Debate over proposals tackling drug use, treatment illustrates ideological divide in Colorado

Debate over proposals tackling drug use, treatment illustrates ideological divide in Colorado

By Marissa Ventrelli (February 23, 2024)

Colorado lawmakers on Tuesday tackled two proposals that offer convergent — and divergent — approaches to combatting drug abuse during a discussion that starkly illuminated on ideological disagreements at the state Capitol.      

Both bills emerged out of ad hoc panel, which met over the summer as a response to soaring addiction rates nationwide and in Colorado. Colorado ranks in the Top 10 states in the nation for drug use, according to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Advocates and policymakers agree that addressing such a complex issue requires a multifaceted response, but they often clash in their preferred solutions. “Harm reduction” advocates argue that tougher penalties have not solved the country’s drug abuse crisis, while those who argue for a tougher approach say policies should not encourage drug use. 

In 2022, for example, those on the “harm reduction” side argued against making possession of any amount of fentanyl a felony. The other side insisted the state should adopt a zero tolerance policy against fentanyl, arguing a small amount is enough to kill anyone.   

The first bill, House Bill 1037, focuses on several measures, including the distribution of antagonists, such as Narcan, and exempts individuals who receive paraphernalia from a syringe exchange program from being charged with drug possession. The second bill, House Bill 1045, deals with substance treatment. 

Notably, the first section of HB 1037 exempts doctors from being required to report injuries that patients have acquired via the use or possession of drugs.

The bill clarifies that civil and criminal immunity — which already extends to an individual who administers an antagonist to someone who overdoses — also applies to someone who distributes the antagonist. The proposal adds a clause saying the state, in fact, encourages the distribution of expired antagonists.

Another provision exempts users who are using paraphernalia to participate in an exchange program from facing charges.

The bill also specifies that funding allocated by the Department of Public Health and Environment for opioid tests can also be used to purchase other testing equipment, such as fentanyl and xylazine test strips. 

The other sections focus on revising language, substituting all instances of the term “opiate” to “opioid. One of the bill’s supporters explained that the term “opiate” only accounts for natural opioids, such as heroin and morphine, while opioid refers to both natural and synthetic products. 

The bill, which the House Health and Human Services Committee ultimately advanced, is co-sponsored by Rep. Elisabeth Epps, D- Denver, and Sen. Kevin Priola, D- Aurora in the Senate.

Supporters: Incarceration won’t solve crisis

During the hearing, supporters said the current approach to the drug crisis is outdated.

Rep. Chris deGruy Kennedy, D- Lakewood, one of the bill’s sponsors, said users often neglect seeking healthcare for fear of being punished or arrested.

Lisa Raville of the Harm Reduction Action Center echoed that view, arguing that a “harm reduction” approach tends to be a more effective treatment solution than incarceration. 

“People who use drugs and health care providers have a very tumultuous relationship,” she said. “For over 20 years, people have not wanted to access quality health care in the emergency departments because they were being warrant-checked and arrested out of there. That’s not to say that then they’re getting this really great care (upon being arrested). Now, they’re going to jail and getting no health care. People are almost losing limbs out there because they are so afraid to access quality health care.”

“We will never treat or incarcerate our way out of an unregulated drug supply, ever,” Raville added. 

Jason Vitello of the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition cited a study by the Pew Charitable Trust that claimed incarceration does not reduce drug use.

Vitello claimed that, since the 1970s, the country has spent more than $1 trillion on the “drug war,” and that, despite those dollars, “we are facing down an unprecedented overdose crisis, a highly unpredictable and dangerous street drug supply, and over 500,000 people incarcerated in the US on drug charges.”

“It’s time to reinvest our attention and civic resources from punishment to public welfare,” he said. “The bill diminishes the disconnection, criminalization and isolation experienced by an already marginalized group of individuals and communities, bringing them out of the shadows and into systems of care, because being alive is objectively healthier than being dead.” 

Ellen Velez of the Adams County Health Department, which runs its own syringe exchange program, said the bill would allow for exchange programs to distribute materials other than syringes. She said people who participate in these programs, like Adams County’s, are five times more likely to enter treatment and reduce or stop drug use altogether. 

“Our clients and our community are safer if they’re participating in a program like ours,” she said. “It’s vital that we meet the community where they’re at to provide the support and resources they need to keep them safe and alive.” 

Supporters also cited medical experts, who say expired antagonists do not lose efficacy upon expiration and also have no adverse side effects.

Critics: Colorado should not enable drug use 

While Democrats backed the measures, Republicans regarded the bill’s provisions as enabling drug use. Instead, they argued, the state should prioritize curtailing the flow of illicit drugs into Colorado. 

They also said incarceration plays an important role. 

Rep. Richard Holtorf, R- Akron, said that during his years on the Health and Human Services Committee, he has heard several accounts of former users saying incarceration is what got them clean. 

“I cannot support a bill that doesn’t allow for those people that need perhaps to be incarcerated to stop the drug use to save their lives,” he said. “This gives them a pass and lets people break the law with respect to outdated pharmaceuticals. It also tells doctors not to report health data to the Department of Health openly in this bill, going against every practice in every other part of health care.”

“It is antithetical, it doesn’t make sense to me,” Holtorf said. 

“I did not hear, ‘Let’s stop the drugs coming into our cities and to our state.’ Never heard that — and that is very important,” added Rep. Mary Bradfield, R- Colorado Springs. “How can we get the problem under control if we can’t stop the flow?”

The debate over how to curb drug use has consumed not Colorado and other parts of America, which have been grappling with the opioid epidemic in the last few years.

Nationally, the U.S. drug overdose death toll crossed 100,000 for the first time in 2021. In Denver, alone, 522 people died from drug overdoses last year, the most since tracking began in 1923, according to Denver’s Office of the Medical Examiner.

In Oregon, state lawmakers, facing public pressure amid a surge in overdose deaths, are preparing to vote on re-criminalization. Democrats, who hold the majority in Oregon’s statehouse, are pushing for a bill to make small-scale drug possession a low-level misdemeanor, punishable by up to 30 days in jail, with the opportunity to seek treatment instead of facing charges.

The proposed bill also carries harsher sentences for drug dealers, wider access to medication for opioid addiction, and expanded recovery and housing services along with drug prevention programs. Republican lawmakers, who insist the bill falls short, propose up to a year in jail for drug possession, with the option for treatment and probation in lieu of jail time.  

Back in 2020, Oregon voters approved what’s known as Measure 110, under which the police, instead of arresting drug users, issue them $100 citations, along with a card that lists the number to a hotline for addiction treatment services, which they can call in exchange for help dismissing the citation. Those who simply ignore the citations face no legal ramifications, and state data shows only 4% of people who receive citations call the hotline.

Substance treatment

The House Health and Human Services Committee next heard House Bill 1045, a 49-page measure that deals with substance treatment. Comprised of 27 sections, the omnibus bill, among other things, prohibits insurance carriers from requiring prior authorization for drugs used to treat substance abuse based on dosage amount; allows pharmacists to diagnose and prescribe medication for substance abuse; expands Medicaid coverage to patients in jails who were covered by the medical program prior to being incarcerated; and, establishes a grant program for facilities providing contingency management treatment. 

DeGruy Kennedy, one of the bill’s sponsors, said authorizing pharmacists to prescribe medications, such as buprenorphine and methadone, offers a lot of potential impact, especially in small towns and rural areas, where accessibility to doctors’ offices and hospitals may be limited.

“If we give this authority to pharmacists, we’re gonna be able to get more people started on getting treatment earlier and then get them transitioned to an appropriate level of care,” deGruy Kennedy said. 

Rep. Ryan Armagost, R- Berthoud, focused on the behavioral health diversion program pilot proposed in the bill. Drawing on his personal experience as a law enforcement officer, he said diversion programs are one of the most effective ways of avoiding population overflow in jails and prisons.

“People that are struggling with mental health, people that are struggling with addiction, they do not belong in jail,” Armagost said. “Giving them the chance for treatment to be a functioning member of society again, I think, is something that we need to be able to provide for people to prevent recidivism and to increase public safety and the overall quality of life in Colorado.”

Dr. Rob Valuck of the Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention, said 60% of Coloradans in need of treatment for substance abuse are not receiving it. He said he believes the provision outlined in the bill could help decrease that number. 

Dr. JK Costello, a physician who said he is also in a long-term recovery from drug use, highlighted Colorado’s need for more programs providing contingency management. This type of behavioral therapy involves rewarding or reinforcing positive changes in behavior, such as abstaining from drug use.

Costello said that in 2020, only one such program existed in the state. Now, there are 15 clinics offering contingency management, and the proposed grant could potentially lead to the establishment of even more.

“The contingency management grant program would put Colorado on the forefront of evidence-based treatment, leading to higher rates of abstinence, less incarceration, and lower rates of overdose,” Costello said. 

Joanna Leonard, the director of pharmacy at the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, said the bill’s removal of prior authorization for specific dosage amounts of medication accommodates for the increased opioid tolerance that she has seen in her patients who use fentanyl.

In 2002, the FDA set a prescribing limit of 24 milligrams per day for buprenorphine, a medication commonly used to treat opioid dependence. Consequently, most insurance companies only cover prescriptions for that dosage. However, Leonard said, due to the rise of more powerful substances, such as fentanyl, some users may require up to 32 milligrams of buprenorphine per day.

At least nine states have eliminated prescribing limits for buprenorphine altogether, and two have increased their limits to 32 milligrams per day. 

Leonard also praised the initiative to eliminate prior authorization requirements for these medications, noting that obtaining such authorizations can often take hours or even days. This extended process poses a significant risk, she said, as it provides more than enough time for people struggling with drug use to change their mind about receiving treatment. 

“When a patient has the motivation to address their substance use disorder and show up at the MAT (medication-assisted treatment) clinic to receive treatment, it is frustrating that they cannot get the actual medication in their hands until an hour or a few days later,” she said. “It may drive them to go back to the street and get fentanyl.”

Several committee members raised questions about the bill’s price tag of $6 million, but the sponsors said the fiscal impact would decrease significantly with the proposed amendments.

In total, sponsors introduced 12 amendments, addressing various aspects of the bill, including language reconfiguration and creating an avenue to pursue federal funding for fetal alcohol spectrum disorder treatment.

Holtorf expressed worries about the length of the bill and its numerous provisions, saying it’s “too big.”  

“In half a decade of being here, I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said. “This is too much. It’s too big and it’s so confusing and fragmented that it’s evidenced just by the number of amendments that you’ve had to present to try to square this thing up and line it up. In my humble opinion, you could have five bills here.”

Rep. Ron Weinberg, R- Loveland, agreed, saying that, while he appreciates the bill’s efforts, he is concerned that the number of amendments means the bill isn’t quite ready to move forward. 

DeGruy Kennedy acknowledged those points.

“Yes, this is a big bill,” he said. “Yes, this bill is trying to do a lot of different things to try to address our gaps in treatment in Colorado. We believe this will meaningfully increase access to treatment for people all across our state for a variety of different kinds of substance use disorders. Yes, it’s expensive, and we’re going to have to sort that out before we go to the appropriations committee, but for the time being, we believe that this policy is going to do a lot to help people in Colorado.”

The committee approved the bill — which was sponsored by Sens. Kyle Mullica, D- Northglenn, and Perry Will, R- New Castle — along partisan lines. Its next stop is the Finance Committee.

Read more at coloradopolitics.com

Why some Colorado lawmakers say funding for K-12 schools is at 1989 levels

Why some Colorado lawmakers say funding for K-12 schools is at 1989 levels

By Jason Gonzales (February 5th, 2024)

Colorado is nearing the end of the Budget Stabilization Factor era.

Since 2009, Colorado lawmakers have channeled over $10 billion from schools to other priorities, a policy called the “BS Factor.” Gov. Jared Polis and lawmakers want to stop diverting money from schools to “fully fund” the state’s obligation in the proposed 2024-25 budget.

But, some Democratic lawmakers argue Colorado won’t be spending at 2024-25 levels. Instead, they point to 1989. And no, not the Taylor Swift album.

“Just because we’ve paid off the budget stabilization factor and we are finally fully funding our schools, we are actually fully funding them at 1989 levels,” said state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat and vice chair of the powerful Joint Budget Committee, at Chalkbeat’s Legislative Preview event last month. “So we still have some more work to do.”

Here’s why, they say: When you adjust for inflation, Colorado’s spending next year would be about the same as 34 years ago.

In 1989, Colorado spent $4,629 per student. Next year, the state projects to spend $11,319 per student.

Schools need to stretch the money further than in 1989, according to Tracie Rainey, Colorado School Finance Project executive director, a school funding advocate.

Because how much we spend on education doesn’t account for the changes that the nation, the state, and their communities now hold districts accountable for, such as more testing and higher standards, Rainey said.

School funding (Colorado’s version)

For nearly 30 years, Colorado has ranked below most of the country in school funding, Rainey said.

Coloradans have created tax policies that lowered their property tax bills, and decreased what was spent for statewide services — including education, she said.

Voters adopted the Gallagher Amendment in 1982 to reduce housing assessment rates. Then in 1992, voters approved the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, otherwise known as TABOR. The constitutional amendment limits government spending and requires voter approval for certain taxes. Any excess dollars collected above the TABOR cap must be returned to taxpayers.

With less money going toward schools, voters in 2000 approved Amendment 23 to return education spending to 1989 levels. The provision required per-student spending to increase by inflation plus 1% each year until 2011. After that, per-student spending would increase each year by at least the rate of inflation.

As Colorado neared its goal, the Great Recession hit. A year later in 2009, Colorado lawmakers began to funnel money away from K-12 education through the Budget Stabilization Factor, known at the time as the “negative factor,” to fund other crucial obligations.

That’s why, with the factor’s end, Colorado is now back to 1989.

It’s almost over now. But what’s next?

Last week, the state received recommendations from a School Finance Task Force on a new formula to fund schools. The formula hasn’t seen a major update since 1994.

The new formula will require the state to spend $474 million more dollars on schools, although the task force recommends phasing in the new formula starting this year. Lawmakers say money will be tight if they want to eliminate the BS Factor and fund other priorities.

The school funding formula answers the question of how to divvy up state dollars. But there’s another question, too: what’s an “adequate” level of funding?

What do schools need to account for the years of shifting expectations, including providing Information Technology services, required testing, student mental health care and an increase in English learning students?

Additionally, teachers statewide have called for salary increases, with the state struggling to keep many educators in the classroom, and districts facing other challenges, like the rising cost of health care and benefits.

Colorado has for years used grant programs to offset some costs for school districts, Rainey said. But there are haves and have nots — many large school districts have grant writers but some small districts have superintendents filling in on bus routes, she said. And, grants also expire.

Now, the state will await two adequacy studies, due by January 2025, that will give lawmakers a better idea of what districts need financially to teach students.

It’s important work, because what’s adequate for a district changes based on the community, Rainey said. For instance, Cherry Creek has high schools with thousands of students, while 100 districts have less than 1,000 total students.

“I would hope that when this analysis is done, lawmakers see what that base level of funding should be so that every student, no matter what district they’re in, has an amount that reflects what they need in order to meet the expectations that the state is holding them to,” Rainey said. “And I think that’s going to be a really important benchmark.”

Even then, Colorado lawmakers could still face funding challenges.

If the adequacy studies say the state must spend a lot more on education, lawmakers would then need to debate how to raise revenue, Rainey said. A referendum sent to voters would be the fastest way to increase state funding, but tax increases are unpopular with voters.

“We would need state level leadership from the governor to legislators on down to support this so voters would say, ‘Yes,’ ” she said.

Read more at Chalkbeat.org

Bill could add primary-care doctors to every health-insurance network

Bill could add primary-care doctors to every health-insurance network

By Ed Sealover (Jan 18, 2024) 

A top Colorado House leader has introduced a bill intended to allow state residents to maintain their primary-care providers even if they switch insurers — a proposal that insurance-industry leaders warn could carry significant costs with it.

House Bill 1005, sponsored by Democratic Reps. Chris deGruy Kennedy of Lakewood and David Ortiz of Centennial, would require all state-regulated health-insurance plans to include primary-care physicians who meet a set of newly created standards. Insurers who can’t agree with qualified providers on contracts would have to reimburse them at a rate determined by the Colorado Division of Insurance, according to the introduced bill.

Speaking Thursday to the Colorado Chamber of Commerce’s Health Care Council, deGruy Kennedy emphasized that he’s open to changes on a variety of aspects to the proposal, including backstop payment rates and the definition of primary-care providers. He said he’s not opposed to most narrow physician networks that insurers create to keep costs down through reimbursement negotiations, but he believes that primary care must be treated differently than specialty care because of its key role in improving public health, he said.

What bothers deGruy Kennedy, who has authored some of the most significant health-care bills of the past six years, is the churn he sees as people change jobs and insurers and then must find new primary-care providers with whom they haven’t built a relationship. Allowing residents to maintain their primary doctors could improve health, avert the more expensive costs of emergency care from conditions that could have been treated earlier and boost the spread of value-based healthcare, he said.

“I do think that there is something lost when you don’t have a longer-term relationship between the patient and the doctor,” deGruy Kennedy said. “If Colorado is a state where we change the way we do primary care, including making investments in primary care, I believe we can have a healthier population and a better health-care system.”

Insurers determine which doctors are in their networks through negotiations with practices that aim to produce a pool of primary-care providers that is big enough to treat customers without delay but that also is small enough where insurers can set limits on reimbursement rates. Requiring that they permit any qualified primary-care physician to be in their network not only takes control of network determination away from insurers who pay for the doctors’ services but gives far greater leverage in contract negotiations to physicians.

Under HB 1005, primary-care doctors would have to be included even in the narrowest networks if they are licensed to practice in Colorado, accredited by a national association of primary-care providers, credentialed to take Medicaid patients and enrolled in a value-based alternative-payment model. DeGruy Kennedy said he’s trying to determine through conversations with insurers how much this would expand typical networks but hasn’t been able to ascertain that yet.

Setting rates for primary-care doctors

The bill would require that the Colorado insurance commissioner contract with an actuary to determine a minimum reimbursement schedule for alternative payment models, and it requires reimbursement at rates that are at least 135% of Medicare payments. DeGruy Kennedy argued the bill must have teeth if insurers can’t agree on payment terms with physicians now outside their networks, though he acknowledged that serves as a stick for insurers even as providers are given more carrots and aren’t required to join networks.

It is that requirement in particular that’s led many health insurers to oppose the bill, arguing that it permits unprecedented government intervention into contract negotiations and destroys the makeup of networks that are a main way that insurers keep down costs. Removing insurers’ control over network makeups and reimbursements in turn could boost insurance-premium costs for Coloradans covered by small-group and individual insurance plans if the bill were to go into effect by 2027 as proposed, several officials said.

Dr. Grace Holub of OB/GYN Affiliates acknowledged that physicians need to be able to spend more time with their patients — a step that, like deGruy Kennedy’s goal of boosting value-based payment models, would improve general health. But Holub, whose practice offers primary-care services to patients who need them, said that as a small employer, she fears the cost impact of a bill that would expand networks so much, leading her to judge that the bill could make healthcare more unaffordable and offset its aims of boosting primary-care services.

“In an ideal world where money is not a factor, it’s great,” Holub said. “But it is going to be very expensive. And as a small business, providing medical coverage to my employees is very important to me.”

Bigger health-care changes

HB 1005 is one of several insurance-mandate bills introduced in the first eight days of the 2024 legislative session, including proposals to require greater fertility coverage, mandate coverage of weight-loss drugs and bar insurers from requiring patients with rare or chronic conditions from having to use only certain pharmacies. Many health-insurance leaders argued, though, that deGruy Kennedy’s effort would have the furthest-reaching effects.

Term-limited after this session, deGruy Kennedy, the House speaker pro tempore, acknowledged HB 1005 is not the request of a particular interest group but is his effort to leave what he believes would be long-lasting improvements on the state’s health system. He continues to negotiate with business groups, patient advocates and others, and he said he doesn’t plan to bring the bill up for a committee hearing before mid-February, so that he has time to consider various concerns and see how he can work them into the bill.

But it’s clear that his biggest obstacle will be convincing insurers, who have been subject to a host of new regulations in recent years, that HB 1005, isn’t just an attack on the networks they have worked to preserve, even as laws have set minimum levels of adequacy for them. And, according to several industry sources, that will be a difficult hurdle to clear.

Read more at TSSColorado.com

State lawmakers seek to limit property tax increases as home values soar.

State lawmakers seek to limit property tax increases as home values soar.

By Kevin Hardy (January 9, 2024)

Soaring home values have increased property taxes for millions of homeowners in recent years, prompting action from state lawmakers to lighten the burden.

“The biggest problem was they just went up so quickly. … I think that’s one of the reasons why it became this rallying cry from the people asking for tax relief,” said Idaho state Rep. Jason Monks, a Republican.

The typical home value in Idaho increased from $275,852 in November 2019 to $434,224 this November — a 57% increase over four years, according to data provided by real estate giant Zillow, which tracks the average of the middle one-third of home values.

Rising home prices typically lead to higher property tax assessments, potentially pushing up tax bills even when tax rates remain steady. Those rates are generally set by local governments, not legislatures. But public pressure has compelled lawmakers in several states, including Idaho, to use surplus state revenues to mitigate property tax hikes.

In Ada County, home to Boise and Idaho’s most populous county, the measure that Monks and his colleagues approved in March delivered nearly $100 million in property tax relief. That amounted to a median cut of more than $500 per home, the Idaho Capital Sun reported.

“I think it was wildly successful,” Monks said. “Really everybody across the state received tax relief, which was the objective of the bill.”

Jared Walczak, vice president of state projects at the Tax Foundation, a pro-business research organization, said he expects many other states — both blue and red — to tackle the issue this year.

“In virtually every state where the legislature meets this year, property tax relief bills will be filed,” Walczak said. “This is a front-of-mind issue for many legislators across the country.”

But property taxes are intrinsically complex.

States can set broad property tax policies — such as tinkering with assessment rates on real estate. But it’s generally local governments, including school districts and municipalities, that set specific tax rates and heavily rely on the revenue for day-to-day operations.

The effort across the country to provide property tax relief has sparked some concern that states could go too far, jeopardizing revenue for school districts and local governments. And some policymakers worry about overly broad relief that could benefit the wealthiest property owners at the expense of those most in need.

In Idaho, legislators had to override a veto from Republican Gov. Brad Little, who was worried about jeopardizing funding for transportation projects and the cutting of a local election date. After the veto override, the governor said he was satisfied with legislative cleanups and overall was supportive of the property tax changes.

The issue is particularly ripe in the Mountain West, where home values skyrocketed after remote work gave Americans more residential freedom. Many well-heeled workers fled the East Coast and California for the mountains, pushing up housing prices.

In December, Montana Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte launched a task force charged with proposing a property tax relief plan for legislators to consider at their next regular session in 2025. Recent legislation authorized up to $675 in property tax rebates for 2023 and 2024, but Gianforte said the state needs“long-term reforms to keep property taxes as low as possible.”

In Wyoming, organizers aim to put a property tax relief measure on the statewide ballot after legislative efforts fizzled. Lawmakers already have introduced several alternative measures ahead of the 2024 session.

And Colorado lawmakers will once again attempt to deliver lasting property tax relief after the failure of a ballot initiative pushed by Democratic Gov. Jared Polis prompted a short-term legislative cut during a special session in November.

Nebraska Republican Gov. Jim Pillen has proposed to reduce local property taxes by increasing the state sales tax rate by 2 cents, from 5.5 cents to 7.5 cents, the Nebraska Examiner reported.

Home values spark urgency

Generally, American home values increase incrementally each year.

The Case-Shiller U.S. National Home Price Index, a benchmark of average single-family home prices, shows a steady increase from the 1980s to the beginning of 2020.

But those values shot up nearly 40% over the past three years — far outpacing inflation rates for food, energy and other consumer purchases.

“So, they [homeowners] could be facing 40% higher property taxes. Even after you account for inflation, this is a very significant increase,” Walczak, of the Tax Foundation, said. “And they recognize they’re not getting 40% more or better government for these additional tax payments. … So there is a public outcry.”

That outcry is especially pronounced among retired and low-income homeowners who often struggle to keep up with rising property taxes.

“I think the main reason people get frustrated with property taxes is that they’re often disconnected from their ability to pay,” said Aidan Davis, the state policy director at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a research group that supports tax policies to create a “racially and economically equitable tax system.

As with the recent wave of state income tax cuts, it’s unclear whether deep property tax cuts can be sustained over time as state revenues likely begin to decline.

Nearly every state has enacted some form of property tax limit since the 1970s. Some implemented caps on how much valuations of a home can rise each year. Other states have pushed local jurisdictions to restrict rate increases.

But Davis said across-the-board cuts don’t necessarily provide relief to those most in need. Her organization recommends lawmakers consider so-called circuit breakers, which prevent homeowners and renters from being overloaded by property taxes. While programs vary greatly, 29 states and the District of Columbia have enacted circuit breakers that cap property tax bills if they represent too large a share of a homeowner’s income.

Property taxes are generally more regressive than other taxes, Davis said, meaning they take a larger percentage of income from lower-income residents. But circuit breakers can protect people whose home values have surged even if their incomes haven’t.

The role of local governments

Idaho lawmakers last year diverted state surplus revenues to fund property tax relief — sending cash directly to local school systems to make up for lost property taxes.

The legislation also increased the income limit and assessed valuation cap for residents participating in the state’s circuit breaker program, allowing more older, widowed or disabled homeowners to qualify. Homeowners saw an average property tax cut of 18% late last year, according to the governor’s office.

To dissuade local school systems from raising taxes, the legislation cut the most popular of four annual election dates that schools largely had relied on to ask voters to raise revenues.

That was a key reason the law was opposed by the Idaho School Boards Association.

Idaho school systems rely on local levies to fund not only facility costs but also operational expenses such as teacher salaries, athletics and special education, said Quinn Perry, the association’s director of policy and government affairs.

While lawmakers touted the law as a historic state investment in education, Perry noted that the state simply swapped school funding sources. And it’s unclear how sustainable the tax cut will prove over time as pandemic relief dries up and the economy remains uncertain.

In October, Idaho budget officials announced state revenues came in nearly $40 million below projected levels as sales and income taxes were weaker than expected.

“I think there is a good question about sustainability,” Perry said, “because it’s essentially taking a lot of general fund dollars to pay for home relief.”

Texas voters in November overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment under which the state will send $7.1 billion to school districts so they can lower property taxes. The amendment, which passed with 80% support, also doubles the homestead exemption and caps property tax increases on certain business properties.

At $18 billion, Texas delivered the nation’s largest-ever property tax cut, said state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, who worked on the plan with fellow Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

But he said it also helped those struggling the most: The homestead exemption means homeowners won’t have to pay taxes on the first $100,000 value of their homes, a provision that will mean the most to those at the lower end of the market.

“It’s good tax policy but it’s also good public policy to keep people in their homes,” Bettencourt said. “And quite frankly, I think it’s a moral responsibility. Because with all the pressures in modern society, you want to keep as many families as possible in their own home.”

Finding the right balance

In Colorado, the landscape ranges from rural ranching communities to booming urban and suburban markets.

And property taxes can prove a double-edged sword: a wealthy homeowner or investor could cash in on a home value that has doubled in just a few years’ time. But a cash-strapped or low-income homeowner could be at risk of losing their house over skyrocketing valuations and taxes.

“I’ve been struggling with this,” said Democratic state Rep. Marc Snyder. “It’s really hard to come up with a statewide solution when you have such a variety of situations in Colorado.”

Lawmakers grappled with the issue after the November failure of Proposition HH, which would have reduced property tax rates over 10 years and exempted part of a home’s value for its assessment. In a four-day special session that month, the Democratic-controlled legislature provided about $430 million in property tax relief — but only for 2023.

“It worked for a short-term solution,” said Democratic state Rep. Chris deGruy Kennedy.

Kennedy is a member of a task force that began studying the issue in December. That group also includes representatives of local governments. He says many of those leaders want the state to stay away from the issue of property tax rates.

“The state doesn’t get any property tax revenue so, why should it decide how much money the local governments collect?” he said. “And I think that’s a pretty persuasive argument.”

Kennedy said he wants to ensure that Colorado’s school and fire districts have the revenue sources they need to operate well. But he’s wary of tax relief that is overly broad.

“I want to make sure that whatever we do to provide property tax or rent assistance is done in the most targeted way possible,” he said, “so that we’re actually giving the dollars to the people that need them, rather than doing across-the-board cuts.”

The task force aims to report its recommendations to the legislature in March. That should give lawmakers time to craft legislation before the session ends in May, said Snyder, who is running for a state Senate seat.

“I would not relish the thought of going out and knocking on doors if we haven’t done anything,” he said.

Read more at DailyBreeze.com

Colorado’s special session on property taxes delivered bigger benefits for low-income families

Colorado’s special session on property taxes delivered bigger benefits for low-income families

By Andrew Kenney (November 20, 2023)

Colorado lawmakers on Monday concluded a special legislative session that was focused on tax relief for homeowners — but when the smoke cleared and the last calculations were completed, it was clear that Democrats’ tax policy reforms had gone far beyond property taxes.

The package of new laws will indeed deliver about $430 million of tax cuts for homeowners across the state. Gov. Jared Polis signed the tax cut and other bills Monday evening.

Among them was an even bigger tax benefits package, totaling nearly $500 million, for lower-income Coloradans. They will get larger TABOR refunds and expanded tax credits for the working poor. Those changes will be paid for, in effect, by the state’s wealthiest residents.

“I’m proud to provide immediate property tax relief for all Coloradans and help those who need it the most,” Polis said in a statement. “Thanks to these actions, more hardworking people can stay in the communities they love or grew up in. I appreciate the legislature’s thoughtful work to save people money and their ability to pass laws during this urgent special session before Thanksgiving to provide property tax relief.”

For most Democrats, it was something to celebrate — a change that would make the state’s tax system more progressive, at least for the next year.

“Our state’s tax code is broken. It’s an upside-down tax code,” said Rep. Javier Mabrey, a Democrat. “This matters. It helps renters. It helps homeowners who are retired.”

Republicans, meanwhile, decried the policy changes as a socialist-style wealth transfer, and they claimed it was counter to the will of voters, who had just rejected Proposition HH, containing some of the same ideas.

“The people who pay little or nothing in taxes get the majority of the benefits and the real taxpayers got little or nothing,” said Sen. Larry Liston, a Republican. (Practically everyone pays taxes in some form, especially sales and other taxes.)

“This is taking money from one person to another, this is legislating money from one person to another,” said Rep. Ken deGraaf, a Republican.

How the money’s flowing

Democrats made three big changes to the tax system for tax year 2023:

  • They granted equal TABOR refunds to all taxpayers next year
  • They expanded the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit
  • They reduced property tax rates 

First, there’s a change to how the state pays TABOR refunds next year. Typically, those refunds are paid out in tiers. The highest-income Coloradans get substantially higher refunds since they generally paid higher tax bills in the first place.

But next year, the state instead will pay “flat” refunds, dividing up TABOR refunds equally among tax filers. 

That’s something that was done once before, in 2022. 

This time, every refund will be worth about $800 — a net gain of more than $200 for those in the lowest income tier, and a loss of $1,000 for those in the highest tier. (You can double those amounts for households with two tax filers.)

The second change is the expansion of the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit, which targets working low-income families. The change will result in $183 million being paid to that group.

Biggest benefits for lower-income households

The changes will have the strongest effects on the two ends of the income scale. 

Looking at the changes to TABOR refunds and tax credits, the majority of the special session’s benefits will go to those households making less than about $51,000. They stand to gain anywhere from a couple hundred to a couple thousand dollars, thanks to the larger TABOR refunds and the earned-income credit. (Much of the variability comes from the earned income credit; its expansion will be worth little to some families, but it could pay more than $1,800 extra to some of the poorest working families if they have several children.)

Altogether, that lowest income tier, which includes more than 1.3 million tax filers, will see roughly $474 million in new tax benefits altogether. About $300 million of that sum will come from their larger TABOR refunds. The rest will come from the expansion of the earned income credit.

Meanwhile, the TABOR changes will have negative impacts on those earning more than $104,000. They could lose out on anywhere from $100 to $2,000 of refunds, depending on their income.

The greatest collective costs will fall on the highest income tier, a group of about 280,000 households that make more than $309,000. Altogether, the TABOR-related changes will cost them nearly $300 million — making up a majority of the cost impact.

“It takes from the rich and gives to the poor.  In the short term, we put a little more money in those lower-income folks’ pockets, but we are not implementing this policy in a vacuum,” said Rep. Gabe Evans, a Republican. He argued that higher taxes on the wealthy would drive them out of the state and lead to an economic collapse that hurts poor people.

Property tax cuts

However, that’s not the end of the math. Some of those wealthier families may still come out neutral or ahead since they also will be getting a property tax discount from the special session.

The legislature ultimately decided to grant every homeowner a $55,000 discount on the assessed value of their homes. They also lowered the statewide assessment rate — which determines how much of the remaining value will be taxed — from 6.765 percent to 6.7 percent.

Those changes apply to the current tax year, for which taxes are paid next year.

Thanks to lower property tax rates, a homeowner with a half-million dollar house might save a couple hundred dollars, while a house worth $5 million might save about $500. However, those savings will only cancel out a portion of next year’s tax bill increases, which are driven by higher property values.

Rep. Emily Sirota, a Democrat, said the package offered benefits for all.

“I think we did something for everyone here and that Coloradans can feel good about,” said Sirota.

The changes to property tax rates will have effects on the budgets of local governments and schools. The state will give about $145 million to schools, bringing them back up to the revenue they would have received under the old property tax rates. And it will also provide about $54 million of “backfill” money to local governments and other local tax districts.

That should be enough to fully replace property tax dollars for areas that have seen their property tax revenue grow slower than 10 percent in the current reassessment cycle — mostly rural areas. It also will fully replace affected funding for all ambulance districts and fire districts, lawmakers said.

Other, faster-growing local governments will get either partial backfill or no backfill. The theory is that big cities like Denver will still come out ahead — even with lower property tax rates, they’ll still see significant gains in revenue due to the growth of the tax base.

Republicans said the property cuts were too small; they had proposed a much larger reduction package, which would have been paid for by spending some of the state’s fiscal reserves.

“Just like we have been doing since the end of the 2023 session, we’ve been here fighting for Coloradans, fighting to ensure that we save you money and that we don’t overburden you with taxes,” said Sen. Barb Kirkmeyer, a Republican.

The final vote on part of the package was briefly delayed after Democratic Rep. Elisabeth Epps of Denver sought to amend one bill to prevent any funds for food benefits being spent on products from occupied Middle East territories including the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.

She then moved into the gallery with a group protesting Israel’s bombing campaign against Palestinians and attempted to prevent Republican Rep. Ron Weinberg from defending Israel from the well of the chamber, calling out that he was “out of order” because he was not speaking directly to the contents of the bill. The situation was defused and Epps left the chamber.

Renter relief and grocery help

Democrats also dedicated $30 million to a relief program for renters who are in financial trouble. And, separately, they enrolled the state in a federal program that could offer $35 million to help lower-income families buy groceries next summer— a change that will cost the state about $7 million to administer.

The tax and TABOR changes are only effective for one year. The debate over the state’s long-term approach to taxes is already well underway. 

The special session included the formation of a new panel to draft property tax proposals for next year. Meanwhile, several groups already are proposing their own reforms to the property tax system that could appear on the Nov. 2024 ballot.

Read more at CPR.org

For further reading, check out these pieces at The Colorado Sun, Denver Post, and Colorado Politics.

Colorado wants to base its next overdose prevention centers bill on an untested Rhode Island law

Colorado wants to base its next overdose prevention centers bill on an untested Rhode Island law

The centers, also called harm-reduction or safe-use sites, are where people can use illegal drugs and, if necessary, be revived from an overdose by trained staff

By Elliott Wenzler (September 20, 2023) 

Colorado lawmakers plan to use an untested policy from Rhode Island as the model for a 2024 bill they are drafting that would pave the way for so-called overdose prevention centers in the state. 

The centers, sometimes called harm-reduction or safe-use sites, are intended to be a place where people can use illegal drugs and, if necessary, be revived from an overdose by trained staff. The sites are also meant to provide counseling and access to substance-abuse treatment services.

Earlier this year, the Colorado legislature, which is controlled by Democrats, rejected a bill that would have let local governments authorize the centers to operate in their community. In August, some of the same lawmakers who supported that measure — several of whom sit on the legislature’s Opioid and Other Substance Abuse Disorders Study Committee — voted to try again in 2024 by drafting a new bill for next year’s lawmaking session, which begins in January and lasts 120 days. 

This time, they say they will tweak the legislation to require more state control.

Colorado state Rep. Chris deGruy Kennedy, chair of the interim opioid committee and a supporter of the policy, said during a virtual forum last week he wants the new bill to focus on the Rhode Island policy in order to address some of the concerns of people who opposed this year’s Colorado effort. 

Rhode Island’s legislature passed a bill in 2021 to create a two-year pilot program testing out the sites, also called “harm reduction centers.” But the first site won’t open until sometime next year.

“I think that the main reason we were gravitating a little bit towards the Rhode Island model is just because it has more robust state oversight to pair with the local control,” the Lakewood Democrat said last week during a virtual public meeting with Rep. Elisabeth Epps, D-Denver, and Sen. Kevin Priola, D-Henderson, two members of the committee who are helping him with the draft. 

DeGruy Kennedy highlighted how Rhode Island’s model created a nine-person advisory committee to help draft regulations around overdose prevention centers.

The committee in Rhode Island consists of:

  • the state attorney general or their designee 
  • three medical representatives, with one specializing in addiction 
  • A current or former law enforcement officer
  • a person with a substance use disorder
  • someone working in overdose prevention
  • someone who has suffered from an overdose or a family member of someone who died from an overdose
  • a representative from the state’s league of cities and towns

DeGruy Kennedy said he also likes that Rhode Island’s legislation was endorsed by the American Medical Association. The Rhode Island centers will be required to provide “necessary health care professionals to prevent overdose” and will have referrals for counseling and medical treatments, according to the bill.

With the help of the advisory committee, the director of the Rhode Island public health department creates the regulations for the program. The sites must be approved by the city they are located in. 

Colorado’s draft bill would also create a pilot program, but likely for longer than two years, Kennedy said. 

“We have heard concerns from committee members about making sure that whatever we do is harmonious with the work that law enforcement is doing on distribution crimes in the city at large,” deGruy Kennedy said at the forum. “That voice on an advisory committee was something that we thought was a smart way to include law enforcement voices and cover the concerns that there could be unintended consequences with regards to crime and drug distribution in surrounding areas.”

Law enforcement members gave their perspective to the committee in early August during a three-hour discussion on the topic — the first indicator that the bill may be coming back. 

During that meeting, Epps, who has said she supports working toward abolishing police, said she could support policing of drug distribution and dealing.

“I see a role — don’t tell anybody I said this — I see a role for law enforcement in dealing with … this crisis,” she said.

Epps was a prime sponsor of the bill that failed this year.

While Epps and other lawmakers who supported that bill seem to be in favor of the new effort, proponents would have to persuade skeptics in their own party — likely including the governor — to come on board. Another prominent skeptic is state Sen. Kyle Mullica, a Thornton Democrat who sits on the Opioid and Other Substance Abuse Disorders Study Committee. 

Mullica cast one of the deciding votes shelving the 2023 overdose prevention centers bill, but then in August, on the interim committee, he also cast the deciding vote to allow the 2024 version to be drafted. 

“I’ll be honest with you and transparent: I’m not convinced that this policy is the most effective policy for us to do,” he said during a committee hearing. “But I do believe that it’s a conversation that we should be having and I’m not afraid of that conversation — even if I do have concerns.”

Mullica said he wanted to join Epps, Priola and deGruy Kennedy in drafting the measure. 

While Mullica said he’s not sure he will ever be able to support a bill allowing overdose-prevention centers, he said being part of the bill-drafting process will mean he can try to get some of his concerns addressed. That includes what he feels is a lack of data around overdose prevention centers, the fact that they’ve been used in cities with much denser populations than Denver and how to police around the sites.

The Opioid and Other Substance Use Disorders Study Committee will hear public comment on the 2024 draft on Sept. 27. Nonpartisan legislative staff will then have a week to make any changes and create a fiscal note before the full committee votes on whether to advance the bill to the Legislative Services Committee for further consideration. 

If the Legislative Services Committee advances the bill, it would be introduced in January and go through the legislative process. If the Legislative Services Committee votes against advancing the measure, it could still be brought during next year’s lawmaking term.

The Democratic proponents of the proposal are unlikely to get any support from Republicans, who have been universally opposed to the idea in recent years.

Rep. Ryan Armagost, a Berthoud Republican on the  Opioid and Other Substance Use Disorders Study Committee, said during the August committee hearing that he still thinks authorizing overdose prevention centers is a bad idea. “What might work in one city isn’t (necessarily) going to work throughout Colorado,” he told the committee before a vote to draft the 2024 bill was taken.

The overdose prevention centers measure was one of five drafts the interim committee decided to pursue in August. Support for drafting the other four measures — which would deal with opioid abuse prevention, harm reduction, treatment and recovery — was unanimous.

Read more at ColoradoSun.com

For additional reading, check out this article by ColoradoPolitics.

Facing new drug reality, Colorado lawmakers reconvene opioid committee for first time in 4 years

Facing new drug reality, Colorado lawmakers reconvene opioid committee for first time in 4 years

The committee last met just as fentanyl was emerging and before COVID-19. It now faces a transformed overdose crisis.

By Seth Klamann (July 5, 2023)

The legislative committee tasked with helping to guide Colorado’s response to substance use has reconvened for the first time in four years to face a drastically changed drug landscape, a worsened overdose crisis and a series of worrisome data points about the state’s patchwork treatment system.

The Opioid and Other Substance Use Disorders Study Committee — featuring six Democrats and four Republicans from the state legislature — met for the first time Thursday and will meet again over the coming months with the goal of forwarding potential bills to the full General Assembly when it reconvenes in January.

The group had met for three straight years through 2019, but COVID-19’s emergence derailed its schedule. The committee returns now not only near the peak of the state’s drug crisis, but also amid internal divisions within the legislature about how to address the issue.

In what amounted to a state of the state’s drug use, the committee’s 10 members were presented at a meeting last week with the enormous and complex problem facing them: Just under 1,800 people fatally overdosed in Colorado last year, a still-too-high plateau after three years of marked increases.

Fentanyl, the deadly synthetic opioid, has strengthened its grip on the broader drug supply, making other substances — like methamphetamine and cocaine — far riskier for users. As a result, fatal overdoses involving fentanyl have quadrupled in the past four years, spiking from 222 in 2019 to 920 last year, according to state data.

More young people and people of color are dying, and data presented at Thursday’s meeting showed significant gaps in treatment for both populations.

“We are making progress,” Rob Valuck, a University of Colorado pharmacy professor and the executive director of the Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention, told lawmakers. “People think, ‘Well it’s just getting worse and there is no progress.’ Not true. But the ground is moving under us. Potency of substances is growing. COVID certainly didn’t help — it didn’t help anything. … So we’re fighting all these things, but we still have to do a lot more.”

The good news, Valuck and others said, is that a large group of Colorado agencies, nonprofits and officials are collaborating to find solutions. Representatives from four state agencies testified about their role in combating the crisis: the state departments for public health and health care policy and financing, along with the Colorado Attorney General’s Office and the new Behavioral Health Administration. Public health officials have become increasingly involved in pushing a harm-reduction approach, too, which the state has begun to embrace — to a point.

Lawmakers, meanwhile, have not coalesced around a path forward. While legislators in 2019 de-felonized low-level possession of several drugs, including fentanyl, a sweeping bill passed last year tightened penalties for fentanyl and led to bitter fights about the state’s approach. A bill this year to study the costs of the drug war passed, only to be vetoed by Gov. Jared Polis. The House advanced another bill that would’ve allowed safe drug-use sites to open in willing Colorado cities. The state Senate then narrowly approved a different measure that would’ve tightened penalties for drug dealers. Each chamber then killed the other’s bill.

The consortium also showed lawmakers the results of surveys it had sent to health care providers, people in recovery from substance use, policymakers and government officials. Those responses showed support for harm reduction, prevention and treatment approaches. But there was far less satisfaction with the steps the state has taken with criminal justice and recovery policies. Criminal justice in particular scored the lowest (law enforcement officials are not listed as having participated in the survey).

The debate around approach — should the state lead with public health or criminal justice — is likely to continue. Rep. Chris deGruy Kennedy, a Lakewood Democrat and the committee’s chair, has said one of his priorities is to further study safe-use sites with an eye toward bringing another bill next year. The agendas for future committee meetings have yet to be set.

Sen. Kevin Priola and Rep. Elisabeth Epps, both Democrats, sponsored the safe-use site bill and serve on the committee. So, too, does Sen. Kyle Mullica, a Thornton Democrat who voted against the safe-use bill and backed the criminal penalty measure. Rep. Mike Lynch, the top Republican in the House and another supporter of the penalty measure, also sits on the committee.

Safe-use sites will not be the only issue the lawmakers sift through this summer and fall. New resources have become available for the state and the committee to leverage that weren’t available when the committee last met in 2019. Hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of settlement funding, gained from lawsuits against opioid makers and pharmacies, is rolling into the state. The newly launched Behavioral Health Administration is tasked with helping to address substance use here. Data collection, a key part of understanding the crisis, has improved, and more details will emerge as legislative-directed reports are issued in the coming years.

Much of the settlement money is being dispersed to individual regions and counties. Some will be spent on various forms of treatment, though the sums are still too small to stand up new facilities or permanent programs. Valuck said that treatment options in Colorado have improved in recent years. But they still fall short.

“It used to be that… 80% to 85% of people who needed treatment could not get it, 10 years ago when we started this work,” he said. “That number is much lower now — maybe 60%. But still — that’s better than most states, but still more than half of people who have a use disorder and need treatment cannot access that treatment. It’s still a long way to go.”

That’s particularly true for people of color and young people, as well as those living in rural areas. Valuck and the consortium’s director, Jose Esquibel, showed lawmakers data that just one out of five opioid treatment facilities in Colorado accepts patients under 18. Fewer — if any — options are available to young patients who need more intensive care, especially those without financial resources.

One map, showing the parts of the metro area with opioid treatment offerings, showed just one facility in southeast Adams County, which has a high proportion of Black residents. Similarly diverse parts of north Denver, eastern Arapahoe County and Aurora also lacked options.

Meanwhile, overdose rates among communities of color have risen amid fentanyl’s emergence, a shift from the previous two waves of the opioid crisis — driven first by prescription drugs then heroin — that impacted white Americans more heavily. Data presented last week showed that Native American and Black Medicaid beneficiaries in Colorado died from opioids at far higher rates than their white peers.

“There’s something not right that, in those communities, there is not easy access to opioid-use-disorder treatment,” Esquibel said. “Now, we are working with the state departments and others to figure out how to respond. But we’re going to continue to see these deaths and high impacts in these communities if we don’t help them access treatment as well.”

Read more at DenverPost.com

For further reading, check out this piece at ColoradoTimesRecorder.com

In case you missed it, here are some other news stories from the end of the 2023 legislative session.

In case you missed it, here are some other news stories from the end of the 2023 legislative session.


Colorado legislators aim to reduce energy bill prices, but Xcel’s top exec says they’ve …

The Business Journals

Colorado voters would be asked to approve Democrats’ 10-year property tax relief plan
Colorado Newsline

Weld County could get hit with a legal challenge for not complying with a 2021 redistricting law
Greeley Tribune

Opinion: Coloradans are tired of high energy bills. Democrats have a plan to help
The Denver Post

Colo. Gov. Proposes Property Tax Cut Ballot Measure – Law360 Tax Authority
Law360

In deal for property tax relief, Democrats look again to make TABOR refunds equal
The Denver Post

Colorado could pay equal TABOR refunds next year — $661 a piece — but only if voters …
Colorado Public Radio

In deal for property tax relief, Democrats look again to make TABOR refunds equal
Loveland Reporter-Herald

(Opinion) Steve Fenberg, Lisa Cutter, Chris deGruy & Matt Martinez: Coloradans …
Greeley Tribune

In major last-minute course correction, Colorado Democrats move to issue $2 billion in flat …
The Colorado Sun

In deal for property tax relief, Democrats look again to make TABOR refunds equal
The Fort Morgan Times

Colorado House passes flat TABOR refund rate in effort to ease huge spike in property taxes
Real Vail

Democrats tie in renters to property tax, TABOR refund proposal
The Denver Post

To get equal TABOR refunds, Colorado voters have to OK Dems’ property tax plan
9News

Colorado Democrats move to issue $2 billion in flat-rate taxpayer refund checks
The Durango Herald

Colorado taxpayers could receive flat-rate TABOR refund checks
Colorado Newsline

Colorado Democrats pass proposal seeking to curb costs of utility bills
Colorado Politics

Bill meant to curb utility-bill volatility awaits Colorado governor’s signature
Colorado Newsline

Colorado lawmakers want a property tax return of $661 per homeowner for $2.37 billion
Blogging Big Blue

Bill meant to curb utility-bill volatility awaits Colorado governor’s signature
Kiowa County Press

Op-ed: Protecting consumers, tackling high utility bills | Arvadapress.com
Arvada Press

Colo. Lawmakers Send Property Tax Cut To Ballot – Law360
Law360

Governor Polis signs bills into law to provide real property tax relief to Coloradans
The Longmont Leader

Colorado hospitals will have to hand over more financial information under two new laws
Colorado Public Radio

Advocates applaud new Colorado eating disorder bills, despite stripped down scope
Colorado Newsline

Democrats introduce bills to lower health care costs in Colorado

Democrats introduce bills to lower health care costs in Colorado

BY: SARA WILSON – MARCH 3, 2023
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis and a group of Democratic lawmakers introduced a slate of new bills Thursday they say are meant to reduce health care costs in the state.

The bills would reduce premiums for Colorado Option plans, lower prescription drug costs and work to increase transparency for hospital profits.

“Saving people money on healthcare has been a top priority for me since Day One, and it’s a big challenge,” Polis, a Democrat, said. “We want to pound away on it every year, to find every cost driver and address it to make sure Coloradans stop having to overpay for prescription drugs, hospital care and the health care that they need.”

House Bill 23-1224 would work to improve the Colorado Option, the state-regulated plan offered by private insurers that passed last year. The bill would lower premiums by making it easier for consumers to shop for plans, requiring the development of a method for displaying the standardized plans.

“The Colorado Option is a marquee piece of legislation and a marquee law in our healthcare platform and I’m incredibly pleased with the progress we’ve made on it,” bill sponsor Sen. Dylan Roberts of Avon said. The bill is also backed by Democratic Reps. Iman Jodeh of Aurora and Kyle Brown of Louisville.

The bill also empowers the state’s insurance commissioner to hold carriers accountable for the cost reduction requirements within Colorado Option standardized plans.

Another bill, House Bill 23-1225, addresses the state’s prescription drug affordability board. It would allow the board to review any number of expensive prescription drugs instead of only a dozen as outlined in the legislation that created the board.

The board, which has not yet reviewed the costs of any drugs, has the authority to set an upper payment limit if it determines that a certain drug is unaffordable for Coloradans.

“There are thousands of medications on the market. Limiting it to 12 makes no sense,” bill sponsor state Sen. Sonya Jaquez Lewis of Longmont said. The bill is also sponsored by Reps. Chris deGruy Kennedy of Lakewood and Ruby Dickson of Greenwood Village.

A third bill, House Bill 23-1227, would give more oversight power to the state’s Division of Insurance over pharmacy benefit managers. It would require PBMs to register with the state and require health insurers to pay a fee when filing a list with the insurance commissioner of the PBMs they use.

The bill specifies that the division has the power to enforce certain requirements over PBMs. PBMs are prohibited from, among other things, requiring patients to get medications through the mail, modifying a drug formulary during the plan year and not allowing pharmacists to tell patients about more affordable drug options. It is sponsored by Jodeh, Rep. David Ortiz of Centennial and Republican Sen. Perry Will of New Castle.

“In some cases, PBMs are coming between consumers, health insurance plans, pharmacies and manufacturers while making very, very large profits. PBMs can be a part of the plan to save Coloradans money on prescription drugs, but they have to follow the rules,” Jodeh, one of the bill sponsors, said.

Lawmakers highlighted other pieces of health care cost saving legislation:

  • HB23-1226 would enhance current hospital financial transparency reporting in an effort to highlight what is driving up hospital costs in the state. It is sponsored by Republican Rep. Matt Soper of Delta, deGruy Kennedy, Roberts and Will.
  • A yet to be introduced bill from Democratic Rep. Judy Amabile would require a minimum level of community investment by nonprofit hospitals.

Read more at ColoradoNewsLine.com

House committee tackles first of several fentanyl-related bills

House committee tackles first of several fentanyl-related bills

By Marianne Goodland (February 21, 2023)

The first of three bills attempting to deal once again with fentanyl won approval from a House panel on Tuesday.

House Bill 1167, which applies to the state’s Good Samaritan law, attempts to fix problems that the sponsor said came out of last year’s omnibus legislation on the deadly drug.

As amended by last year’s House Bill 1326, the law now says individuals are immune from arrest and prosecution if they report an overdose to law enforcement or first responders, stay on the scene and cooperate. 

But fentanyl was not included in the right place in the Good Samaritan law, and supporters of HB1167 say that could create felony charges for someone possessing drugs who are trying to do the right thing.

Right now, “people are very afraid to call” for fear of those charges, according to Lisa Raville of the Harm Reduction Action Center.

“We broke the Good Samaritan” law, bill sponsor Rep. Chris deGruy Kennedy told Colorado Politics. “We created a new felony fentanyl possession law.”

That, he said, wasn’t intended.

Fentanyl, used legitimately as a medical anesthetic, is a synthetic opioid that has become a dominant player in the illicit market, and it’s increasingly being mixed into other substances. It’s cheaper and produces a stronger, more fleeting “high,” according to experts. But its potency in small quantities makes it unlike any other substance that preceded it in the drug supply, spurring heated debate about how to address it.

On the one hand, advocates like Raville argue that further criminalization won’t improve the situation. On the other hand stands law enforcers and their allies, who say policymakers should treat fentanyl like “the deadly” substance it is.   

No one testified against deGruy Kennedy’s bill in the House Judiciary Committee.

Raville told the committee that people who use drugs are the “true first responders” in an overdose crisis if they have access to naloxone. They’re also the primary witnesses to overdoses but they have a lot of good reasons to not engage with 911 — and the biggest is fear of law enforcement, Raville said, adding last year’s bill eroded the Good Samaritan law.

“We need people to stay” on hand and cooperate, she said.

To highlight the fear people have about calling 911, Aubrey Wild with the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless told the story of a man who was recently released from jail and overdosed. Someone called 911 with directions on where to find the man, who was passed out in an alley. He survived, but Wild said it shows the fear that people have of sticking around to wait for law enforcers or first responders or even taking life-saving action during an overdose related medical emergency.

Had the caller stayed with the man, the 911 dispatcher could have walked the caller through emergency assistance, Wild said.

Others haven’t been so lucky, she said.

Tessa Torgesen, who works with people who use drugs by distributing sterile syringes, safe injection supplies, fentanyl test strips and Narcan, said she is seeing firsthand how the weakening of the Good Samaritan law has harmed the progress made in overdose prevention — occurring at a time when overdose deaths are on the rise nationwide.

She recounted the story of a woman whose husband overdosed but didn’t call 911 for fear of being arrested because she possessed fentanyl and her husband was on probation for felony drug charges.

It’s more important now than ever for people who use drugs to feel safe calling 911, said Torgesen, whose own life was saved with Narcan.

The harm reduction community — whose members advocate for intervention programs and oppose tougher penalties for crimes — raised immediate concerns once the legislature adopted the fentanyl legislation last year, said Jose Esquibel, who is with the Colorado Consortium for Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention.

The law did not link the call Good Sam law to the new penalties for possession, he said, adding his group had to put out an alert to its coalition that the Good Sam law did not apply to fentanyl.

One group that stayed away from the hearing was the Colorado District Attorneys’ Council, which is divided on the bill, according to Tim Lane.

However, Denver District Attorney Beth McCann spoke in favor of the measure and affirmative defense, the section that has caused some heartburn for district attorneys. 

Under HB 1167, a person who is charged with distribution of less than four grams of fentanyl but stays on the scene of an overdose has an affirmative defense that can be used if the dealer is prosecuted.

McCann said prosecutors don’t want drug dealers to avoid prosecution but that the intent is really around sharing drugs, not dealing them.

The bill focuses “on situations where people are providing drugs to a friend or a girlfriend, boyfriend, and they are using them together with the intention of consuming the drugs,” and then someone overdoses, she said.

In those kinds of situations, McCann said it’s unlikely a person would be prosecuted.

“It’s more important to come down on the side of saving lives, given the immediacy of an overdose situation,” McCann said. “Although I know there are some in the DA community who are not particularly enamored with this bill, I believe that it’s more important to allow us to save lives in these very difficult” and sad situations.

McCann added they still intend to prosecute those who are involved in widespread distribution.

Broadly speaking, advocates of tougher penalties to crime, particularly the distribution of fentanyl, argue that the state’s lenient approach is contributing to Colorado’s grim overdoses.

Last year, Deputy Chief Adrian Vasquez of the Colorado Springs police department told a House panel that any possession of fentanyl should be a felony, that there is no “relatively safe amount of fentanyl” and public policy should demonstrate its seriousness.

In pushing for the 2022 legislation, supporters of tougher penalties said even one pill can kill and argued there’s no middle ground when dealing with a substance as deadly as fentanyl. 

They said users often don’t know what they’re taking and fentanyl also puts first responders at risk.

Monday marked the one-year anniversary of the deaths of five people in a Commerce City apartment.

Police Chief Gregory Sadar, who also represents the state’s chiefs of police association, asked for an amendment to exempt manufacturers and dealers from the Good Samaritan law.

“Expanding the immunity to those who manufacture and distribute the drug is problematic for us,” Sadar said.

“We continue in Colorado to take a more and more permissive position towards drug use,” said Sadar, who added that it leads to the overdose crisis. “We want to make sure we take a position that incentivize people to call.”

“But it’s also a sad commentary,” he added, that people have to be incentivized to save their neighbors.

HB 1167 was amended at deGruy Kennedy’s behest to exempt the manufacturers, although that drew opposition from two committee Democrats. The bill passed on a 10-2 vote and now heads to the full House.

second bill on fentanyl that intends to address the issue of “knowingly” possessing fentanyl, sponsored by House Minority Leader Mike Lynch, R-Wellington, was pulled from the committee’s schedule.

The third bill dealing with fentanyl is in the state Senate.

Sponsored by Sens. Kyle Mullica, D-Thornton and Byron Pelton, R-Sterling, Senate Bill 109 seeks to create a level 1 drug felony, along with mandatory sentencing, for controlled substance distribution that results in death. It’s similar to a provision in HB 1326, but SB 109 applies to more than just fentanyl.

The measure, which is supported by the Colorado District Attorney’s Council, is scheduled for the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on March 6.

Read more at ColoradoPolitics.com