarily extremely positive; it’s all just been at this juncture non-eventful for rural Colorado.
“We would like [lawmakers] to recognize that there are economic issues in western Colorado, in rural Colorado, as there are in the metropolitan area,” Petersen continued. “We would like to see policies that help support and encourage businesses to stay and grow in western Colorado, we haven’t seen a lot of that.”
Petersen is waiting on a measure that would address support for building broadband in rural parts of the state. That legislation is likely to be introduced as part of a package of telecommunications reform bills.
She is also hoping that lawmakers will do more to fund transportation projects in underserved parts of Colorado. Similarly, she is hoping that rural Colorado will be highlighted for capital improvement projects.
Petersen would also like to see lawmakers address concerns around health care, including providing the necessary technology and lowering insurance rates for rural Coloradans.
Cathy Garcia, president of Action 22 representing southern Colorado, said there is no one-size-fits-all legislation, suggesting that all bills should be evaluated for the impact to rural parts of the state.
“We need to get people to realize that they need to look at all the legislation from a statewide perspective, not just their own constituencies,” implored Garcia, who added that she believes progress is being made.
“They are realizing that rural Colorado is a lot different than urban Colorado…” she said.
Some of that progress stemmed from the recent uprisings in rural Colorado, opined Garcia.
“The legislature, after the events of the past year, they probably are looking at things different than they should have been all along,” she said.
But Garcia does not believe there is a “war on rural Colorado” waged by Democrats, as many Republicans have alleged.
“The legislators were busy with their little special interest constituencies that they forgot they are state legislators…” suggested Garcia. “There is no war on rural Colorado, it’s just that 60 percent of the legislature is from Denver… We need to remind them that they are state legislators.”
One area of encouragement has been the creation of the Rural Caucus, led by Rep. Tim Dore, R-Elizabeth. At the caucus’ first meeting, lawmakers listened to concerns around rural telecommunications issues. In the second meeting, the panel heard from rural school leaders. The caucus is also expected to meet about energy issues and health care.
Dore agrees that the legislature has done little this year to address rural issues. But he hopes that his caucus can shine a spotlight on the subject.
“The caucus is a product of last year’s assault on our rural communities through very aggressive legislation, and the caucus’ purpose has never been to figure out, ‘How do we promote legislative action?’ It’s more of an educational tool,” explained Dore.
“We’re hopeful that at some point we can transition into a position where we can help to modify or even promote legislation, but we aren’t there yet,” he added.
Dore said he is “disappointed” by what he describes as inaction by the legislature this year, suggesting that the majority party is still not listening.
“It’s a continuation of the same type of attitude you have from a very urban-controlled majority not understanding or really willing to reach out to understand the rural parts,” he surmised.
“Have we done anything for rural Colorado?” asked Dore. “The answer to that is absolutely not. We’ve continued to see legislatively anything but positions that are more understanding of the interests and concerns of rural Colorado.”
‘War on rural’ a gimmick?
Democrats, however, have a different take. Sen. Mary Hodge, D-Brighton, co-chairwoman of the Rural Caucus, said the so-called “war on rural” is nothing but sensationalism.
“The rural caucus is an attempt to get people together that don’t just have the talk shows: ‘Oh my god it’s a war on rural Colorado.’ Because the talk shows have hyped that up pretty well,” Hodge responded. “If we have real rural people in a real world come and talk to us we can probably ease the pain a little.”
Democrats point to several of their measures and programs directly assisting remote parts of the state, including Senate Bill 144, which would create family medicine residency programs, and the Rural Economic Development Grant Program, which is in the process of awarding $3 million for economic development to rural communities.
Democrats say they are also working diligently on the broadband bill, which is likely to be introduced in the next couple of weeks. The bill would likely repurpose money from a subsidy paid to rural telecom providers for offering phone service in underserved parts of the state. The money would be redirected toward broadband development in those areas.
Democrats also point to general efforts in education that they say will impact rural Colorado, including a K-12 funding proposal that would add $263 million and a college affordability bill that would add over $100 million to higher education, increasing financial aid.
Senate President Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, shrugged off the “war on rural” rhetoric, pointing out that Senate Democrats prior to the launch of the session embarked on a listening tour in rural parts of the state.
“When we actually asked people what was important to you… we heard a lot on transportation — they want to make sure that rural Coloradans aren’t forgotten — education — reminding us that unfunded mandates are particularly tricky in schools where sometimes one person serves four jobs — and… health care has always been an issue in terms of access and cost…” explained Carroll.
“It’s really just don’t forget about us…” she added. “No one at any stop that I was at did anything other than raise those issues and, frankly, thank us for taking the time to be out there and hear our concerns. None of the people out there are using this frame of ‘war on rural Colorado.’ I think that’s just a partisan talk show gimmick.”