Democrats recently remarked that Colorado has “no shortage of unmet needs” — a comment that elicited a sardonic tone from Colorado House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, R-Castle Rock — and …
Democrats recently remarked that Colorado has “no shortage of unmet needs” — a comment that elicited a sardonic tone from Colorado House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, R-Castle Rock — and the 2018 legislative session, with its kickoff Jan. 10, is shaping up to bear out that claim.
Which needs it will meet is a different story.
Lawmakers will be pressed to find solutions for a state with a ballooning population clogging roads, an underfunded retirement-fund program and housing costs through the roof. With roughly $300 million projected in previously unforeseen revenues — a prediction that may double — the state has a small bit of breathing room to signal where its priorities lie.
Among other issues lawmakers have discussed in the weeks leading up to the regular session — the four-month part of the year when legislators pass bills — health-care costs have already risen as a key debate to watch for in 2018.
Amid elections, this year will offer no easy waters for bipartisanship — all 65 seats in the state House are up for election, as are 17 of the 35 state Senate seats, plus statewide races including the governor's post. Here's what both parties had to say about the flash-point issues this session.
'Walking the walk'
Colorado landed itself in a $9 billion hole as of 2016, according to state projections of transportation-spending needs through 2025. Interstates 70 and 25 are in need of updates in several parts of the state, to say nothing of smaller roadways.
“We talk the talk — we have to walk the walk,” Neville said at the Business Legislative Preview event hosted by the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and the Colorado Competitive Council Jan. 4 in downtown Denver. He took cynical aim at the Democrats' “unmet needs” comment from a Jan. 2 news release.
“They say we have unmet needs — well, isn't transportation an unmet need?” Neville said. “I think it is.”
The Democrats did mention transportation as a priority, though, and state House Speaker Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, supported an unsuccessful bill last year to increase sales and use taxes by 0.62 percentage point to raise more than $375 million per year for transportation projects.
“To be politically honest,” Neville said, “the citizens won't pass a tax increase.”
Senate President Kevin Grantham, R-Cañon City, supported that bill along with Duran.
Echoing Neville, Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert, R-Parker, said $300 million in upcoming revenue would be appropriate to add for road-and-bridge projects. Asking voters to approve bond spending would be another opportunity, Holbert added.
With Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper willing to spend some of the added $286 million in projected revenue over the current and next fiscal year — a stronger-than-expected economy raised expectations, and the recent federal tax bill could raise more another $300 million on top of that in Colorado in the next fiscal year alone, state data said — the chances for some amount of transportation increase look safe.
The Colorado Department of Transportation garnered about a $1.4 billion budget in general for 2017, and lawmakers last session added nearly $2 billion for transportation projects specifically in coming years.
Unhappy with gentrifying
Colorado has to figure out how not to push out residents who have grown up here, said Duran, who referenced an Ink! Coffee location that displayed a sidewalk sign that read, “Happily Gentrifying the Neighborhood Since 2014.”
The advertisement became national news as salt in an open wound of changing demographics in metro Denver neighborhoods — it drew protests and an apology letter to Denver Mayor Michael Hancock in November, the Associated Press reported — and politicians like Duran are still pushing for more affordable housing.
State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, D-Arvada, is introducing a bill to “expand attainable housing programs,” Gidfar said.
Chances for such a bill passing are by no means certain, though — last year's House Bill 17-1309 was projected to provide the state with $7.6 billion in fiscal year 2018-19 to fund affordable housing efforts, and it failed in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Republicans, for their part, say that more opportunities for first-time homebuyers could come if lawmakers changed state law that makes suing builders too easy. Entire multi-family developments can be pulled into one lawsuit that might only involve one or a few homes in it, Holbert said.
Condominiums and townhomes “are cost-prohibitive to build in Colorado” due to current law, Holbert said. “Last session, we passed House Bill 17-1272, which provided some relief,” he said, but “that bill was a first down, not a touchdown,” and we “should work toward limiting lawsuit abuse.”
State Sen. Jack Tate, R-Centennial, said he'll push for renewal and expansion of affordable housing-tax credits that incentivize private development of lower-income housing.
Finding affordable housing is an issue for middle-class residents, too, said state Rep. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood — and that includes teachers.
"Our education committee is looking at dealing with our teacher shortage," Pettersen said. "Our teachers aren’t able to (continue to) live in communities they live in on their salary."
What to do with PERA?
The Public Employees' Retirement Association, Colorado's public-pension system, is more than $30 billion underfunded, and that's varying degrees of alarming depending on who's talking.
The shortage “jeopardize(s) retirement security for many thousands of Coloradans as well as the fiscal health of the state,” Tate said. “To keep our promises to retirees as well as current workers, comprehensive pension plan reform is essential.”
The program manages about $44 billion for more than 560,000 current and former public employees — teachers, police, and other local- and state-government employees.
It's a math problem, not a partisan issue, Tate said — but party leadership differed.
“It needs to be solvent,” Neville said. There “has to be structural reform.”
On the other hand, state Senate Minority Leader Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, said the program is not on the verge of bankruptcy, adding, “I'm not sure we have to do (reform) this year.”
Some conservative critics argue that PERA should transition from its current structure as a defined-benefits plan — in which the employer guarantees a specific retirement amount and bears the risk of promising the investment will be available — to a defined-contributions plan, like a 401(k), in which the employee chooses to fund the plan, which takes the risk off the employer, or in this case, the government.
"I will not allow the retirees — their lives and their well being — to become a political football," Duran said, advocating for a solution "where we don't balance all of PERA on the backs of teachers and employees who have spent all their lives giving back to the state."
Democrats want to keep the defined-benefits system, Guzman said Jan. 4 alongside Duran.
Hickenlooper recently proposed capping the annual cost-of-living increase to the retirement benefits as part of a solution.
Lawmakers dealt in less specifics when discussing health care at the Jan. 4 event.
Some areas of rural Colorado only have one health-insurance provider, Grantham said, and Neville suggested moving into a “free market-based system” to address rising costs and lack of competition.
Democrats plan to push for a “public option” provider, which would essentially allow all Coloradans the ability to buy into Medicaid, Guzman said. That would improve access and also lower costs, she said.
Duran said Democrats want to tackle issues of transparency and costs related to health care, but when a moderator asked what those issues specifically were, Duran said Democrats are “still working on those.”