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Lawmakers from Southwest Colorado prepare for legislative session

Gold King Mine, health care, wildfires, water on agenda

DENVER – Colorado lawmakers representing Southwest Colorado are preparing for the upcoming legislative session, with focuses on the aftermath of the Gold King Mine spill, rural health care costs, wildfires, water, transportation funding and voting integrity.

J. Paul Brown – House District 59

Republican Rep. J. Paul Brown of Ignacio is facing a bit of a complicated legislative session. After defeating Democrat Mike McLachlan in 2014 to take his seat back, Brown once again faces a tough challenge from a Democrat. This time, the opposition comes from McLachlan’s wife, Barbara McLachlan, who hopes to unseat Brown in November.

“You can’t help but think, ‘Well, somebody is going to come back on this vote and have a flier on it,’” Brown said. “But the way I feel about it is, I just have to vote the way I think is best.”

For the looming legislative session – which begins Jan. 13 – Brown is largely focused on transportation and water issues.

He plans to carry legislation that aims to guarantee transportation funding stemming from a 2009 law that requires dollar transfers to transportation when personal income grows. That trigger only kicked in recently, after the economic downturn, and it only offers temporary funding.

Under Brown’s proposal, if funding is reduced under the 2009 law – because of a formula that allows transfers to be halved during taxpayer refund years – then another year of funding would be added to the trigger requirement. That means that if funding is reduced one year, then transportation managers can at least expect additional money in future years.

Similar legislation was tried last session, but it did not muster enough support.

“The further we fall behind, the more it’s going to cost us,” Brown said.

On water, Brown is again focused on studying water storage along the South Platte River. He tried legislation last session, but it failed amid spending concerns.

“I’m going to keep pushing on that because the low hanging fruit for the Front Range is Western Slope water,” he said. “It’s easy to just send it over the hill, and we just don’t have that water to send.”

Sen. Ellen Roberts – Senate District 6

Republican Sen. Ellen Roberts of Durango has her sights set on rural health care costs, an issue that is familiar to her as someone who has led discussions across the state.

Health insurance rates are up by 26 percent on the individual market along the Western Slope, according to the Colorado Division of Insurance.

“That’s completely unsustainable for the average household or individual who is trying to make ends meet,” Roberts said. “They can’t be expected to survive on ramen noodles.”

Roberts does not have a concrete proposal yet. But she is working with the Colorado Commission on Affordable Health Care – which was created thanks to legislation she pushed in 2014 – to craft measures.

“There’s no time to waste,” Roberts said. “I’m getting emails from desperate constituents all the time saying, ‘how are we going to survive?’”

She is also working on bills in the wake of the inactive Gold King Mine spill, in which an error by the Environmental Protection Agency caused an estimated 3 million gallons of mining sludge to pour into the Animas River on Aug. 5.

One proposal comes out of an interim water resources committee that has suggested a resolution that would encourage Congress to pass “good samaritan” legislation, which would reduce the liability associated with private entities conducting mine reclamation work.

Roberts would also like to address jurisdictional issues between states in the wake of Gold King. The incident impacted several states, including neighboring New Mexico. State agencies found it difficult to work with one another because of legal roadblocks. Roberts has proposed legislation that would eliminate some of those barriers through intergovernmental agreements.

“When minutes matter, you need a clearer pathway,” she said.

In terms of wildfires, Roberts is supporting a resolution that would ask Congress to change how it funds fire services so that it can spend more money on forest management.

The problem is that over the last several years, there has been a sharp increase in the Forest Service’s budget for fire suppression, jumping to 50 percent from as little as 15 percent 25 years ago. The agency is forced to borrow from programs that would reduce fire risk and aid prevention in order to fund suppression efforts.

“The Forest Service’s budget gets depleted with these god-awful wildfires, and so then they don’t have the money they need to actually manage the forests,” Roberts said. “It becomes a vicious cycle.”

Rep. Don Coram – House District 58

Republican Rep. Don Coram of Montrose is also preparing for the upcoming session, with one of his focuses placed on voting integrity.

The issue is a recurring theme for Coram, who would like to require photo identification if in the last 29 days of the election cycle a voter has not registered to vote.

The proposal comes after Democrats passed legislation in 2013 that allowed for same-day voter registration.

“In the last election, there was an election or two that was decided by one vote. So, if there is a fraudulent vote that changes our election, that’s not kosher,” Coram said.

The bill faces an uphill climb in the Democratic-controlled House, where similar efforts have previously failed.

Coram is already prepared to take the issue to the ballot by collecting signatures if the legislative attempt fails.

pmarcus@durangoherald.com

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