RBC I Freshman state Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail/Wolcott, was honored in Meeker Sunday by Rio Blanco County Democrats from Meeker and Rangely.
All county residents were invited to attend. Rio Blanco County Commissioner Jeff Eskelson expressed his regrets he could not participate, but acknowledged that Donovan “has been a great advocate for the Western Slope.”
Donovan enjoyed a potluck with the group and then settled into an informal, roundtable discussion of her experiences in the Colorado State Senate and answered questions.
Donovan explained that her Senate District 5, which includes seven counties—Chaffee, Delta, Eagle, Gunnison, Hinsdale, Lake and Pitkin—varies from the most liberal (Aspen) to the most conservative (Delta) communities in the state. She said she felt this contrast last legislative session when she co-sponsored a bill that would have repealed the 2013 law banning possession of large-capacity ammunition magazines. She said she feels the law is unenforceable, but that some of the more liberal of her constituents weren’t happy. They thought they had elected a Democrat as if all Democrats would be expected to support such a limitation. The repeal bill did pass the State Senate.
In her introductory remarks, the senator said one of the things she was most proud of from her first legislative session was getting an amendment put on the state’s budget bill (The Long Bill) in April. She succeeded in getting funding in the amount of $750,000 to reauthorize the Colorado Rural Economic Development Initiative (REDI) grant program intended to help diversify rural economies. The intent is to assist the 30 most distressed areas of the state.
She reported that it was the only amendment to the Long Bill adopted in the House and the Senate. She was helped on the House side by Meeker’s state representative, Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale, a member of the Joint Budget Committee. Donovan described Rankin as a “good guy” and a very hard-working legislator.
Donovan was also able to get into a revealing conversation about the expansion of broadband service in Colorado with Rio Blanco County (RBC) IT and broadband director Blake Mobley.
Rio Blanco County is well ahead of other rural communities in the state, both municipalities and counties, regarding broadband development.
A year ago, county voters approved exempting themselves from the internet provider limitations set by the Legislature through SB 152 in 2005. Now the county is a model for rural broadband advancement in the state
Donovan is planning to carry legislation in 2016 to facilitate the extension of broadband in rural Colorado by reducing some of the barriers in state law as she considers it so important to rural economic diversity and stability.
At least 26 municipalities, including Craig, and 17 counties have ballot questions this November regarding release from the SB 152 limitations. Only 10 counties or towns have already approved such questions, including Rio Blanco County.
Regarding public school funding, Donovan said it’s not a rosy picture. She, too, feels it’s terrible that Colorado, with its above-average per-capita income and education levels, is something like 47th in per-student K-12 funding and 48th in higher education funding in the nation. She reported, in agreement with Rep. Rankin, that given all the tax limitations and other requirements in the state Constitution now, legislators’ hands are pretty well tied regarding what they must fund and the limited dollars they have to fund those mandates. She supports efforts to provide a little more state budgeting flexibility through Amendment BB, placed on this year’s ballot by the Legislature, to allow expenditure of marijuana taxes and, in the near future, shifting hospital fees, established to help fund Medicaid, from being considered state general fund revenue to being an enterprise fund not invoking Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) limitations.
Donovan did suggest that citizens can expect to see broad discussions this next Legislative Session on TABOR and what the state should do now that the state’s coffers have been restored to the point that something like $23 reimbursements may be required to be paid back to each taxpayer.
On a different matter, Donovan warned agricultural producers, specifically woolgrowers, to watch out for another attempt at requiring sheepherders to be paid a certain significant amount per hour.
Asked about the initiative effort being led by one of Donovan’s fellow Democratic state senators, Sen. Irene Aguilar, a Denver physician, to make Colorado the first state to opt out of the federal health care law (The Affordable Care Act) and replace it with a taxpayer-funded universal care system, Donovan expressed concern about the significant cost of such a program and doubted whether her rural constituents or rural communities were ready for another major change in health care.
Called the ColoradoCareYES campaign, the organizers plan to get the question of universal coverage on the November 2016 ballot. Their proposal would amend the state constitution to require health coverage for everyone under the age of 65 through a resident-run health cooperative.
Donovan also mentioned that she was very happy to have had passed her bill to provide financial assistance and operational flexibility to small rural school districts like Rangely and Meeker. The bill, numbered HB 1321, authorizes a one-time sum of $10 million for schools of fewer than 1,000 students to be distributed on a per-pupil basis for non-recurring expenses identified in the bill. It also provides administrative flexibility to these schools by allowing email communications as opposed to more expensive written notices and the conducting of single performance evaluations for employees who hold multiple roles as opposed to the now required multiple evaluations.
Donovan said she advocated for rural Colorado students throughout the 2015 legislative session. The assembled group thanked her for these efforts.
On Saturday, Donovan also spoke to a meeting of a Colorado Rural Initiative in Silt. She told that group her legislative priorities for 2016 would likely include clarifying the importance of public lands recreation in Colorado, giving more support for tiny homes advocates in terms of removing local barriers, making sure government data centers, which are big energy users, be required to modernize the energy efficiency of their operations, and easing the tax burden through credits for middle-aged families which are dealing with both aging parents and sending kids to college.
Paula Davis, county Democratic chair, a former mayor of Rangely and spouse of the late Don Davis, former RBC county commissioner, said, “Everyone enjoyed Sen. Donovan very much and had the opportunity to be educated on state finance and budget issues. We were pleased she has done so much to support rural public education.”