Joey Bunch, Author at Colorado Politics
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September 7, 20177min2220

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper advocated a bipartisan revision to the nation’s health care insurance program during a U.S. Senate hearing Thursday.

“Many people are angry and they have a right to be,” Hickenlooper, a Democrat, said during the hearing.

Hickenlooper discussed the plan he developed with six other Democratic and Republican governors while the time for revising the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act is running out for this year.

A Senate budget resolution Republicans have been using to authorize repeal of Obamacare expires at the end of this month.

Meanwhile, insurance companies hit with huge claims are either dramatically increasing premiums or closing down their business in some states.

Virginia and Tennessee could lose all their health insurers in little more than a year unless Congress intervenes to change the Affordable Care Act, according to statements from senators at the hearing.

Fourteen Colorado counties are served by only one health insurer after the other insurance companies dropped out, Hickenlooper said. Some families are paying as much as a quarter of their income to comply with the Affordable Care Act’s requirement of buying insurance, known as the individual mandate.

“Our division of insurance is projecting premiums will increase by as much as 27 percent in 2018,” Hickenlooper said. “It’s a big problem.”

So far, all efforts by Republicans working alone to change the Affordable Care Act have failed, leaving a bipartisan plan like the one proposed by Hickenlooper as one of the few alternatives.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee scheduled four hearings in a week as it tries to salvage a new health insurance program.

Hickenlooper and his co-author of the governors’ plan, Ohio Republican Gov. John Kasich, will talk more about healthcare on Friday when they address a conference put on my the conservative American Enterprise Institute and the liberal Center for American Progress.

Hickenlooper suggested Thursday that keeping the unpopular requirement that individuals must buy health insurance if employers don’t offer it, at least until Congress develops a better replacement.

Another provision of the plan calls on the Trump administration to fund cost-sharing reduction payments to insurers.

The plan also says Congress should fund a reinsurance program to pay for the care of the sickest patients, thereby eliminating their heavy costs from everyone else’s premiums.

“So many of these [insurance] pools tend to be dominated by the least healthy people,” Hickenlooper said.

He said he knew of a few patients whose health care costs exceeded $5 million a year.

“That raises premiums for everyone,” Hickenlooper said.

He wants Congress to give states more flexibility to craft their own solutions to health care costs, rather than forcing them to comply with a single federal standard.

“Existing regulations limit our ability to come up with creative solutions,” Hickenlooper said.

One of the most successful state programs mentioned during a Senate hearing a day earlier was Alaska’s reinsurance program.

The state invoked Section 1332 of the Affordable Care Act to authorize shifting federal funding to state programs that bring down insurance premium prices. Alaska shifted insurance coverage for patients whose cases are the costliest to a separate pool the state funds separately through a reinsurance program.

Premiums for all other insured persons fell 7 percent afterward.

The bipartisan plan Hickenlooper proposes draws from the Alaska example.

Colorado’s primary innovation is its Accountable Care Cooperative, Hickenlooper said.

The cooperative gives residents an option of joining a system that emphasizes preventive health care, such as immunizations, health screenings and weight management.

“In Colorado, we’re trying to stretch federal dollars and pinch pennies,” Hickenlooper said. “It’s time for the federal government to work with us, not against us.”

Colorado Sen.Michael Bennet, a Democrat, said other industrialized countries pay half as much as the United States on health insurance but still provide their people with good care.

“We’re getting worse results,” Bennet said.

Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican, issued a statement before the hearing Thursday night urging cooperation in Congress to resolve skyrocketing health care costs.

“Our current healthcare system will continue to fail Coloradans if we don’t do something to address the rising costs created by the Affordable Care Act,” Gardner said. “This should not be okay.”

Hickenlooper was joined at the speakers table Thursday by Republican Govs. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, Bill Haslam of Tennessee and Gary Herbert of Utah, along with Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana.

A group of Colorado Senate Republicans “mailed in” questions to Hickenlooper about his “nominally bipartisan” proposal.

The governor “didn’t bother to discuss his supposedly-bipartisan plan with Colorado Republicans,” Senate President Kevin Grantham said in a statement, “so we thought we’d give this a shot.”

The questions addressed the growth of Medicaid, rising premiums and a lack of details in Hickenlooper’s proposal.

“The governors’ plan offers no specific recommendation for modifying the onerous burdens in current law placed on small employer plans,” the Colorado Republicans wrote. “Does Governor Hickenlooper, as a former small business employer, have any personal thoughts or recommendations on that important issue?”

Grantham questioned labeling Hickenlooper’s plan bipartisan when only two of the nation’s 34 Republican governors signed on.

“If we’re going to come up with a Colorado solution to these issues, in a truly bipartisan way, Colorado Republicans should have a place at the table that they haven’t had so far,” Grantham wrote.


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September 6, 20172min1110

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper is scheduled to testify Thursday before a U.S. Senate committee on his plan for stabilizing health insurance premiums, the same plan he presented at the Colorado Capitol last week.

“The governor will be sharing Colorado’s experience with the individual insurance marketplace,” Jacque Montgomery, the governor’s press secretary, told Colorado Politics.

About 18 million Americans purchase their own health insurance instead of relying upon employers.

Hickenlooper is one of five governors scheduled to testify before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. The meeting starts at 9 a.m. in Washington, which is 7 a.m. in Denver and will be carried online via streaming by clicking here.

Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Denver, serves on the committee.

Hickenlooper is expected to be joined Thursday by Govs. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, Steve Bullock of Montana, Bill Haslam of Tennessee and Gary Herbert of Utah.

His testimony is part of a series of hearings the Senate is holding after the recent failure of Republican efforts to repeal and replace former President Barack Obama’s health care law.

Under the plan Hickenlooper developed with Ohio’s Republican Gov. John Kasich with support from six other governors, the Obamacare requirement for Americans to buy health insurance would remain.

However, Hickenlooper suggests that Congress develop tax exemptions for insurers that offer health plans in underserved counties.

He also wants Congress to set up a fund to help states create reinsurance programs that could reduce insurance premiums.


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September 6, 20175min256
WASHINGTON — Colorado Rep. Mike Coffman introduced a bill Tuesday to increase the economic pressure on the troubled Venezuelan government by cutting off its oil exports to the United States. The bill represents a more severe level of sanctions than the debt restrictions the Trump administration imposed Aug. 25. The sanctions were partly a response […]

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August 30, 20176min1640

Grassroots support is growing in Colorado for a possible U.S. Department of the Interior plan to move the headquarters of three federal agencies to Denver.

The plan would be an economic efficiency move at a time the administration of President Donald Trump is being accused of ignoring environmentalists and allowing private industry to overdevelop government-owned property.

A relocation of three agencies to Denver was first reported by E&E News, an online site that reports on energy and environmental issues.

Zinke reportedly suggested moving the headquarters of the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Reclamation away from Washington, D.C., to Denver. All three of them are overseen by the Interior Department.

A location closer to the sites where they perform most of their operations on federal property would make them more effective, Zinke reportedly said during a July meeting with U.S. Geological Survey executives in Denver.

Zinke is preparing a reorganization and downsizing of the Interior Department tentatively scheduled to begin in 2019.

The relocation suggestion won quick agreement from organizations that operate close to federal lands in Colorado.

Don Shawcroft, president of Colorado Farm Bureau, said he would like to see regulatory relief come from a move of the federal agencies to Colorado.

“We feel this will create needed reforms to federal regulations that have been driven by Beltway bureaucrats who don’t see firsthand the impacts of overburdensome rulemaking,” Shawcroft said.

Diane Schwenke, president of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce, said moving the three Interior Department agencies to Colorado would put them closer to their “stakeholders outside the Beltway, like many of us in Colorado, where our local economies are closely tied to the management decisions they make.”

The Bureau of Land Management is the largest of the three agencies with 11,621 permanent employees. It administers more than 247.3 million acres of public lands, or one-eighth of the nation’s land mass.

Most of the land is located in 12 Western states that include Colorado.

The Bureau of Land Management is supposed to protect the wildlife, natural resources and national monuments on public lands. Private development is allowed through permits.

Ranchers hold nearly 18,000 permits to graze livestock on public lands. Other permits and leases allow oil and gas companies to operate about 63,000 wells on government property.

A Trump administration policy that eases restrictions on oil and gas leases drew a recent warning from the Coalition to Protect America’s Parks, a nonprofit organization of retired National Park Service employees.

“As former land managers, we understand the need to balance competing priorities,” the coalition wrote in a letter to the Interior Department secretary. “But we fear the pendulum is swinging too far to the side of development.”

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation manages the nation’s water resources and operates hydroelectric power plants in western states.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service enforces laws to protect the nation’s fish, wild animals and their natural habitats while promoting environmental conservation programs.

Colorado organizations that support moving the agencies west were most interested in the economic benefits.

“The Colorado Wool Growers Association is definitely supportive of the effort to move these agencies to Denver,” said Bonnie Brown, executive director of the Delta-based association. “There is oftentimes a disconnect between [Washington] D.C. staff and what is actually happening on the ground. Having staff live and work near the resources they manage is just common sense.”

She acknowledged that the costs of moving federal agencies away from Washington could be large but added, “The short term transition costs should be offset by the long term savings.”

Kent Singer, executive director of the Colorado Rural Electric Association, said he liked the idea of moving the agencies to Colorado but wondered whether Grand Junction might be a better choice than Denver.

”When we spoke with our congressional delegation during a legislative trip to Washington D.C. in April, we had suggested the Western Slope of Colorado would be an ideal place for the [Bureau of Land Management],” Singer said. “One of the benefits of a [Bureau of Land Management] move to the Western Slope would be job opportunities in that part of the state.”

Members of Colorado’s congressional delegation, including Republicans Sen. Cory Gardner and Rep. Scott Tipton, have previously advocated moving the Bureau of Land Management to Colorado.


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August 24, 20177min132
Some members of Colorado’s Congressional delegation recently renewed their tough talk over North Korea and its development of nuclear missiles. Rep. Doug Lamborn is calling for Congress to ramp up the nation’s missile defenses as North Korea continues to hurl threats against the United States and its other adversaries. Lamborn, R-Colorado Springs, is a member […]

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August 24, 20175min1410

Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman is joining an effort to amend federal laws to empower state and local authorities to prosecute child sex traffickers.

A letter sent last week by 49 state attorneys general to Congress urged federal lawmakers to change the Communications Decency Act, primarily to clarify the power of local authorities to prosecute online sex trafficking.

“Human traffickers are some of the worst of the worst criminals in our society,” Coffman said in a statement. “As Attorney General, it is my job to ensure that we have laws in place that can put these vile perpetrators in prison, where they belong.”

The National Human Trafficking Hotline says it received 120 reports of unique potential human trafficking in Colorado in 2016. Most of them came from the Denver and Colorado Springs areas, the Hotline reported.

The General Assembly organized a group called the Colorado Human Trafficking Council in 2014 to address human trafficking. Its 31 board members come from government agencies, law enforcement and nonprofit organizations. The group is preparing a plan for state lawmakers.

Although human trafficking is worse in some states, “It’s a significant problem that needs to be addressed in our state,” said Maria Trujillo, human trafficking program manager for the Colorado Human Trafficking Council.

One of the problems in stopping child sex trafficking is the difficulty in pinning the blame on any one kind of person, she said.

Child sex traffickers “come from all different walks of life,” Trujillo said. “There is not a typical profile.”

Most of the victims are sexually exploited. Others were forced into slavish labor. The exploited children often are victims of poverty, bullying at school or feelings of being unloved.

“Traffickers are keen on being able to detect that vulnerability and manipulate it,” Trujillo said.

Another obstacle to stopping child trafficking is the expansive reach of the Internet, where solicitations for sex can be posted anonymously.

The government’s primary tool for halting child sex trafficking over the Internet has been the Communications Decency Act. Congress passed the Act in 1996 to regulate pornography on the Internet.

Several lawsuits have challenged the law, saying it violates free speech provisions of the First Amendment. In the 1997 case of Reno v. American Civil Liberties Union, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down anti-indecency provisions of the act.

Other court decisions have created uncertainties about whether the federal law can be enforced only by federal law enforcement agencies or whether it also authorizes local and state prosecutions. The uncertainties prompted the letter last week from Coffman and other state attorneys general.

“Federal enforcement alone has proved insufficient to stem the growth in online promotion of child sex trafficking,” the letter says. “Those on the front lines of the battle against the sexual exploitation of children – state and local law enforcement – must have clear authority to investigate and prosecute facilitators of these and other horrible crimes.

“It is both ironic and tragic that the CDA, which was intended to protect children from indecent material on the Internet, is now used as a shield by those who profit from prostitution and crimes against children,” the attorneys general wrote.

Colorado’s overseers of human trafficking noted big steps forward in their 2016 “Colorado Human Trafficking Council Report.”

They included 42 prosecutions in the previous year, which “represents the largest number of human trafficking case filings in any given year since human trafficking statutes were enacted in the state,” the report said.

The report recommended additional training standards for law enforcement agencies and mental health providers. The standards are intended to help victims cope with the trauma of human trafficking and to identify the persons responsible for it.

Coffman described human trafficking as “profiting off the suffering of our vulnerable citizens…”


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August 18, 20175min83
Colorado lawmakers and environmentalists are anxiously awaiting a federal judge’s ruling on President Trump’s “one in, two out” policy on regulations. Public interest groups and a labor union sued the government to block enforcement of the policy, saying it overstepped Trump’s constitutional authority. Judge Randolph Moss’s comments during a hearing last week in U.S. District […]

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August 12, 20176min1700

A new lawsuit has cast an epileptic 11-year-old girl living in rural Colorado into the heart of a nationwide dispute over medical marijuana.

The lawsuit filed by the attorney of Alexis Bortell seeks to force the federal government to change its Schedule One classification of marijuana.

“What we hope to accomplish from the lawsuit is simple,” said Susan M. Fauls, chief of staff for the law firm suing the federal government on behalf of Alexis and four other plaintiffs. “A permanent injunction restraining the federal government from enforcing the [Controlled Substances Act] as it pertains to cannabis.”

The classification as a Schedule One drug prevents most efforts by Alexis to travel outside Colorado with the cannabis oil that prevents her seizures. Cannabis is the active ingredient in marijuana.

Schedule One of the Controlled Substances Act refers to drugs with a high potential for abuse that have no medical use accepted by the healthcare industry. Transporting marijuana is illegal outside the District of Columbia and 25 states that have legalized at least limited use of it.

However, without the cannabis oil she swallows through a dropper, Alexis would suffer debilitating seizures.

As her seizures became more severe and frequent, her parents moved their family from North Texas — where marijuana is illegal — to Colorado. Alexis has been free of seizures for nearly 2½ years, ever since she started the cannabis oil treatments in Colorado.

She is living with her parents on a farm in Colorado, but her family does not want to disclose the location to protect their privacy.

Her attorney, Michael Hiller, argues that Congress misclassified marijuana as a Schedule One drug in 1970 largely out of ignorance about its medicinal qualities.

“There are people all over the United States for whom cannabis is a cure for their disease and they can’t use it unless they violate the Controlled Substances Act,” Hiller told Colorado Politics.

Colorado’s legalization of marijuana only partially resolves problems created by the federal law for Alexis and other persons who need it as a medicine.

They still are prohibited from traveling with their marijuana products on commercial airlines or from entering national parks, the U.S. Capitol and other federal property.

“She can’t go anyplace outside of Colorado unless she goes by car and she has to return to Colorado by night because she has to take her medication,” Hiller said.

He wants the U.S. District Court in New York to declare parts of the Controlled Substances Act that make marijuana a Schedule One drug unconstitutional, thereby freeing up its medicinal use nationwide.

Lawmakers who outlawed it associated marijuana with “hippes” and “minorities,” says the lawsuit filed against the Justice Department and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

“This lawsuit stands to benefit tens of millions of Americans who require, but are unable to safely obtain, Cannabis for the treatment of their illnesses, diseases and medical conditions, the successful treatment of which is dependent upon its curative properties,” the lawsuit filed July 24 in federal court says. “In addition, this lawsuit, if successful, would aid in the restoration of communities hardest hit and most egregiously stigmatized by the federal government’s misguided and Crusades-like ‘War on Drugs.’”

It argues that the federal government has overstepped its authority to regulate commerce under the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution by the Schedule One classification. The lawsuit also says the Controlled Substances Act’s ban on transporting marijuana across state lines violates the Constitution’s “Right to Travel.”

Other plaintiffs in the lawsuit who say they need medical marijuana include a small child, a military veteran and a retired professional football player. An advocacy group called the Cannabis Cultural Association also is named as a plaintiff.

They and other persons were referred to Hiller by a documentary filmmaker who was making a movie about people who need medicinal marijuana.

The Drug Enforcement Administration considered softening its resistance to marijuana after hearings in Congress but one year ago announced it would keep the Schedule One classification.

Two bills have been introduced in Congress this year to downgrade the Schedule One classification. They have not yet passed.

In May, the American Legion petitioned the White House for a meeting to discuss reclassifying marijuana to allow broader use for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.


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August 7, 20177min1290

Sen. Cory Gardner, a Republican from Colorado, is one of the lawmakers crafting legislation to upgrade technology to help battle Western wildfires.

Members of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources could to introduce a bill as soon as next month.

Senators at a hearing last week called for the new technology to help firefighters prevent and extinguish the kinds of wildfires that have ravaged parts of Colorado.

“As of today, 50 percent more acres have already burned this year than normal and yesterday a forecast report was released that predicted the West is likely to experience above normal wildfires over the next month,” Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said during the hearing of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

Said Gardner: “That shouldn’t surprise people because we know exactly what has been trending the last few years.”

Some of the lawmakers want the federal government to ensure funding for fighting wildfires will be less sporadic than now.

Gardner has worked on firefighting issues previously, which included advocating for more secure funding for wildfires.

Cantwell and Gardner hinted the legislative proposal would call for real-time fire mapping and global positioning satellite technology to be used on wildfires. Firefighters could use the equipment to track wildfires and predict their paths as they try to get ahead of them.

In addition, the U.S. Forest Service could be authorized to work with the Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting in Rifle to explore possible use of aircraft to fight fires at night.

Similar proposals are pending in the House and Senate. One of them is the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, which would end “fire-borrowing.”

Fire-borrowing refers to a Forest Service practice of pulling funds from non-fire programs when it exhausts the money Congress appropriates to suppress wildfires. Resistance from administrators of the non-fire programs often leaves the Forest Service with inadequate funding to fight large fires.

The Wildfire Disaster Funding Act would draw firefighting funds from the same Federal Emergency Management Agency account that pays for relief of other natural disasters, such as floods and tornadoes. As a result, fire suppression efforts would no longer need fire-borrowing.

“I’m hopeful Congress can enact broad wildfire and forestry reform that will end the practice of wildfire borrowing, improve forest management and use the most modern technology possible to advance our nation’s firefighting abilities,” Gardner said in a statement to Colorado Politics.

Four senators who support the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act wrote a letter to Senate finance leaders this week asking them to approve the legislation.

“Over the years, we have worked to fix fire-borrowing in any way we could find,” the letter to the Senate Banking Committee said. “Yet year after year, fire season after fire season, the fires continue to worsen and any attempt at a fix gets snarled in Washington politics.”

Witnesses at the Senate hearing this week predicted that wildfire damage will only worsen unless the federal government intervenes to improve firefighting resources.

Bryan Rice, director of the U.S. Interior Department’s Office of Wildland Fire, implied that global warming might be a factor in worsening wildfire conditions.

“The cumulative impacts of drought, invasive species and climate variability are creating a landscape more susceptible to devastating wildland fires,” Rice said in his testimony.

“So far this season, we have seen outbreaks of large fires in the Midwest, Southeast, Southwest, Northern Rockies and California, as well as individual large fires elsewhere,” Rice told the Senate. “As of August 1st, nearly 39,000 fires have burned almost 5.5 million acres of land.”

Some possible fire prevention efforts, such as spending $15 million to remove dry underbrush that fueled the 2010 Schultz fire near Flagstaff, Ariz., could have prevented damage estimated as high as 10 times greater, he said.

In addition to removing underbrush, he advocated wider use of technologies such as drones, infrared cameras that detect heat from fires and webcams to monitor sites susceptible to wildfires.

Victoria C. Christiansen, a deputy chief of the U.S. Forest Service, said the federal government’s budget is not adequately prepared for wildfires.

“The ongoing erosion of the agency’s non-fire budgets due to the increasing 10-year average cost of fire suppression causes an ongoing shift in resources from land management to fire management,” she said.

Witness testimony during the Senate hearing fits closely with observations from forestry officials in Colorado, where they say the state has spent about $3.6 million so far this year to fight the largest seven wildfires.

Colorado is prepared for most fires, particularly after the state Division of Fire Prevention and Control expanded its use of aerial tankers and high-tech surveillance in 2014, said Vaughn T. Jones, chief of the division’s Wildland Fire Management Section.

“However, we must continually assess our needs, given increased fire occurrence, longer fire seasons, increasing fire costs and changing fuel conditions and fire behavior in our forested areas,” Jones said.


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August 3, 20177min70
As Colorado cities struggle with a shortage of inexpensive homes, witnesses at a U.S. Senate hearing this week said the problem will only get worse unless the federal government intervenes soon. By 2025, about 15 million people nationwide will spend more than half their incomes on rent if home prices continue to rise at the […]

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