What we did this session

What we did this session

Another legislative session has come to an end. I cannot believe I’ve been your State Representative for six years already, and that I only get to do this amazing job for two more years before term limits kick me out of office.

This session, we did some incredible work for the people of Colorado. We responded to the most pressing issues of the moment, including pandemic/economic recovery, cost of living, and public safety. But we also continued our progress on many other issues including improving our health care system, guaranteeing a high-quality public education for every kid, and protecting Colorado’s air, water, and land.

You can read all about our work including the session highlights on saving people money, housing and homelessness, student success, behavioral health, and wildfire mitigation, and the Colorado House Democrats’ 2022 end-of-session report.

For my part, I focused on several bills that I’m very excited about. Here are the things I’m most proud to have accomplished this session.

Transforming Primary Care (HB22-1325 & HB22-1302)
I truly believe that some of the most meaningful things we can do to reform our health care system are to (a) pay for value instead of volume, and (b) integrate behavioral health care into our primary care settings. I sponsored two bills that together will advance these alternative payment and care integration models and provide grants to help primary care practices make the transition. Read more in my recent op-ed in the Colorado Sun.

Reducing Emissions of Toxic Air Contaminants (HB22-1244)
Did you know that Colorado doesn’t have an air toxics program? Well, that’s going to change as soon as Governor Polis signs this bill. We have various regulations related to greenhouse gases, as well as ground-level ozone and the other EPA criteria pollutants, but there are numerous hazardous air pollutants that go largely unregulated. This bill funds six new monitoring stations across the state that will measure ambient levels of benzene, formaldehyde, ethylene oxide, and dozens of other air toxics. It also directs the Air Pollution Control Division to propose health-based standards for the highest priority toxics and establish emission control regulations that will require the biggest polluters to install new technologies to reduce their negative impacts on nearby communities.

Helping Seniors Afford Housing (HB22-1205)
Colorado seniors who have owned a home for 10+ years are eligible to receive the “senior homestead exemption” which gives them a break on their property taxes. But what about seniors who rent? Or those who have owned their home for fewer than ten years? This bill provides a one-time, refundable tax credit to these seniors to help them afford the high cost of housing.

Expanding Consumer Protections for Utility Customers (HB22-1018)
Sometimes it’s hard to pay the bills, but that doesn’t mean you should have your power or gas shut off without adequate warning. The bill builds on previous years’ efforts (SB20-030, HB21-1105) by setting more limited hours for disconnections, requiring same-day reconnections when bills are paid by a certain time, and requiring more robust communications from utilities before they shut off your power, including information about how to apply for payment assistance programs.

Helping People Make the Most of LEAP and SNAP Benefits (HB22-1380)
Some of our state databases don’t talk to each other, and that means that we’re not always able to connect people with all the support to which they may be entitled. This bill makes a number of improvements to the state’s benefits management systems, including integration of the systems that manage the low-income energy assistance program (LEAP) and the supplemental nutrition assistance program (SNAP). This integration will ensure income-qualified individuals receive the maximum benefits from each program.

Requiring County Jails to Offer Meaningful Treatment for Substance Use Disorders (HB22-1326)
As part of a larger bill addressing the fentanyl crisis, I wrote an amendment that requires every county jail in Colorado to provide screenings for recent substance use and offer medical withdrawal management and appropriate medication-assisted treatment. The amendment also requires jails to make an appointment with a community treatment provider for a person prior to their release. This amendment builds on our work from 2020 (HB20-1017) which we had to water down due to opposition from county sheriffs.

Providing Better Information to Voters on Tax-Related Ballot Measures (SB22-222)
Last year, we passed a bill requiring ballot measure titles to include more information about impacts of tax increases and reductions on the programs those taxes fund (HB21-1321). This year, we added one more piece of information. For measures that increase or reduce the income tax rate, this measure will require the ballot to include a table showing how much taxes would increase or decrease based on eight income brackets. We believe there can be a lot of sticker shock with certain tax measures, but if voters see that they may only have to pay another $20 per year (whereas millionaires may pay a bit more), they’ll be able to make a more informed choice. This measure will only take effect if voters approve a ballot measure this November.

These bills were the things that took up most of my time and energy this session, but I also served on three committees and helped pass, amend, or defeat scores of bills on a wide range of topics. There’s so much more I could say about what all we did this year, but I’ll leave it here for today and let you read the links I’ve provided if you feel like digging deeper.

One more thing. Due to availability, we won’t be holding a town hall meeting in May, and then we’re taking our normal summer break from town hall meetings. Stay tuned for the next one in September!

Chris

Time running out for ‘must pass’ air pollution bill opposed by business groups

Time running out for ‘must pass’ air pollution bill opposed by business groups

House Bill 1244 targets emissions of 188 ‘air toxics’ overlooked by the EPA

By Chase Woodruff (May 9, 2022)

A coalition of environmental and community groups is urging Colorado lawmakers to back a “must pass” air pollution bill, as the clock winds down on the legislative session and a host of powerful corporate interests quietly mobilize against it.

The House of Representatives passed House Bill 22-1244 on a 41-24 vote Friday, with all Democrats in favor and all Republicans opposed. The bill would impose new rules on polluters and establish a new state program to address the emission of “air toxics,” a class of pollutants that advocates say are under-regulated at the federal level.

“Some of our most disproportionately impacted communities, my neighbors, are breathing in Colorado’s most polluted air,” said bill sponsor Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, a Democrat from Denver, in a statement. “This bill improves the way we monitor air toxics in Colorado and takes a proactive approach to reduce these harmful emissions based on what is best for our health.

Following up on previous air toxics legislation passed in 2020 and 2021, HB-1244 aims to strengthen emissions reporting requirements for pollution sources, while directing the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to develop a new statewide monitoring program and convene a scientific advisory board to guide its new regulations.

The rules would apply to a class of 188 substances designated as “hazardous air pollutants” by the Environmental Protection Agency, many of which are emitted as a byproduct of a variety of industrial processes. Emissions of toxic chemicals like benzene and hydrogen cyanide, for example, have long caused concern for communities near the Suncor Energy oil refinery in Commerce City.

The HAP classification triggers some federal regulations, but not the more rigorous health-based emissions standards that the EPA applies to the six “criteria pollutants,” a group than includes ozone, particulate matter and carbon monoxide. Supporters of HB-1244 say that at least 15 states, including Texas and Kentucky, have taken steps to address air toxics in the absence of stricter federal rules.

“These are not greenhouse gases, these are not the EPA-regulated criteria pollutants,” State Rep. Chris Kennedy, a Democrat from Lakewood and a sponsor of HB-1244, said during a House floor debate on May 5. “They are the kinds of things that when they reach certain concentrations are likely to give people adverse health effects.”

The legislation would direct CDPHE staff to work with Colorado’s Air Quality Control Commission to identify up to five “priority” pollutants by the end of 2024, and adopt health-based emissions standards the following year. The priority list would then be updated at least once every five years thereafter.

“Coloradans are concerned about the sad state of our air quality and expect legislative action to clean it up,” Kelly Nordini, CEO of environmental group Conservation Colorado, said in a statement. “A key step is passing a bill that requires monitoring air toxics, develops health-based standards, and then requires companies to use technology to cut pollution and it’s Conservation Colorado’s top priority.”

Powerful opposition

More than 50 corporations and industry groups have registered to lobby against HB-1244, according to disclosure reports filed with the Colorado Secretary of State’s office.

An inquiry to Suncor was returned by a representative of FTI Consulting, a major fossil-fuel industry communications firm, who declined to comment. Records show Suncor has also retained a team of lobbyists from powerhouse Denver law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, led by Doug Friednash, a Denver Post columnist and former chief of staff to then-Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Most of Colorado’s major electric and natural gas utilities have also lobbied against the bill, including Xcel Energy, Black Hills Energy and the Platte River Power Authority.

An Xcel spokesperson pointed to the company’s recent settlement agreement on coal plant retirements, saying that while that agreement prioritized “customer cost protections and service reliability,” HB-1244 “does not address these critical objectives.”

Debate over HB-1244 on the House floor last week featured the adoption of a flurry of amendments proposed by the bill’s sponsors, including several negotiated with Republican lawmakers like Rep. Matt Soper, who represents several coal-dependent communities on the Western Slope.

The amendments included a new exemption for the state’s remaining coal plants, all of which are scheduled to close by 2031, and language specifying that emissions controls must be both “technically and economically feasible.”

“I hope that what you’re seeing with all these amendments that we’ve run is that there has been a tremendous amount of stakeholding,” Kennedy told his colleagues on the House floor.

With the General Assembly set to adjourn on Wednesday and an array of powerful business groups opposed, however, HB-1244 could face an uphill battle for swift Senate passage. Following its final approval by the House on Friday, the bill was introduced in the Senate and assigned to the State, Veterans, and Military Affairs Committee.

“We heard from impacted community members in regards to this bill, and that’s, in fact, who brought this policy forward,” said Gonzales-Gutierrez. “HB-1244 did not come to us from business, but it did come to us from communities that have been impacted by hazardous pollutants for generations.”

Read more at ColoradoNewsLine.com

Transforming the way we pay for and deliver primary care!

Transforming the way we pay for and deliver primary care!

In my nearly six years as a State Representative, I’ve spent more time and energy on healthcare reform than on any other topic. I’ve sponsored legislation to improve regulations of free-standing emergency rooms, require cost transparency from hospitals, implement a reinsurance program (which has saved consumers more than 20% on premiums in the individual market), and establish a board to set upper payment limits on prescription drugs. 

I’ve also proudly supported the work of my colleagues on preventing surprise out-of-network bills, capping the price of insulin, establishing a standardized health insurance option, and more.

Though these efforts have done much to save people money and improve health outcomes, they all treat symptoms rather than curing the disease, which is that our healthcare system incentivizes a higher volume of services rather than a higher value of care.

I’m not the first person to notice this problem. From 2015-2019, Colorado’s State Innovation Model (SIM) utilized federal grant funding to advance value-based payment structures and support 344 primary care practices and four Community Mental Health Centers in integrating behavioral and physical health care.

The Hospital Transformation Program (SB17-267) and the Primary Care Payment Reform Collaborative (HB19-1233) have also meaningfully advanced conversations about paying for value over volume.

Last Spring, after the passage of the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), House Speaker Alec Garnett encouraged my colleagues and me to think big about how we can use these one-time federal resources to meaningfully transform systems. Many of my colleagues are doing incredible work to transform behavioral health, housing, workforce development, and economic support programs in Colorado.

For me, it kept coming back to value and integration in healthcare. I remember lying awake in bed one night, my mind racing through possibilities, when I decided to get up sometime after midnight and write an initial proposal for what I called “SIM 2.0.” 

I know I’m not the only person to have thought of this idea or moniker, but my proposal included a new grant program to help primary care practices integrate behavioral health services and move toward value-based payments. The theory was that the grants and technical assistance could help practices upgrade technology and change workflows, and that the improved payment models would sustain the practices over the long term as care delivery became more efficient, health outcomes improved, and downstream costs caused by untreated conditions were avoided.

That idea is now the core of House Bill 22-1302, which appropriates $32M of ARPA funds to primary care practice transformation grants and technical assistance programs.

As these ideas were developing, I began work on addressing another component of this problem–the conflicting requirements of health insurance plans. You see, many health insurance carriers have made progress on incorporating value-based payments–also commonly called alternative payment models, or APMs–into their contracts with primary care providers. But they all do it their own way, which leaves the average doctor’s office dealing with a different set of quality metrics and payment parameters for every insurance company. Can you imagine a doctor having to identify their patient’s insurance company before they could know which health outcomes would determine how they get paid? It makes no sense.

That’s why I’m sponsoring House Bill 22-1325 with Representative Yadira Caraveo, a pediatrician who shares my commitment to transforming our healthcare system. The bill will require alignment between insurance carriers of certain APM parameters to reduce administrative cost and simplify the work of primary care providers so they can spend less time dealing with insurance companies and more time focusing on their patients.

I truly believe these are the most significant things we can do in Colorado to improve equity, outcomes, and value in our healthcare system. 

Together, these efforts build the foundation of a universal primary care system in Colorado that will provide more efficient, whole-person care that will make people healthier and save them money by reducing the need for expensive hospital care and prescription drugs.

These are the kinds of transformations that go beyond treating symptoms of a broken system to actually start curing the disease.

Read more at ColoradoSun.com

With air quality worsening, Colorado’s top environmental officials seek millions more to fight pollution

The EPA is expected to label the state as a severe violator of the Clean Air Act later this year

By Noelle Phillips (April 10, 2022)

With the threat of missing another benchmark for improving air quality hovering like a blanket of summer smog, Colorado’s top environmental officials are asking the legislature for $47 million to hire more people and build better technology for monitoring unhealthy air, especially along the northern Front Range.

Colorado’s Air Pollution Control Division expects the Environmental Protection Agency later this year to classify the state as a severe violator of federal air quality laws after the state recorded its worst-ever ozone levels during the summer of 2021, division director Michael Ogletree said in an interview with The Denver Post.

In 2019, the EPA declared Colorado a serious violator, forcing more enforcement of air pollution controls, and a move to the severe classification would further increase those enforcements to reign in the state’s worsening ozone problem.

“We’ve heard from folks that we will be reclassified to severe in the near future,” Ogletree said. “We’re preparing for that.

A change in its status with the EPA would force lower emissions thresholds for manufacturers and other industrial facilities, meaning more work for the Air Pollution Control Division, which already is operating with a short staff, Ogletree said.

The division needs the $47 million requested from the legislature to prepare for the incoming workload, and the larger budget would help put more programs in place to control greenhouse gas and other emissions that deteriorate the Front Range’s air quality and harms people’s health.

A more strict classification also would impact the state’s oil and gas industry.

Gov. Jared Polis asked for the money in the budget he proposed to the legislature.

As the Front Range population grows so does the number of gasoline-powered cars and trucks on the road. Those vehicles are the No. 1 source of nitrous oxide emissions, which is a major contributor to the region’s ozone problem. Emissions from power plants and oil and gas production facilities contribute by releasing volatile organic compounds into the air while bigger and more frequent wildfires in the West also add to the problem.

During the summer of 2021, ozone levels at all 16 of the state’s measuring stations exceeded 78 parts per billion, above the federal health standard of 70 ppb. And scientists expect the Front Range’s air quality to continue to deteriorate unless immediate action is taken.

The governor also is working with Democrats to create more laws that would address the worsening air quality. Multiple bills are pending this year that would spend almost $125 million to buy a fleet of electric school buses, replace old diesel trucks with newer ones that produce fewer harmful emissions, make electric bicycles more accessible and allow for free public transit fares during the worst summer ozone days.

Already, the state has implemented new laws and regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve air quality. But many of those things take years to make a difference, and Polis’s administration hopes this year’s asks will have a more immediate impact, said Jill Hunsaker Ryan, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

“The thing that’s probably hard for the public to understand is we’ve had so much go on in the last few years with these laws and regulations, but the state hasn’t seen the full benefit of these actions yet,” Hunsaker Ryan said.

The Air Pollution Control Division is operating with a permitting system that was created in the 1990s and complex air permit applications are still filled out on paper, she and Ogletree said. They want to move everything to a digital format and create online dashboards where people can check the state’s various pollution levels in near real-time.

“We can provide transparency to the community and everyone who is interested,” Hunsaker Ryan said.

The division employs 185 people, and if the budget request was approved, it would pay for an additional 106 full-time equivalent positions, Ogletree said.

One reason the Polis administration wants a huge infusion of money for its air pollution division is a change in how the division is funded. The division is financially supported through fees levied on industry, and, in the past, the division had to ask the legislature to increase fees, Hunsaker Ryan said.

“That always was a tough thing to do and it just didn’t happen,” she said. “Politically, it was a tough thing to do to go the legislature and get fees raised on industry.”

In 2019, the legislature allowed the Air Quality Control Commission to set the fees, but the commission didn’t want to place a sharp increase on industry right from the start, Hunsaker Ryan said. The budget request would give the division what it needs for two years to boost its staffing and technology.

“This is the way we intend to solve the problem of long-term underinvestment,” she said.

So far, Colorado’s efforts to improve air quality are earning support from environmental advocacy groups.

The Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, a public interest group that promotes energy efficiency in six western states, including Colorado, is urging the legislature to approve the package of air quality measures to combat drought, wildfires and other climate disasters.

Even though the organization supports the legislation, there are parts it disagrees with. For example, one bill would replace aging diesel trucks with newer models, but the groupwants all diesel trucks off the roads, said Matt Frommer, the group’s senior transportation association.

“It seems like we are going backwards to create a new program for diesel trucks when we need to go all-in on electric trucks,” Frommer said. “We don’t have time to waste.”

2022 Air Quality Legislation

SB22-193

big bill that would:

  • Create a $25 million fund to provide grants to industrial and manufacturing facilities and local governments for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects. Among the projects that would qualify are efforts that would use hydrogen fuel, electric vehicles and projects to reduce carbon and methane emissions. The grant program would dissolve on Sept. 1, 2029.
  • Create a $12 million fund to increase public access to electric bicycles through grants and rebates. The program would be repealed on Sept. 1, 2028.
  • Spend $15 million to decommission the oldest diesel trucks operating in Colorado and replace them with newer, more fuel-efficient models. The grant money would be available for public and private entities through July 1, 2032.
  • Spend $65 million to buy electric school buses in Colorado through Sept. 1, 2034
  • Provides $7 million to the state health department for aerial surveillance of pollutants
  • Provides $750,000 to the state health department provide free RTD passes for employees
  • Caps annual fees for industry at $1 million this year and allows those caps to rise annually until they reach a $5 million maximum on July 1, 2024.

SB22-180

This bill would set aside $14 million to provide free public transportation, largely through RTD, for one month each year when ozone pollution is at its highest levels. It also would provide $30 million to expand Bustang, the state’s regional bus service.

HB22-1244

proposal that would give the state’s Air Quality Control Commission the authority to adopt rules that are more stringent than the federal Clean Air Act. The commission would be asked to regulate toxic air contaminants and companies that are sources of air pollution would have to submit annual reports that list the amount of contaminants they release. The bill also would develop a statewide air quality monitoring system and it would create a toxic air contaminant advisory board to determine which emissions would be monitored and regulated.

Read more at DenverPost.com

We’ve relied on industry to protect us from air toxics. That approach has failed.

We’ve relied on industry to protect us from air toxics. That approach has failed.

By Theresa Trujillo & Jessica Barnette (March 25, 2022) 

What if you found out you and your family might have been breathing in an invisible poison for years?

It sounds like a science fiction plot. But it’s a question that we and thousands of other Coloradans have been asking ourselves. Even for us, as professionals in health fields, trying to answer it leads to a bunch of scary unknowns.

Both of our communities, Pueblo and Lakewood, are near industrial facilities that emit pollutants known as “air toxics.” These pollutants — including chemicals like benzene, hydrogen cyanide, chromium, and ethylene oxide — can cause cancer or serious health impacts such as breathing difficulty, nausea, birth defects, or even death. And they’re more common in Colorado than you might realize.

Perhaps the scariest part: Colorado doesn’t currently have health-based standards that limit how much of these toxic substances industries can emit. The federal government has identified over 187 hazardous air pollutants, but in many communities, there is little or no monitoring of how much is in our air. We’ve been placing too much trust in industries that have a record of prioritizing profit over our health to be transparent and protect us from air toxics. This approach has failed, and the harm falls most on those living close to industrial pollution, who disproportionately tend to be people living on lower incomes, people of color, and the workers at these facilities themselves.

So we are thrilled to see a bill at the Colorado statehouse that would make significant strides towards monitoring and limiting toxic air pollution. We applaud the sponsors Reps. Chris Kennedy and Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, and Sen. Julie Gonzales, who are leading the fight for House Bill 22-1244, “Public Protections From Toxic Air Contaminants.”

The harm falls most on those living close to industrial pollution, who disproportionately tend to be people living on lower incomes, people of color, and the workers at these facilities themselves.

The bill directs our state’s air quality experts to identify the pollutants that pose a risk, and establish health-based standards for the amount of toxics in our air. It also provides resources for monitoring air toxics around Colorado, and empowers communities to set up their own EPA-quality air monitoring systems and send the data to the state.

One of us, Theresa Trujillo, has been fighting this toxic pollution in Pueblo for years. Theresa and her family have seen how the city they’ve lived in for generations is treated as the dumping ground for the industrial pollution that the rest of the state doesn’t want in their backyards. As a health equity advocate, Theresa is deeply concerned about the higher rates of asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and lung cancer in Pueblo, particularly in communities of color. We should do everything we can to stop air toxics from compounding the health disparities we already see.

Another pernicious thing about toxic air pollution is that it can slip by unnoticed. One of us, Jessica Barnette, didn’t know until she started researching this bill that a medical facility in her own community was emitting potentially dangerous levels of a chemical linked to cancer.

At least 15 other states, including Texas, Oregon, California and Kentucky, have already taken up this issue and adopted comprehensive state and local-level strategies to address air toxics.

HB22-1244 would ensure Colorado doesn’t remain one of the shrinking number of states that leave their most impacted residents in the dark about their health.

Contrary to opponents’ alarmist claims, this bill isn’t going to spell economic downfall for industries. In fact, it fosters collaboration between state agencies and industry to implement advanced technologies that help cut air toxics emissions and better protect their neighbors.

The presence of toxic air pollution threatens other economic drivers like tourism and recreation.

Most importantly, poor air quality costs Coloradans millions of dollars a year in additional health care costs, insurance premiums and missed work due to health complications. When it comes down to it, no amount of industry profit or short-term economic gains are worth sacrificing the health and well-being of Coloradans.

Like an invisible poison in science fiction, toxic air pollutants can easily disappear out of sight, out of mind. But Colorado families deserve better than simply accepting toxic pollution in our air.

We have an obligation to our children and to future generations to start cleaning up the mess we’ve made, and to stop making these messes to begin with. We hope our legislators will choose a legacy of clean air and health equity for all Coloradans instead of profit for a few.

Read more at Coloradonewsline.com

Fighting all night for abortion access in Colorado

Fighting all night for abortion access in Colorado

I’m writing this note after staying up all night fighting to protect a woman’s right to control her own body.

The debate is still going, and I’m here for it no matter how long it takes.

This summer, the US Supreme Court is set to rule on Dobbs v Jackson Woman’s Health Organization. The 6-3 conservative majority on the court, which includes a seat stolen by Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) when he refused to act on President Obama’s nominee in 2016, is very likely to strike down Roe v Wade, the landmark 1973 case that established a woman’s right to abortion care.

This year, 561 abortion restriction bills have been introduced in all but three states. 19 states have already enacted 106 restrictions, including 12 abortion bans.

But not Colorado.

That’s why we introduced House Bill 1279, which codifies contraception and abortion protections in Colorado state law and prohibits local governments from enacting abortion restrictions if Roe is struck down.

On Wednesday night, I sat on the Health and Insurance Committee from 1:30pm until 3:40am as we heard hours of witness testimony for and against the bill. I voted yes, and the bill passed on a party line vote.

On Friday morning at 10:53am, we started the 2nd reading debate on the House floor. I told Kyra not to expect me home before she went to bed that night, but I didn’t expect that I wouldn’t be there when she woke up this morning.

It’s no secret there are deeply held views on both sides of this issue, and I don’t blame my colleagues across the aisle for fighting for what they believe in.

But the Colorado House Democrats have deeply held beliefs, too. We believe that what happens in a woman’s body is her business and nobody else’s. We don’t believe the government should dictate when a woman must carry a pregnancy to term versus seeking an abortion. We believe abortion should be safe, legal, and accessible. We believe contraception should be universally available and affordable. And we believe in woman’s fundament right to choose.

I’m not sure how much longer this debate will carry on, but I know what the result will be. The voters of Colorado have elected Democratic majorities in both House and Senate, and this is an example of why majorities matter.

When the vote is finally called, we will pass this bill and make sure Colorado law reflects a woman’s fundamental right to control her own body.

And then, we will sleep.
Chris

Colorado income tax cuts benefit the rich most, nonpartisan analysis finds

Colorado income tax cuts benefit the rich most, nonpartisan analysis finds

Republicans are out of power in this state, but the income tax rate keeps falling

By Alex Burness (March 3, 2022)

When Colorado’s income tax rate shrinks, the rich reap greater benefits and inequality stretches, a new nonpartisan legislative analysis finds.

The analysis considered the potential demographic effects of HB22-1201, a Republican bill that proposes to reduce the state income tax rate, which applies to people of all income levels, from 4.55% to 4.4%.

“This bill may increase existing income disparities by providing larger tax savings for those with higher incomes, both in absolute amounts and proportionally to income,” the report reads.

Republicans believe the rate is too high, and have introduced proposed cuts at the legislature for several years in a row, with no success. This year’s bill and any others like it are virtually guaranteed to fail as long as Democrats control state government.

But the income tax rate keeps falling.

It was set at 5% for both individuals and corporations in 1987, and has been cut three times since then — most recently via a conservative-backed 2020 ballot measure. Conservatives plan to try to qualify for yet another ballot initiative this year to cut the income tax to 4.4%, which means they could get their way even with the statehouse bill likely headed nowhere.

The nonpartisan analysis states that households — single individuals or joint filers — with incomes above $150,000 would see 58% of the taxpayer savings brought about by the policy, even though that group comprises just 13% of Colorado’s taxpaying population.

A 17% plurality of Colorado taxpayers have incomes between $15,000 and $29,999, but that group would see just 1.8% of the savings, the report states.

There’s no scandal in these findings, said state Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling, a Republican who is co-sponsoring the tax-cut bill. Naturally, they say, savings are higher for people who have more money to begin with, just as people with more money would bear a greater overall burden if the flat income tax were increased.

“The whole idea is to allow taxpayers to keep more of their own money so they can revitalize an economy,” Sonnenberg said.

He added that he’s not sure why the analysis used “family median income,” which takes sources other than wages into account, as the household measure.

The analysis notes that non-white Coloradans are more likely to earn lower incomes, which means income tax cuts deliver disproportionate savings by race.

“For example,” the report reads, “while Hispanic/LatinX individuals constitute 21.8 percent of the statewide population, they constitute 29.7 percent of those with a family income of $0 to $29,999 and 9.9 percent of those with a family income of $100,000 or more.”

Cutting the income tax is a favorite policy pursuit of Colorado Republicans and of the Democratic governor, Jared Polis. Polis has even called for the state income tax to be eliminated altogether, though he concedes there is no immediately apparent political path to get that done.

The Democrats who hold majorities at the statehouse stand apart from Polis on this matter.

“The flat tax system in the first place is pretty inequitable,” said Lakewood Rep. Chris Kennedy, the Democrat chairing the House committee that is poised to kill HB22-1201. “When you’re asking a lower-income person to pay five-ish percent of their income, that takes a much bigger bite out of their ability to pay for gas and groceries than it does for someone making a million dollars a year.”

Democrats like Kennedy prefer a graduated income tax scale, in which people with higher incomes pay a higher rate. This does not exist in Colorado and, due to the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, cannot exist without voter approval.

Statehouse Republicans reject the notion that a flat income tax can be inequitable.

“Everyone is paying their fair share in a flat rate,” said Sage Naumann, spokesman for the Colorado Senate GOP. “So what are they getting back when you cut it? Their fair share.”

Read more at DenverPost.com

Caucus Night is March 1st

It’s that time again!

Every two years, the Democratic and Republican parties begin the process of nominating their candidates with the precinct caucuses.

If you’ve never been, caucus night has evolved considerably over the years. Once upon a time, caucuses took place in living rooms. A volunteer leader would offer their home and host neighbors from across their precinct for a discussion of candidates and issues and an election of delegates to represent that precinct at the county assembly.

When I attended my first caucus in 2008, the parties had started organizing larger events at schools where anywhere from 3 to 40 precincts would all gather together, allowing the candidates to attend caucuses and meet a greater number of attendees.

This year, many caucuses will be held on Zoom to make sure people feel comfortable participating without risking exposure to COVID19. It’s much less intimate, but I’m so grateful to the party leaders who have done the work to make it all happen.

  • Democrats in JeffcoFind all information about your caucus here.
  • Democrats elsewhere in Colorado Find your caucus date/time/location here.
  • Republicans Start here.
  • Minor Party Members – You will have a different kind of assembly process. Google your state party organization for details.
  • Unaffiliateds – You cannot participate at caucus. However, you will still be able to cast a ballot in the June primary election for either the Democratic or Republican party, whichever you choose to influence this year.

To participate in caucus, you must be affiliated with the party of your choosing and registered to vote in your current precinct 22 days in advance (by February 7th, 2022). State law and party rule also allow for participation of pre-registered 16 and 17 year olds. You can learn about voting pre-registration here.

What happens at caucus & assembly?
In years with highly competitive races for Governor or US Senate, there are lively debates about candidates and preference polls to allocate delegates. This year, however, it will be a more simplified process. There will still be discussion, but anyone who has signed up in advance to be a delegate to the county assembly will automatically be elected. Delegates should be prepared to commit half a day to attending the county assembly on March 19th starting at 8:00am.

Caucuses also elect two Precinct Organizers (formerly known as Precinct Committee Persons) for every precinct. These POs become members of the county central committee for the next two years and will help conduct the business of the party including the election of party officers, organizing Democrats in your precinct to turn out to vote in November, and serving on vacancy committees should a Democratic elected official resign or pass away.

At the assembly, there will be discussion and voting to nominate all Democratic candidates for districts contained wholly within Jefferson County, including many State House, State Senate, and county level offices. Delegates will also be elected to the Congressional District and State Assemblies.

There may not be many Democratic primaries in our neck of the woods this year, but I would encourage you to sign up and attend anyway. It’s a great opportunity to get connected to your neighbors and start building momentum for an incredibly important election this November.

I remember showing up to caucus in 2008 to support Barack Obama, Mark Udall, and Gwyn Green. It was a brand new experience for me, and I loved every minute as I was elected delegate to assemblies and conventions at every level. Sure, that meant giving up a lot of Saturdays, but it also sparked my passion for politics. And every since, I’ve committed myself to making the biggest difference I can, every day.

I hope you choose to attend this year. We need your energy and passion to keep Colorado moving forward. Feel free to reply with any questions.

Chris

Proposal mandating faster reconnection of power service causes concerns for utility companies

Proposal mandating faster reconnection of power service causes concerns for utility companies

By Marianne Goodland (January 28, 2022)

President Joe Biden speaks from the East Room of the White House in Washington, Dec. 6, 2021. The Biden administration is distributing an additional $4.5 billion in funds to help low-income Americans cover heating costs during a second pandemic winter, with cold-weather states receiving the largest share.

More than 44 million Americans are struggling this month to pay energy bills, according to the U.S. Census Household Pulse Survey.

Half a million of those Americans are in Colorado. 

And their inability to pay electric or natural gas bills — or both — can mean service disconnection, and with winter chills ahead, that can be a life-or-death situation.

Struggling Coloradans can tap a wide range of energy assistance programs, but wrinkles in the system persist, energy access advocates say.

Rep. Chris Kennedy, D-Lakewood, hopes to iron out what he perceives to be one of those wrinkles — by prohibiting regulated power utilities from disconnecting services on a weekend, a state or federal holiday, or at noon or later on a weekday.

House Bill 1018 also directs the Public Utilities Commission to adopt rules mandating utilities to reconnect a service on the same day a customer makes such a request. That rule would apply from Monday to Friday and so long as it’s not a holiday. 

It’s the same-day reconnection mandate that has Black Hills and Xcel Energy, Colorado’s investor-owned utilities, concerned, effectively arguing they would prefer to work directly with customers, rather than be compelled to act through a legislatively-prescribed solution to a highly complicated issue.  

Matt Lindstrom, a spokesman for Xcel, told Colorado Politics that disconnection is always the last resort.

Fewer than 1% — 0.6% percent —  of Xcel’s residential Colorado customers were disconnected in 2021, he said. Xcel Energy serves 1.5 million Coloradans. 

Lindstrom said reconnecting services, particularly natural gas, pose logistical issues.

“It takes time to safely reconnect service, especially on the natural gas side, and we must ensure the safety of our employees and customers during this process,” he said. 

Several energy outreach programs are available to consumers who are struggling financially to pay energy bills:

Kennedy has kept his eye on energy assistance programs during the pandemic.

In 2020, he was one of four sponsors of a measure that sought to assist Coloradans struggling to pay utility bills during the early months of the pandemic by using federal CARES Act dollars.

The next year, Kennedy sponsored a bill to ensure a better funding source for the Energy Outreach Colorado program, which up to then had relied, at least in part, on severance taxes. That’s become an unstable funding source due to the ups and downs of the oil and gas industry over a number of years, not just during the pandemic. The Kennedy measure required utilities to charge customers more to help finance an energy assistance program for low-income residents. State officials said that small cost to consumers — starting with $0.50 this October, ramping up to $0.75 in October 2022 and then annually adjusted for inflation a year after —  translates to big help for the state’s most economically vulnerable residents. Revenue from the charge goes to Energy Outreach Colorado, the Colorado Energy Office and the Department of Human Services. There is an opt-out provision in the law.

 Xcel Energy cited that new charge as among the reasons, albeit to a much lesser extent, why it sought permission from state regulators to increase energy bills during this winter. The main culprit for that rate hike is the sharp rise in natural gas prices, and a rate hike approved by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission.

That solved one of the funding issues, but a stickier one remained: how reconnections are handled.

Once an applicant has applied for an energy assistance program, that freezes the disconnection process, even if the consumer doesn’t qualify for the income-based program.

The other issue is how soon a consumer, who has paid the bill in full, gets back the power service.

Reconnecting electric service has become considerably easier over the years, with the advent of smart meters, known as advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), that can be turned off and on with the push of a button.

“If you’re on AMI, you have to reconnect the same day. There’s no excuse for not doing that,” Kennedy insisted.

But reconnecting someone’s natural gas service is trickier, and Kennedy’s bill to require same-day reconnection in most circumstances is causing what the lawmaker calls a “complicated fight” with the investor-owned utilities.

As it works now, if a consumer pays the overdue bill after 10 a.m., there’s no guarantee the service will be reconnected that day. Kennedy wants to ensure electric reconnection takes place the same day, so long as the request comes in at least one hour before the utility’s close of business.

Reconnecting natural gas is a different situation. Once natural gas service has been turned off, the tenant  —  whether at a home or business —   has to be at the site for the reconnection.

Kennedy’s bill, however, requires same day natural gas reconnection if the customer makes the request before 1 p.m.

Under the bill, a utility gets an extra day to reconnect the gas if the provider has made a “qualifying communication” with the customer, which means something more personal than sending emails, letters in the mail or robocalls, according to Kennedy. It would require “a real conversation” with the customer, either by phone or in person, that confirms the resident is aware that his or her service is about to be disconnected and the options for payment assistance, the legislator said.

Kennedy said the utilities have expressed concerns about the same day reconnection requirement for gas, pointing out that it’s both a cost issue to provide an in-person communication, as well as a matter of staffing.

That staffing came into sharp relief in the days after the Marshall fire, when electric and gas service was shut off to thousands of homes. Once it was safe to restore power and gas to the homes, Xcel Energy deployed its workers from all over the state to make that happen. But it also meant diverting employees away from other parts of the state, including those who are responsible for reconnecting services. It’s an example of the logistical problem Kennedy’s bill may pose for the utilities. 

Black Hills Energy has fully deployed AMI meters to all of its electric customers, according to Carly West of Black Hills Energy, which serves 99,000 electric customers and 198,000 natural gas customers, mostly in rural Colorado.

When a customer calls in to request a reconnect, a company representative quotes the customer a reconnection price and schedules a reconnect order, sending a signal for the service to be turned back on, she said. That’s a half-hour at most for smart metered-customers.

Reconnecting gas is a far more involved process, West said.

A technician must connect with the tenant, get permission to enter the premises and relight the appliances.

As for the communication issue, West said her company makes direct phone calls in advance of the disconnection.

Xcel Energy does not have any compromise suggestions to what Kennedy is proposing, saying it is “are working with the bill sponsors and other stakeholders to ensure the safety, reliability, and feasibility of these proposed requirements.”

Lindstrom added Xcel Energy always wants to hear from customers who struggle to pay their bills.

“We will work with them to set up payment plans and identify internal and external resources that meet their specific needs to ensure they continue to receive electric and natural gas service,” Lindstrom said. 

The company is always willing to connect customers with available energy assistance programs, Lindstrom said, adding that, in 2021, about 3% of customers, or roughly 53,000, received assistance from LEAP.

“Additionally, many income-qualified LEAP recipients are automatically enrolled in our electric and natural gas affordability programs which provide additional assistance to keep bills affordable. In 2021, we enrolled over 33,000 Colorado customers in these programs for a total of $13.5 million in discounts,” he said. 

Black Hills’ West added that her company’s own program matches contributions dollar for dollar, and, in the last two years, the company has contributed almost $1 million each year to that fund. The company also does outreach to human services agencies as part of its communications efforts.

Kennedy’s bill is scheduled for its first hearing in the House Energy and Environment Committee on Wednesday, Feb. 2

Read more at ColoradoPolitics.com

As we begin another legislative session

As we begin another legislative session

Every January, the opening day of the General Assembly marks the beginning of another opportunity to spend 120 days developing policies and fighting the big fights to make the biggest difference we can to make life better for the people of Colorado.

This year, the shadow of the pandemic looms large, as do the economic disruptions from the COVID hangover. While we’re all eager to get back to a more normal life, many are struggling to keep up with the high cost of living. There’s little we can do about the global factors that are driving prices of things like gas and groceries, but we’ve been working for years on solutions to bring down the costs of healthcare, housing, child care, and higher education. We will be continuing that work this session.

For the families struggling the most, our work last year to close tax loopholes on wealthy corporations and special interests has allowed us to increase funding for the earned-income tax credit and child tax credit. And I’m crossing my fingers that the US Senate gets it together to pass the Build Back Better plan that wil continue the federal child tax credit and do even more to help hard-working families get through this tough time. I know Senators Bennet and Hickenlooper are supporting that effort.

Our public schools are also struggling. On top of being chronically underfunded for decades, the pandemic has strained our educators and set back our students. That’s why we’ll be boosting funding for education this year to support those teachers and make sure every kid is given the educational opportunities they need to prepare for a successful life.

There are so many other ways we’ve made progress over the last few years on dozens of issues covering everything from climate change to transportation infrastructure to gun violence prevention, and I’m excited to continue that work while we also address the most immediate needs of the people of this beautiful state. 

For my part, I’m focusing my efforts on a few specific things:

  • Utility Consumer Protections – When a customer is overdue, they may receive robocalls and letters that they’ll soon be disconnected, but it’s rare that someone actually talks to them and helps connect them to consumer assistance programs. And when a customer pays an overdue bill, there’s no guarantee their service will be reconnected the same day. We can do more to make sure consumers’ needs come first.
  • Primary Care Payment Reform – We’ve been talking for years about the need to prioritize preventive care and move from fee-for-service to paying for quality outcomes, but progress has been limited. I want to pick up the pace and move closer to a system of universal primary care.
  • Health-based Air Pollution Standards – We’ve made a lot of progress on climate change and monitoring air toxics around refineries, but what about other toxic chemicals released by a variety of industries that may cause cancer or other health effects? It’s time to beef up air quality monitoring across the state for all harmful chemicals and hold industry accountable for the health of their surrounding communities.
  • Senior Housing Supports – Since my first year at the legislature, I’ve been working on finding ways to replace the broken senior homestead exemption with a better senior housing benefit that will give more support to lower-income seniors including renters and remove the ten-year residency requirement so that these seniors can downsize and take their tax credit with them. It’s the most complex policy I’ve ever worked on, and I’m getting closer to the right solution. Maybe this year will be the year.
  • Protecting Voting Rights – As Chair of the State Affairs Committee, I hear all proposed legislation related to elections and voting. I will hold the line against “bie lie” conspiracy theorists and protect Colorado’s gold-standard election system from right-wing attacks. This shouldn’t be a partisan issue, and even the vast majority of Colorado’s County Clerks (most of which are Republicans) agree that our election systems are secure. But there are several GOP legislators who brought legislation last year to undermine our election system and chip away at voting rights in the name of increased security. They’re wrong, and I’ll fight them at every turn.

As I’ve said before, legislating is a team effort. None of us can be experts on everything, so we each specialize and work to build support among our colleagues. While I’m focused on the ideas above, I know my colleagues are digging into countless other ways to help Coloradans get through this tough time and make this beautiful state even better and more prosperous than it already is. I can’t wait to see what they come up with.

Follow our work at the legislature this session here and join our Zoom town hall on January 22nd.

And stay well. Hold your loved ones close. This too shall pass.

Chris