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Gardner roundtable targets economic opportunities

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Through a series of economic roundtables across the state, U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner is gathering input from business and community leaders. Thoughts from those meetings will be compiled into a "white paper" that will help shape policy to reflect economic opportunity.

"I recognize that in Colorado the only people who seem to get a lot of attention are the people between Fort Collins and Pueblo," he said at a roundtable in Delta last week. "You go to Denver and see the cranes on the skyline, and that's great for them, but it hasn't necessarily spread around to the rest of the state. We need economic opportunity in all parts of the state, not just along the Front Range."

Policies taking shape in the nation's capital are indeed impacting Delta County, from the war on coal, to management of Forest Service and BLM lands, to a growing number of regulations that are seen as obstacles to business expansion and job creation.

County commissioner Doug Atchley said Delta County must maintain a diverse economy that includes both agriculture and an energy portfolio that incorporates coal.

"Coal cannot be just wiped out even with the current EPA onslaught," he said. "We need probably around 30 percent to maintain the current electrical grid and we're acting like we don't need any of it."

On top of the job losses Delta County has already experienced, commissioner Mark Roeber said listening sessions about raising royalties could deal another blow to coal.

"In the state of Colorado a committee reviews all the regulations that flow from the executive branch," said State Rep. Yeulin Willett. "If they're out of bounds, we can put a stop to it. We need that at the federal level."

In addition, he said, "We need the ability to bring a lawsuit, to get a temporary restraining order or injunction against executive branch overreach."

Gardner agreed a sunset review process is needed, but by that time, businesses and industries have often expended a great deal of time and expense to respond to the regulations.

County administrator Robbie LeValley said even when regulations are modified, the initial decision making is often incorporated into standards and guidelines with the same result. "There needs to be an extra step," she said, referring specifically to the development of resource management plans for federal lands.

Discussion of the economy moved to broadband, an issue of great importance to all of rural Colorado. Roundtable participants recognize the recent $5.2 million DOLA grant is a huge step forward for Delta-Montrose counties, but much work is left to be done.

"There's a long way to go, to get fiber to homes and to businesses," said Mark Eckhart, a local businessman and DMEA board member. DMEA is providing access to its fiberoptic infrastructure, which will bring high speed Internet to a central location in participating communities.

Full buildout could run $93 million, just in DMEA's service territory. "We need it, we need it bad, but who's going to pay for it?" Eckhart asked.

"That's a great place to look for leadership from you," State Senator Kerry Donovan told Gardner. "Everyone outside of the I-25 corridor has similar dollar figures, and we've got a real tight purse to put in substantial infrastructure that varies from community to community. It's appropriate for government to play a role -- it's a place where we can make a difference because it's so important."

Gardner reminded participants of the $100 million awarded to EagleNet to provide Internet access to underserved rural areas. "The first customers were Denver Museum of Natural History and the Cherry Creek School District ... sometimes the government solution doesn't actually address the issue."

Doug Atchley referred to Paonia business owners who drive to Glenwood Springs to upload large documents, while Jason Cleckler, hospital CEO, talked about the lack of connectivity in clinics just a quarter mile from the hospital. The Affordable Care Act mandated hospitals utilize electronic medical records or be penalized, but outlying clinics do not have the connectivity to make the system work efficiently. The slowdown affects the number of patients that can be seen by a physician. "It takes 30 minutes to an hour to download a CAT scan that a physician in the Denver metro area could do on a cell phone in a matter of seconds," Cleckler said. "It's a huge barrier and quickly becoming one of the biggest expenses for our hospital."

Cleckler also told Gardner about the "looming crisis" of Medicaid expansion in Colorado. Three years ago, the hospital's payer mix was 9 percent Medicaid; now it's up to 25 percent. Because of the low reimbursement rate, many physicians limit the number of Medicaid patients they will accept, so even though more people have insurance, it's questionable whether access has improved.

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