The divide between Denver, where the Colorado Legislature convenes to make laws that affect the entire state, and the Western Slope is geographical, cultural and – especially in the winter – practical. That divide at times can have political repercussions that are not helped by the fact that in order to weigh in on pending legislation, residents must travel to the state Capitol and testify in person. A measure moving through the Legislature would change that. Lawmakers should approve it.
Colorado Speaker of the House Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, and Rep. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction, are co-sponsoring a measure that would allow for video testimony from at least five locations scattered across the state. Doing so would vastly increase the opportunities Western Slope residents have to participate in the legislative process. This is critically important.
Under the in-person requirement, many Coloradans who otherwise might weigh in on a law in which they have a personal stake face disproportionate hurdles in doing so. Whereas Front Range residents may have a traffic-filled commute that is inconvenient, it is not unduly burdensome to attend hearings at the Capitol for those compelled to participate in a bill’s progress. Outlying residents face far more significant hurdles. Wintry weather can turn the 379-mile drive from Cortez to Denver into more than a daylong ordeal – one way – costing time away from work and family as well as real dollars to fund the trip.
These are not insignificant obstacles that surely have limited the level of engagement noncentral residents have demonstrated in the legislative process. That has the very real potential of reinforcing a Front Range-centric lawmaking climate; if legislators do not hear from Western Slope and Eastern Plains residents who cannot show up to testify, they are less likely to reflect those residents’ interests in any given piece of legislation. Because of these logistics, there surely have been missed opportunities to more fully incorporate rural perspectives into various Colorado laws.
Scott and Ferrandino have designed an elegant solution to this challenge. By providing several locations – likely colleges and universities – where residents can weigh in remotely via video, the state will gather a wider-ranging body of input to the legislative process. That is particularly important as lawmakers consider legislation addressing wildfire mitigation and response strategies, water use and supply or funding for education – K-12 and beyond – for example. The concerns that Colorado’s outlying communities may have about these issues might be decidedly different from those of metro-area residents. The Legislature should seek that diversity of input.
Extending the video technology to five or more sites around the state is expected to cost $300,000 over two years to establish and then about $1,000 a month to operate. That is an investment well worth making. The initial outlay is not unreasonable, and the monthly cost – for statewide access to tens of thousands of residents – rivals what one person could spend to travel to Denver to offer testimony. The Legislature should waste no time in passing and implementing House Bill 1303.