Three Democratic leaders held a meet and greet Saturday to hear what's on the minds of their Delta County constituents.
House Democratic Majority Leader Crisanta Duran, District 61 Rep. Millie Hamner and District 5 Sen. Kerry Donovan arrived in Paonia to the news that the Bowie Mine #2 will cut an estimated 68 full-time positions and one contractor.
Two bills Donovan is working on could benefit Delta County, including the Rural Emergency Economic Grant bill she co-sponsored with Hamner in 2015. The bill failed, and was reintroduced this session with changes. It has made its way out of the first committee. That's a big hurdle, said Donovan. "If you get it out of that first committee, you've got a chance to get it all the way through."
Donovan said she is more passionate than ever about getting the bill passed, which she said was created with Delta County in mind. It could provide at least $2 million in grants to areas that have experienced significant job loss.
Donovan is also pushing a bill to help get broadband services to rural areas. A component of that bill would bring laws in line with federal definitions and require coordination of spending, which could help bring services to homes and businesses. A broadband deployment fund was set to receive dollars from telephone lines subsidies through a bill passed two years ago, said Donovan. "In two years that bill has been passed and committed to, zero dollars have been transferred into that fund" due to continued arguments over what should be subsidized.
Legislators also heard concerns over the Cottage Foods Act, passed in 2012 and championed by Paonia resident Monica Wiitanen. Tier 2 of the two-tiered bill would allow production of pickled foods in home kitchens to be sold on a limited basis and requires regulations developed by the Department of Public Health and Environment. Wiitanen reminded lawmakers that this is the year for those regulations to be passed. She added that the "Farm to Consumer Sales" bill, could override the cottage food bill. That bill is also supposed to include a local poultry processing component, which Wiitanen said is a good thing. "We're happy with the cottage foods law," said Wiitanen. "They need to not impact it."
Regarding education, an estimated 16,000 computer programming jobs are currently open in the state, said Duran. One bill focuses solely on providing incentives to schools to offer more computer programming classes and ensure teacher training in order to provide students with the skills necessary to succeed in those jobs.
Hamner, who chairs the Joint Budget Committee, said recent job cuts are likely to mean more reductions in students numbers and could result in tough decisions in the future. "In the meantime I continue to fight for every dollar that I can find to send to our schools," said Hamner. She is currently working on bills to better fund schools. During this school year the state reallocated money to increase per-pupil funding by $16-$18 per student. That may not seem like a lot, said Hamner, "But it put $24.5 million more into schools in 2016."
Other resources could come from the 2015 "Jump Start" bill, which creates tax incentives for businesses to relocate to economically distressed areas across the state. This session Democrats also introduced the "Colorado Ready to Work," a package of 10 bills intended to boost businesses and connect Coloradans to careers. With roughly 100,000 people moving to the state in the last year, "We want to continue to make Colorado a wonderful place to live," said Duran. She said both parties are seeking innovative ways to ensure Coloradans have the tools to succeed and get access to good-paying jobs, said Duran.
Paonia resident Elaine Brett thanked lawmakers for their support and asked if they were aware of the "Colorado Community Rights Amendment," a proposal that would restore certain constitutional rights of local communities in self-governing. It would take back a more than 100-year-old ruling that allows local communities to self-determine and not have the state be the ruling body, said Brett. It's been approved by the courts and while it isn't just about oil and gas and is about giving communities a right to things like clean air and water and healthy food, the industry is opposing it, said Brett.
Dave Knutson, with the Grand Mesa Nordic Council, praised the Colorado Department of Transportation for working to improve conditions on Highway 65 following the deaths of two people last year when they were hit by vehicles in the Skyway parking lot, which people had reported as unsafe.
"CDOT doesn't often get kudos," said Hamner, "so thank you."
One local farmer mentioned the challenges he has experienced in trying to use hemp as a cover crop for local soils high in salts. With seeds cheap in Canada but not in the U.S. due to strict regulations that favor hemp oil producers and processors, he asked lawmakers to look into changing regulations, which he said have created black-market prices for seeds. Donovan said those are federal regulations, and that efforts are being made at both the state and federal levels to change hemp laws.
Hamner added that hemp could be part of the "mining industry solution."