2012 Legislative Wrap-up

AARP pleased with increases in benefits for the elderly

The Colorado Statesman

An increase in health care benefits for seniors was the big accomplishment for the elderly at the legislature this year, according to an end-of-session report by AARP Colorado.

House Bill 1326, sponsored by Reps. Cindy Acree, R-Aurora, and John Kefalas, D-Fort Collins, and Sens. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, and Jeanne Nicholson, D-Black Hawk, increased the monthly standard assistance of the Old Age Pension Health and Medical Care Program from $699 to $725. The measure also reinstated dental care services for seniors enrolled in the program, and also extended dental care to seniors 65 and older who only qualify for the Medicare Savings Program.

The legislation also allocates the unused portion of the senior homestead exemption to pay for other programs for seniors, including Meals on Wheels. The legislature this year approved nearly $100 million for the senior homestead property tax exemption following a rosier budget picture that allowed for the allocation. The voter-approved exemption is offered to seniors 65 and older who have lived in their homes for 10 or more years.
Not all of the money allocated for the exemption is used, so HB 1326 requires any leftover funds to be applied to other programs for seniors.

“We heard from our members about the need to restore the senior homestead exemption, so we are happy for them, and we are very pleased to have supported the amendment to HB 1326 that allows for people who don’t need [the exemption] to waive it so others in need can receive desperately-needed services,” said Kelli Fritts, associate state director for advocacy for AARP Colorado.

Another big win for AARP Colorado was passage of a measure that extends funding from the severance tax trust fund used for providing energy-related assistance to low-income households. The $13 million in annual funding has been extended through 2019. Rep. Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, and Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver sponsored House Bill 1028.

Cheering defeat

AARP Colorado also cheered the defeat of two bills that aimed to bring reform to the Colorado Public Employees Retirement Association, or PERA, which AARP believed were an “attack on PERA solvency.”

House Bill 1250, sponsored by Rep. Chris Holbert, R-Parker, and Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, would have reduced employer contributions to the PERA health care fund, which critics feared would have eliminated health care subsidies provided to retirees. Holbert had introduced the bill in an attempt to address PERA’s more than $21 billion in unfunded liabilities. But he asked the House Finance Committee to kill the bill after coming under fire from more than 1,200 PERA members.

House Bill 1142, sponsored by Rep. Brian DelGrosso, R-Loveland, would have given all employees covered by PERA the right to opt out of the standard so-called “defined benefit” pension plan and choose a “defined contribution” plan. DelGrosso introduced the bill to offer members a choice in their retirement plans and to reduce the state’s obligation to PERA.

AARP Colorado points out that most PERA employees choose a defined benefit plan, which commits the state
to providing set retirement coverage and assets. The organization said HB 1142 would have increased state
expenditures by at least $580 million by 2041.

The association of retired persons also fought a bill that would have brought sweeping reforms to Colorado’s decades-old telecommunications laws.

Senate Bill 157, sponsored by Sens. Lois Tochtrop, D-Thornton, and Mark Scheffel, R-Parker, and Reps. Angela Williams, D-Denver, and Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock, would have phased out the state’s High Cost Support Mechanism, which subsidizes the cost of constructing landlines and other infrastructure related to providing phone and Internet services in rural parts of the state.

AARP Colorado said the measure was an attempt to “deregulate” phone service in Colorado. The organization believes that the legislation would have increased phone rates significantly, which would have been a burden to its members.

Concerns for the future

Looking ahead, AARP’s biggest con-cerns for Colorado revolve around budget constraints, especially for at-risk adults.

The organization strongly supported a measure this year that takes steps to protect against the mistreatment, self-neglect and exploitation of at-risk adults. But problems with funding remain a concern.

Senate Bill 78, sponsored by Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, and Rep. Sue Schafer, D-Wheat Ridge, establishes the Elder Abuse Task Force, which is charged with making recommendations for creating a system for mandatory reporting of at-risk elders in Colorado by 2013. The measure also requires individuals working with at-risk adults to complete a criminal history check.

But AARP Colorado is concerned about finding the funding to create a mandatory reporting requirement due to the state’s tight budget. They say looking ahead, it will be difficult to pass any legislation that comes with new spending requirements, though creating the task force to examine the issue is a step in the right direction.

“The fact that Colorado is unable to find the funding for mandatory reporting for at-risk adults under a mandatory reporting bill remains a concern…” said Fritts. “It remains woefully underfunded.”

But overall, AARP Colorado is pleased with its accomplishments and the work of the legislature when budget issues still remain a concern.

“In another tight budget year, we were pleased that there were no cuts to senior services, but we know that there are seniors out there in need and more funding is critical,” said Fritts.

-Peter@coloradostatesman.com