Bill to establish health based standards for toxic pollution in CO signed into law

Bill to establish health based standards for toxic pollution in CO signed into law

Victory: HB22-1244 will require action to reduce emissions of toxic industrial pollutants


DENVER, CO
 — June 2, 2022

Today, in the West Foyer of the Colorado State Capitol, Governor Polis signed HB22-1244 (Public Protections From Toxic Air Contaminants) into law. HB22-1244 takes major steps toward protecting Coloradans’ health by requiring action to reduce emissions of toxic industrial pollutants.

The bill was backed by a broad coalition of community, public health, local government, and environmental groups. It was sponsored by Representatives Chris Kennedy and Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, as well as Senator Julie Gonzales. Read the final version of the bill. (Read a summary of the bill as passed.)

This bill directs the state to establish state-level public reporting of toxic emissions from industrial facilities across Colorado and significantly strengthen monitoring of air toxics, particularly in disproportionately impacted communities. HB22-1244 also directs the state to identify “priority” toxics by rule. For these priority toxics, the state must adopt control regulations to reduce harmful emissions and establish health-based ambient air quality standards to address the health impacts on Colorado communities.

“HB22-1244 is a critical step in ensuring that Coloradans have clean air to breathe that isn’t harming our health,” said Sabrina Pacha, director of Healthy Air and Water Colorado. “Health researchers have been sounding the alarm for years that toxic emissions lead to asthma complications, chronic lung disease, cancer, and numerous other conditions, and the health based standards in this bill will make a significant improvement in the health of people across the state.

“Because of histories of racism, and, now, gentrification, those living closest to polluting industries are mostly low income working families and people of color, and historically disenfranchised groups,” said Camila Restrepo, member of Colorado People’s Alliance. “And when the most marginalized people in our communities are left behind we collectively carry the burden of their lost and compromised futures. The passage of HB22-1244 is another stepping stone for our communities that will have an impact on all of us.”

“Over the past year, Colorado has experienced some of the worst air quality in the world driven by ozone pollution, forest fires, oil and gas development, and transportation emissions. For years Latinos have been breathing some of the worst air pollution in the nation and have been demanding action to address toxic air pollutants caused from other industrial sites and the cumulative effects of historical environmental racism in our state,” said Beatriz Soto, Protégete director. “Thankfully, HB22-1244 provides a monumental win for ALL communities across the state — this bill will empower the state to protect our health through better monitoring and control of toxic pollutants from these industrial polluters.”

“This is decades in the making, our elders and ancestors fought for the Clean Air Act in 1970,” said Ean Thomas Tafoya, CO state director of GreenLatinos. “Unfortunately, the work to regulate toxins wasn’t finished then and today, after 5 years of advocacy the people of Colorado are saying loud and clear — we have a right to clean air! Congratulations to the coalition that built power to get this done!”

“This bill moves us one step closer to a future where everyone in Colorado — regardless of what we look like or where we live — can breathe healthy, clean air,” said Tom Abood, community leader with the Together Colorado Climate Justice Committee. “We also know there is much more work to do, and we are committed to continue organizing in our faith communities toward environmental justice in Colorado.”

“This is a historic day in the fight to clean up Colorado’s air and improve the health of communities impacted by toxic pollution across the state,” said Rebecca Curry, Colorado policy counsel at Earthjustice. “But our work is not done with this bill signing. The true impact of HB22-1244 will be measured in its implementation, and it is incumbent upon all of us to keep the pressure on to hold industry accountable for its toxic air pollution.”

Read more at EarthJustice.org

New Law Puts More Doctors & Therapists Under One Roof 

New Law Puts More Doctors & Therapists Under One Roof 

By Shaun Boyd (May 18, 2022) 

DENVER (CBS4) – At Tepeyac Community Health Center, “treating the whole the person” is not just some catchphrase, it’s a core function of the clinic located in Denver’s Globeville neighborhood. It has an equal number of doctors and therapists, and Clinic Director Dr. Pamela Valenza says they often tag-team.

“And then a behavioral health provider will then go into that room and meet with the patient in real time when they came in just to see their doctor,” Valenza said.

That seamless handoff, from medical to mental health provider, has become the model in health care and a new law will help expand it statewide. The law, signed on Wednesday by Gov. Jared Polis, provides $35 million in grants over the next two years and another $4 million the following two years to help create more so-called integrated care practices where patients can see a medical provider and mental health provider in the same visit.

“We know what best practice is. We just have to expand it to the rest of the state,” said Sen. Sonya Jaquez Lewis, who co-sponsored the bill with Representative Chris Kennedy after a pilot program showed success.

In 2015, the state received federal grant money to facilitate the merger of about 350 primary care clinics and behavioral health practices. A federal study found more people got therapy and fewer were hospitalized as a result of integrated care. So, when Colorado received millions of dollars in COVID relief, Jaquez Lewis and Kennedy decided to expand the delivery model across the state.

“We believe this is such fundamental thing to creating a better more inclusive health care system,” said Kennedy.

Tepeyac Community Health Center is ahead of its time. Valenza says they began integrated care about 10 years ago.

“If you’re going to a health center that doesn’t have integrated care, what you get is a referral. And, if that patient might call, and they might have a 3-4 month waiting list.”

Many of Tepeyac’s patients, she says, couldn’t even get on the waitlists because they’re uninsured or underinsured. Even those with insurance have trouble accessing therapists.

Jaquez Lewis says the bill helps create true parity in health care.

“We will be able to integrate physical health care immediately with behavioral health care.”

While $39 million is a lot of money, Valenza says it will pay off in the long run.

“When we prevent hospitalizations, that person will be a more functioning person able to hold a job so it really has ripples across the socio-economic plane.”

The legislature allocated $450 million for behavioral health care during the 2022 session to, among other things, incentivize more people to become therapists and increase the number of residential treatment beds in the state.

This Thursday is Mental Health Action Day, and CBS News Colorado is streaming a Community Conversation on Mental Health. You can catch the special right after CBS4 News at 6 p.m. on May 19.

CBS News Colorado is partnering with MTV on “Mental Health is Health” seeking to improve mental health in our community by normalizing conversation about mental health, sharing resources, and highlighting groups taking action to help others thrive.

Read more at Denver.CBSLocal.com

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

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

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

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

Colorado Democrats plan to tackle K-12 education, high cost of living in upcoming session

Public safety proposal would increase funds for community policing

BY: FAITH MILLER – JANUARY 10, 2022 5:06 AM

It’s getting more expensive to live in Colorado, a fact that Republicans are counting on to help them in a midterm election year.

State GOP leaders held a news conference in August at a Denver gas station, seeking to call attention to rising fuel prices and blame Democrats — who control the state Senate, House of Representatives and governor’s office — for the hit to people’s wallets.

As of Friday, average gas prices stood at $3.31 per gallon in Colorado, a 45% increase from one year prior, according to AAA. The Denver-Lakewood-Aurora consumer price index — which accounts for food, energy, shelter, motor vehicles and medical care — jumped 6.5% from November 2020 to November 2021.

Though Republicans tend to place the blame for cost increases on Democratic policies, economists say a variety of factors, including widespread and pervasive supply chain issues, likely play a role. But Democrats plan to tackle affordability issues head-on this session, Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg and House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar said in a Wednesday interview.

Other key Democratic priorities for the upcoming session, which begins Jan. 12, include investing in K-12 education and public safety.

Read more at https://coloradonewsline.com/2022/01/10/colorado-democrats-2022-legislative-session/

Colorado lawmakers passed 502 bills during this year’s legislative session. Here are 65 you need to know about.

Colorado lawmakers passed 502 bills during this year’s legislative session. Here are 65 you need to know about.

The measures include six gun control bills, new cannabis regulations and a policy inspired by Elijah McClain’s death.

By Thy Vo and Jesse Paul (June 14th, 2021)

Colorado lawmakers introduced 623 bills during the 2021 legislative session that ended last week, passing 502 of them and spiking the rest. 

Democrats were able to advance a number of big policy priorities in their third year in the statehouse majority, including a bill to lower health insurance premiums and a measure to enact new fees to raise money for transportation projects. There was also legislation sent to Gov. Jared Polis continuing to-go alcohol sales by restaurants and resurrecting Colorado’s retro license plates. 

Here are 65 bills passed during the 2021 lawmaking term that you need to know about:


Health care

House Bill 1232: It started as a measure to create a public health insurance plan and reduce costs by 20%. The final version of the legislation, however, will instead force health insurance companies to offer a state-regulated insurance plan and seeks to reduce costs by 15%. >> READ MORE

Senate Bill 175To address the soaring cost of certain prescription drugs, this legislation would create a state board to determine whether drugs are affordable. If a medication is deemed unaffordable, the Prescription Drug Affordability Board would have the power to set maximum prices that can be charged in Colorado. >> READ MORE

Senate Bill 142:Medicaid patients seeking an abortion will be able to access the procedure at more facilities under this measure. The bill removes restrictions that forced some low-income patients to travel long distances to get an abortion. >> READ MORE

Senate Bill 193: Pregnant people in Colorado’s prisons will be granted certain health care rights under this measure. It requires that mothers are not left alone in a cell during childbirth and that they be given access to educational information, breast pumps, and a doctor who specializes in pregnancy and delivery. >> READ MORE

Senate Bill 9: Under this billlow-income people who otherwise qualify for certain government health care programs but aren’t eligible because they are living in the U.S. illegally would get access to free reproductive care, including birth control and abortions, paid for by the state.

Senate Bill 194: In an effort to improve maternal health and reduce mortality rates, this bill requires health insurers to cover certain labor and delivery costs. It also expands state health coverage of pregnancy and post-partum services and requires that the state’s Maternal Mortality Review Committee improve data reporting on race, ethnicity and other factors. >> READ MORE

Senate Bill 137: Mental health and substance abuse treatment programs will get a $114 million boost from this measure, with nearly $100 million coming from the pool of federal stimulus dollars. The legislation includes nearly $20 million for youth crisis beds and other youth-intervention programs. >> READ MORE

House Bill 1258: Every Coloradan 18 and younger would have free access to a mental health screening and up to three subsequent visits with a mental health professional under this measure aimed at helping kids cope with the long-term impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. >> READ MORE

Criminal justice

House Bill 1251: Sparked by the death of Elijah McClain, this measure limits when the powerful sedative ketamine can be administered outside of a hospital in situations involving law enforcement. EMS providers aren’t allowed to administer ketamine when a person is suspected of a crime unless there’s a genuine medical emergency. 

House Bill 1280: Courts would be required to hold a bond hearing within 48 hours of a person’s arrest under this bill, an effort to keep people out of lock-up longer than necessary. The bill establishes the position of a statewide judge who can hold bond hearings remotely and on weekends to help rural districts with limited staff meet the legislation’s requirements. >> READ MORE

House Bill 1211: Large local jails in Colorado would be subject to new restrictions on when an inmate can be housed in solitary confinement under this measure. The legislation includes requirements that people held in isolation be checked on periodically, have access to appropriate medical care and be given time outside their cells. It also prohibits youth and people with certain medical or mental health conditions from being housed in isolation. >> READ MORE

Senate Bill 271: This sweeping piece of legislation would rewrite Colorado’s misdemeanor laws by changing the maximum sentence for a Class 1 misdemeanor to 364 days in jail and a fine of $1,000, down from 18 months in jail and a fine of up to $5,000. For Class 2 misdemeanors, the penalty would be 12 days in jail and a fine up to $750, down from 364 days in jail and a fine of $1,000. Class 3 misdemeanors are eliminated. A number of crimes would also be reclassified under the measure. >> READ MORE

Senate Bill 124: People convicted of felony murder in Colorado would no longer be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Instead, they’d face 16 to 48 years in prison, a sentence similar to a second-degree murder conviction. 

House Bill 1314: The state would no longer be able to revoke driver’s licenses or ID cards based on unpaid court costs and municipal violations. People also would not lose their driver’s licenses based on fraudulent use of license plates or a car title, failure to pay fare on public transportation, underage consumption of alcohol or marijuana, and other offenses. 

House Bill 1315: Juvenile offenders and their families would no longer be required to pay certain court fees or fines, including cost-of-care fees, prosecution costs and a variety of other surcharges.  

Senate Bill 280: Colorado’s laws around bias-motivated crimes — also known as hate crimes — would be expanded under this bill, which says that bias only needs to be part of a defendant’s motivation for the offense to be considered a hate crime. The bill would also make the crime of harassment, when motivated by bias, a Victim Rights Act crime, which provides a victim certain rights.

Housing

House Bill 1117: Colorado cities and towns will soon be able to require developers to include below-market rate units in new rental developments, so long as developers are given alternatives and municipalities have tried other measures to increase density. The measure reverses a 20-year-old court ruling. >> READ MORE

Senate Bill 173: Colorado tenants would have expanded protections under this measure, which limits when late fees can be charged and restricts evictions based on failure to pay late fees. The bill also imposes fines on landlords for violations of its provisions. 

Senate Bill 242: The state’s Housing Development Grant Fund would be allowed to give grants or spend money for projects related to converting motels, hotels and other “underutilized” properties into shelters or affordable housing under his bill. That fund would also get a $15 million infusion from the state.

Guns

Senate Bill 256: This measure would allow local governments, public higher education institutions and special districts to enact gun policies that are stronger than what’s written in state law. The bill was part of a slate of legislation introduced after the Boulder King Soopers shooting. >> READ MORE

House Bill 1298:This legislation would close the so-called Charleston loophole by requiring gun dealers to complete a background check on a gun buyer before transferring a weapon. It would also prohibit people from purchasing a gun if they have been convicted of certain misdemeanors within the past five years. The bill was part of a slate of legislation introduced after the Boulder King Soopers shooting. 

House Bill 1299: The Office of Gun Violence and Prevention would be created within the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment under this bill. 

House Bill 1106: Starting on July 1, 2021, Coloradans who own guns will be required to store their weapons in a gun safe or with a trigger or cable lock when the owner knows or should reasonably know that a “juvenile or a resident who is ineligible to possess a firearm can gain access to the firearm.”

Senate Bill 78: Colorado gun owners must report a lost or stolen firearm to law enforcement within five days of realizing the weapon is missing. Failing to report a lost or stolen firearm is a civil offense punishable by a $25 fine. A second or subsequent infraction is an unclassified misdemeanor punishable by a maximum fine of $500. 

House Bill 1255: The measure would require people who are subject to a restraining order because of domestic abuse to submit to a judge, within seven business days, an affidavit including a list of the type and number of firearms they own, as well as the location of those weapons. The legislation is aimed at ensuring those charged or convicted of domestic abuse relinquish their firearms. >> READ MORE

Transportation 

Senate Bill 260: This is state lawmakers’ plan to raise revenue to fund the state’s growing infrastructure needs. It includes a series of new fees on gasoline and diesel fuel, deliveries and rideshare trips. In total, this measure seeks to raise and spend more than $5 billion over the next 11 years. >> READ MORE

Senate Bill 238: Transportation advocates have longed for a passenger rail system to transport people up and down the Front Range and cut down on car reliance. This measure would create a new special Front Range passenger rail district overseen by a 14-member board that would have the power to ask voters to raise sales taxes to pay for the train. >> READ MORE

Environment

House Bill 1266: Colorado has a plan to slash greenhouse gas emissions, but House Bill 1266 would turn most of those goals into mandates for oil and gas, electricity-generation and manufacturing sections, with a timetable for achieving the cuts. The measure also creates environmental justice provisions.  >> READ MORE

House Bill 1162: Plastic bags would be banned in Colorado starting in 2024, with exceptions for restaurants and small businesses, under this measure. Starting in 2023, plastic bags and paper bags would be subject to a 10-cent fee. The bill would also ban polystyrene containers — aka styrofoam — across the state starting on Jan. 1, 2024.  >> READ MORE

House Bill 1189: Industrial plants, including Suncor’s Commerce City refinery and Goodrich Carbon’s airplane brakes plant in Pueblo, would be required to monitor air quality on-site and publicly report the results under this legislation. >> READ MORE

House Bill 1290: The measure would set aside $15 million to the Office of Just Transition and Coal Transition Worker Assistance Programs to fund the agency’s work in communities where there are planned closures of coal mines and powerplants. 

Senate Bill 272: The Public Utilities Commission will get money to spend on outside experts when considering rate cases and other matters under this measure. Among other “modernization” steps, the bill also requires commissioners to adopt new rules saying that in any case before them, they must consider how to “improve equity and prioritize disproportionately impacted communities.” 

House Bill 1260: The bill would set aside $20 million to implement the State Water Plan. 

Wildfire

Senate Bill 12: The Wildland Fire Management Section in the Department of Public Safety’s Division of Fire Prevention and Control cannot disqualify an applicant for employment solely due to the applicant’s conviction of a felony, this measure says. The bill also requires the division to develop materials to ensure inmate firefighters know about job opportunities at the agency.  >> READ MORE

Senate Bill 113: This measure allocated about $31 million so that Colorado can purchase a Firehawk wildfire fighting helicopter. The helicopter is an adapted Black Hawk helicopter that can fly at high speeds and quickly react to fires across the state. 

House Bill 1208Coloradans who own property with a natural disaster premium would have to pay an extra fee for disaster mitigation under this measure. Money raised by the legislation would be allocated in the form of grants to groups aiming to prevent wildfires and floods.  >> READ MORE

Senate Bill 88For survivors of child sexual assault for whom the civil statute of limitations has run out, this measure would give those individuals a three-year opportunity to sue their abusers and the institutions or organizations that failed to stop the abuse. 

Senate Bill 73This measure eliminates the civil statute of limiations for all future sexual assault victims, giving them unlimited time to sue their abusers. 

Education 

Senate Bill 172: This measure creates a state account dedicated to increasing the pay of teachers and other school personnel. It only goes into effect, however, if a ballot measure to increase taxes to raise money for the fund is passed no later than November 2027.

House Bill 1103: This measure requires that the State Board of Education revise its academic content standards for reading, writing and civics to include media literacy. The Colorado Department of Education would also be required to create an online resource bank on media literacy issues. 

House Bill 1164:School districts would be allowed to slowly raise their mill-levy rates to levels previously approved by voters up to 27 mills under this measure. The bill is expected to increase property tax revenues for school districts by $91.7 million in the 2021-22 fiscal year. That number jumps to $145.5 million in the 2022-23 fiscal year.  >> READ MORE

House Bill 1304: Colorado would have a Department of Early Childhood under this measure. The department would be tasked with rolling out the state’s universal preschool system become the regulatory agency for programs that are now spread across various agencies. >> READ MORE

Marijuana 

House Bill 1317: This measure would place new restrictions on how much marijuana concentrate medical cannabis patients can purchase. It also would prompt research on the effects of high-potency marijuana on adolescents, and track cannabis use among young people who die of non-natural causes. 

House Bill 1090: The adult possession limit for recreational cannabis is now 2 ounces under this measure, which also makes it easier for people with past convictions for possessing up to 2 ounces to get those convictions sealed or pardoned by the governor. >> READ MORE

Immigration

Senate Bill 199Senate Bill 77, and House Bill 1054: These measures remove various requirements that Coloradans prove legal immigration status to access state or local public benefits, such as medical or housing assistance, or to qualify for professional and business licenses. >> READ MORE

House Bill 1057: The measure prohibits a person from threatening to report an immigrant’s citizenship status to authorities for extortion.  

Government 

Senate Bill 64: Harassing or making a credible threat against an elected official would become a specific crime in Colorado under this measure. >> READ MORE

Senate Bill 69: This bill would allow Colorado’s Division of Motor Vehicles to begin selling the state’s retro license plates — the ones with green mountains — again with an extra charge. The measure also seeks to clamp down on people skirting new-vehicle registration fees. >> READ MORE

House Bill 1107 and House Bill 1015:These measures make it illegal to “dox” — share a person’s private information online in a way that poses a “serious and imminent” threat — a public health worker, employees at state prisons and public defenders. 

House Bill 1071: The Colorado Secretary of State would be required to establish statewide standards and pay for software upgrades to make it easier for Colorado cities and towns to adopt ranked-choice voting. A handful of Colorado municipalities already use the alternative voting method, but it’s expensive to do because state voting machines and software aren’t adapted for it. >> READ MORE

House Bill 1047: Colorado counties with five-member commissions in which members are elected based on where they live would be required to follow new transparency rules and guidelines when redrawing their commission’s district boundaries. The bill is an effort to apply the redistricting guidelines in Amendments Y and Z, passed by voters in 2018, to counties that are growing in population and may consider expanding their commissions. >> READ MORE

Taxes

House Bill 1311: This measure would roll back tax breaks for Colorado’s wealthiest residents, including by capping itemized deductions and limiting deductions for contributions to 529 College Savings Accounts. It also eliminates almost all capital gains for wealthy Coloradans. In turn, the bill would expand the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Tax Credit, and create a temporary tax credit for companies that convert to worker-owned models. >> READ MORE

House Bill 1312: This tax legislation eliminates tax breaks for the insurance, oil and gas and coal industries. In turn, it expands the business personal property tax exemption. The state would be required to reimburse local governments for lost revenue related to expanding the exemption. >> READ MORE

House Bill 1321: This measure would change what language must accompany tax measures on the ballot. For measures increasing tax revenue, for instance, the bill would require language about the level of public services funded by the measure and what those public services would be. The legislation is a progressive response to the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. >> READ MORE

Senate Bill 205: Colorado’s fiscal year 2021-22 budget spends $34.1 billion, restoring cuts made as the coronavirus crisis descended upon the state while also saving a historic amount for future budget years. >>READ MORE

Senate Bill 288: This measure begins Colorado’s process of spending $3.8 billion in federal coronavirus stimulus money. About half of the money was allocated during the recent legislative session and the rest will be distributed by state lawmakers next year. The dollars are being spent on everything from transportation projects to efforts to protect domestic abuse victims. >> READ MORE

Senate Bill 293: Senate Bill 293 would drive down property assessment rates in the 2022 and 2023 taxation years for certain subcategories of property. Starting in the 2023 tax year and continuing indefinitely, the legislation also would allow homeowners to defer an increase of more than 4% on their property tax bill, up to $10,000, on their primary residence. The balance becomes a lien on the property that’s paid back when it is sold. >> READ MORE

Business and Labor 

Senate Bill 39: A handful of Colorado companies paying workers with intellectual and developmental disabilities less than the minimum wage under an antiquated federal law would have to slowly raise those workers’ pay over the next four years to match minimum wage thresholds under this measure. >> READ MORE

Senate Bill 87: Agricultural workers will be able to organize and join unions, strike, and receive state minimum wage and overtime pay under this measure. >> READ MORE

Senate Bill 190 This measure would give consumers the right to tell companies to stop tracking their personal data and to delete it. Colorado would be the third state to adopt a comprehensive consumer privacy law, after California and Virginia, if the legislation is signed into law. >> READ MORE

House Bill 1027: Restaurants would have until at least July 1, 2025, to continue takeout alcohol sales under this measure, though they’d be limited to selling to-go booze from 7 a.m. to midnight. >> READ MORE

House Bill 1048: Colorado businesses will be required to accept cash starting later this year under legislation aimed at assisting those who don’t have access to banking services. Noncompliance with the law could result in fines.  >> READ MORE

House Bill 1289: The measure would set aside $75 million in federal stimulus dollars to support broadband internet infrastructure development.

CORRECTION: This story was updated at 11:23 a.m. on June 15, 2021 to correct the amount of federal stimulus funding allocated under House Bill 1289.

Read more at ColoradoSun.com.

This senior property tax exemption has saved Colorado’s older homeowners millions. But it also has an equity problem.

This senior property tax exemption has saved Colorado’s older homeowners millions. But it also has an equity problem.

As lawmakers continue their efforts to address housing issues, the exemption that’s less available to people of color will get a hard look with an eye toward fairness.

By Kevin Simpson (June 4, 2021)

Dian Feral has lived in the frame house on a corner lot in Denver’s Westwood neighborhood for more than 30 years since she bought it for $87,000 back when she worked the graveyard shift at the Keebler cookie and cracker plant.

It was never what she’d call a good house, situated in what she describes as a “poverty-stricken area” and beset with frequent repairs. But it has nonetheless provided her an affordable home even after the plant closed in 2001 and she fell back on her savings and a company pension that allowed her to pay off the mortgage. 

For the last few years, 69-year-old Feral has squeezed another benefit from the home she shares with three cats and two ferrets. Because of her age and the fact that she has lived in her house for more than 10 years, Feral qualifies for the property tax break called the senior homestead exemption. It saved her $530 off her last tax bill of $1,402.

“It makes a difference,” she says. “That’s a substantial amount of money. It’s maybe one vet bill. It’s a home repair. It’s a lot of things. It’s meaningful.”

In a time of sticker shock from property valuations and rising concern over inequity in the housing market, the two-decades-old exemption stands as both a means of financial relief for many homeowners but also a tool that — in its present form — has raised questions of fairness.

A 2019 study by the Colorado Fiscal Institute found that the exemption disproportionately benefits white homeowners. And overall, roughly half of all older Coloradans don’t qualify for an exemption either because they rent instead of own or, if they do own a home, haven’t lived in it for 10 years. Those who do qualify for the exemption are less likely to be experiencing poverty than all older Coloradans.

Although lawmakers have pushed forward with a measure to provide broad property tax relief in the current session, they have for years flirted with strategies to make the senior exemption a more effective tool — for renters as well as homeowners, for more Black and Latinx homeowners and for more people experiencing poverty.

“People know it’s not an equitable program, and at times the whole program was on the chopping block because the benefits are not distributed equitably,” says state Rep. Chris Kennedy, a Lakewood Democrat. He adds that while bills addressing the senior exemption were introduced twice previously, “neither had kinks worked out.”

A hedge against rising taxes

Voters installed the senior homestead exemption into the state constitution via referendum in 2000 as a means of helping older homeowners remain in their homes as rising property taxes threatened to outrun their often-fixed incomes. The exemption allows those who are at least 65 on Jan. 1 of the year they apply, and who have lived in their homes for at least 10 years, to subtract up to $100,000 of their home’s value before calculating property taxes. (Disabled veterans also can qualify for the exemption.)

Technically, the tax break allows homeowners to deduct 50% of the first $200,000 of appraised value. In Colorado, where the median home price exceeds $500,000, that break easily fits most long-term homeowners in the state’s hottest areas, and can reduce their tax bill by hundreds of dollars. It can also figure into qualifying homeowners’ decision on whether to stay or sell, since the exemption isn’t portable.

Some years ago, an audit of the program raised concerns about “checks and balances” — basically, ensuring that those who claimed the benefit actually qualified, says JoAnn Groff, the state property tax administrator. The result was that the Division of Property Taxation’s role expanded to run applications against databases of deaths and income tax returns to confirm that the properties were, in fact, owner occupied as a primary residence — and that the claimant was still alive.

“The benefit doesn’t get to follow you into the next world,” Groff says. “But when someone passes, the county assessor doesn’t necessarily get it, so this is a way that we can be sure that the exemption ends when someone is no longer with us … It’s a pretty thorough review, short of going out to someone’s house and ringing their doorbell and making sure that they’re living there.”

Since its inception, lawmakers have mulled a number of tweaks to either expand or contract the exemption, which requires the state to backfill lost revenue to the counties that contain the qualifying homes. As Colorado’s populace ages and more people qualify for the exemption, it places a growing burden on the state budget.

In 2002, the state granted 123,380 exemptions and paid counties about $62 million in lost tax revenue. The average tax savings totaled $503.

For the 2020 tax year, Coloradans claimed nearly 270,000 exemptions totaling nearly $158 million in county taxes that had to be backfilled by the state. On average, a qualifying applicant saved $585.

It may seem a drop in the bucket in a $30 billion-plus budget, but it’s not exactly insignificant. 

“It’s big enough that it’s consistently considered when cuts are required,” Kennedy says of the exemption. “We talked about cuts when COVID hit, but fortunately found other things to cut. It’s consistently among the big ticket items that need reform. By making it more equitable, we can reform the longevity of the program.”

County notices of property valuation that went out in January contain an alert that instructs homeowners that they may be eligible for the exemption. A simple application must be completed and filed no later than July 15. Homeowners can contact their county assessor for more information.

Because the exemption is enshrined in the state constitution, lawmakers are limited in what they can do to tweak it. But the legislature does have the authority to adjust the size of the exemption, and can even suspend it during economic dry spells — as it did after the 9/11 attacks in the early 2000s and from 2009 to 2012, when the state budget reeled from the impact of the Great Recession.

AARP keeping tabs

The homestead exemption looms large for AARP Colorado’s roughly 670,000 members — the vast majority of whom are homeowners, including many who have owned their homes for at least 10 years, says state director Bob Murphy. But he also recognizes that while the tax savings can be a nice bonus for well-off Coloradans, the exemption doesn’t extend to a lot of folks for whom even a few hundred dollars could be critical. 

“By any objective analysis (the exemption) is not completely fair,” Murphy says. “Generally 40% of folks who live in Colorado own their homes and 60% rent. So there’s a sort of inherent inequity between owners and renters.

“And it’s not means-tested. I don’t know how many people that would impact, but that’s one of the questions that legislators have grappled with for several years as they look to make changes.”

Murphy says that leads to a third point: A legislative change in the exemption has some urgency because in a state where the population’s older demographic continues to grow, impact on the state budget increases every year.

By any objective analysis (the exemption) is not completely fair.

Bob Murphy, AARP Colorado director

He notes that the Gallagher Amendment, had it not been repealed by voters, would have triggered an 18% decrease in the residential assessment rate — the second largest property tax cut in modern Colorado history. So in addition to removing some longstanding residential property tax relief (another factor in the just-introduced bill) the repeal ends up making the homestead exemption that much more expensive for the state to backfill.

The many moving parts of the state’s financial mechanism make the homestead exemption a tricky thing to try to fix.

“Sometimes those efforts have unintended consequences,” Murphy says. “You could make it more equitable, but that in turn could result in blowing a bigger hole in the state budget….So it’s definitely important to our members, and we understand that we’ve never really had to advocate for or against it. But any objective analysis shows discussion of refining that is probably valid.”

Data points to inequities

The CFI study from 2019 notes that of more than 480,000 Colorado households with at least one older homeowner, only slightly more than half qualify for the exemption. And while 60% of older white households qualify, only 40% of older Black households and 21% of older Latinx households qualify. People of color account for more than a quarter of the over-65 population but only 13.6% of homestead exemption qualifiers. 

Chris Stiffler, CFI senior economist and author of “Inequities in Colorado’s Senior Property Tax Exemption,” notes that the exemption is, in one sense, insulated against well-off homeowners benefitting too much because it’s capped at a $100,000 deduction whether a home is valued at $400,000 or $1 million. But it’s difficult to fine tune it beyond that.

“The legislature can zero it out,” he says, “but it’s trickier to not give it to the super wealthy, and beef it up for lower-income people.”

Stiffler says the purpose of his research wasn’t to come up with any sort of recommendation, but to see what the data would tell him. His biggest takeaway from the research cross-referencing databases was how many Hispanic/Latinx intergenerational families don’t own their homes — which puts them at a disadvantage in terms of the homestead exemption.

He adds that about a dozen states have a “circuit breaker” that kicks in if property taxes exceed 20% of a homeowner’s income and pays the difference to provide relief to lower income seniors.

In Colorado, individual counties sometimes have programs that can help older residents mitigate property taxes, including by doing volunteer work. Homeowners 65 and older also may qualify to defer property taxes. The state treasurer pays the tax in the county where the homeowner resides and places a lien on the property that must be settled once the homeowner dies and the property is sold or the title transferred.

Kennedy says that he plans to propose a bill that would provide means testing for an exemption, but it would likely involve eliminating the current program by dropping the exemption to zero and starting from scratch on a different approach. 

“It’s more complex than it sounds,” he says. “You have to restructure the entire program. We’ve wrestled with it over the years, and we want to make sure it’s equitable and accessible. And we want to make sure it is efficient for the state to administer.”

Key to any revamp, he says, would be finding a way to make it accessible to renters.

“Seniors who rent struggle as much as seniors who own,” Kennedy says. “In addition to property values, Colorado has a competitive rental environment. It’s very difficult to find affordable rental housing. I’m going to work on something over the interim, and come back with (a bill) in 2022. I’ve run a pretty robust stakeholder conversation around this, and I intend to do the same over the interim.”

Read more at ColoradoSun.com