Legislators anticipate crucial issues ahead of upcoming general assembly | SteamboatToday.com

Legislators anticipate crucial issues ahead of upcoming general assembly

Jim Patterson

Editor's note: This is the first in a three-part series examining major issues that will face the Colorado State Legislature when it convenes its 71st General Assembly Jan. 11. The series will continue Tuesday with a look at the state budget, housing and how potential federal changes might affect Colorado and conclude Friday with a look at state Senate priorities.

A number of important issues await Colorado legislators as the first regular session of the 71st Colorado General Assembly convenes Jan. 11 in Denver, and according to incoming Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, and State Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush, D-Steamboat Springs, transportation and education will figure highly on the list of legislative priorities.

Both also agree that addressing these issues will require taking a hard look at the overarching state budget, which Duran says is underfunded by some $500 million, as well as careful consideration of potential changes under the incoming administration of President-elect Donald Trump.

Duran and Mitsch Bush discussed these issues, as well as how potential changes at the federal level might ultimately affect the state, during a Dec. 19 visit to Steamboat Springs.

Transportation

Duran acknowledged transportation funding as one of the most important issues facing Colorado. She said developing a transportation funding plan will be crucial this year in order to ensure a "piecemeal approach" — in which municipalities and counties address their own transportation funding needs — doesn't ultimately hinder efforts to comprehensively address the problem statewide.

"The more there is this piecemeal approach to transportation funding, the more likely that there are going to be particular communities that get left behind," Duran said. "Because if … local governments start acting on their own, they are not going to be as invested in coming to the table for a statewide solution. … I think we have to put all options on the table to figure out some solutions, and that's why we've been working in a really collaborative way to figure out what that could potentially look like."

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Mitsch Bush, who will serve as chair of the House Transportation and Energy Committee, agreed, saying that transportation funding is her "No. 1. priority."

"If we continue to kick the can down the road and not bring in new revenue … localities, especially those with a good tax base, are going to do it themselves," Mitsch Bush said. "And then, if we do get our act together to get something statewide, they're not going to be as interested in being a part, and their voters are going to be less likely to vote … so it's really important to get something done."

Recalling 2007's Blue Ribbon Panel on Transportation, which described transportation as "the quiet crisis," Mitsch Bush said little has changed in the intervening decade, and a growing gap between funding levels and construction costs has put the state billions of dollars behind the curve in terms of meeting its transportation needs.

Mitsch Bush said transportation in Colorado is funded almost entirely by state and federal gasoline taxes, which, she added, haven't been increased since 1991 and 1993, respectively.

"So what we have are early 1990s revenue and funding (and) a construction cost index for roads that has gone up more than 60 percent since that period," she said.

Added to the problems of an aging infrastructure, increasing population and more highway miles traveled, Mitsch Bush described the state's transportation funding landscape as "the perfect negative storm."

"So, we need new revenue," Mitsch Bush said, noting that the past approach of "moving the (budgetary) shells around" hasn't been effective.

She suggested — and Duran agreed — that the transportation funding solution might be realized by asking voters to fund tax plans for "very specific projects with specific dollar amounts attached and a sunset."

"I think the lesson to be learned is … that having specific projects with specific dollar amounts and a sunset" is the best approach to successfully increase revenue through taxation,” Mitsch Bush said.

Education

Duran said one of her main legislative goals this year will be exploring ways to continue investing in education and "making sure boys and girls across the state of Colorado have the opportunity to reach their full potential."

To that end, she said, she has been thinking about the education puzzle in terms of the state's specific employment needs.

"I think one area in particular is really thinking about some of the jobs that are available in Colorado and how we make sure people have the needed skills to be able to get into those positions," the incoming speaker said. "One particular issue that we're looking at is how do we advance computer science and digital literacy classes in the state for student. Only one in four Colorado students have access to those types of classes."

And, looking at the current and future job market in the state, Duran said she sees "a real opportunity to get truly good-paying jobs if students have the right skills."

One proposal Duran is currently looking at would create a resource bank within the state Department of Education for curriculum related to computer science and digital literacy.

"Districts across the state would be able to utilize those resources to be able to teach computer science and digital literacy,” Duran said.

She added she would also like to create a grant fund through which teachers across the state could access funding to enhance their ability to effectively teach in those two key areas.

To reach Jim Patterson, call 970-871-4208, email jpatterson@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @JimPatterson15