The other Colorado — the one that raises our corn and potatoes and beef and pork; the one that hosts a lot of our oil and gas exploration as well as our wind and solar farms; the one that comprises most of Colorado’s territory if not its population — will converge on the Capitol Thursday and Friday. Which is to say it’s time for the annual, “Voices of Rural Colorado” Joint Denver Legislative Visit, convened by the regional advocacy groups CLUB 20, Action 22 and Pro 15.
A press release announcing the rural summit says it offers:
… members from each organization the opportunity to engage in productive dialogue with legislators, cabinet members and department heads. Through presentations and panel discussions, attendees will learn about potential legislation that could impact citizens and communities in the rural regions of Colorado.
Club 20 Executive Director Christian Reece is quoted in the announcement:
“…As one voice for rural Colorado we think that we will be able to show that there IS unity in our state. When 59 of Colorado’s 64 counties band together, it’s going to be hard for state leadership not to listen.”
Hear that, pols?
In addition to meeting with elected and other officials in both branches of state government, the rural visitors also will hear panel discussions on drug pricing transparency efforts in Colorado; the nexus between education and economic development; broadband legislation and impacts to rural Colorado; urban water conservation and more.
And of course there will be networking reception — no legislative summit would be complete without one — 5 p.m. Thursday at the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.
Rural advocacy groups representing 59 of the 64 counties in Colorado joined forces at the Capitol Thursday to press legislators on their biggest issues. Group members said they desperately need funding to shore up failing rural transportation, education, healthcare and communication systems.
As a result, much of the conversation Thursday centered on Gov. John Hickenlooper’s proposal to remove the state’s hospital provider fee from TABOR spending caps. It is a somewhat arcane state budget and accounting proposal that nevertheless has fueled heated controversy and political clashing at the Capitol already this session.
“(The hospital provider fee) never should have been categorized as anything other than an enterprise,” Christian Reece, executive director at Western Slope business advocacy organization Club 20, told The Colorado Statesman between lawmaker presentations.
Club 20 has come out strongly in favor of the hospital provider fee change. So has southern Colorado’s Action 22 and Progressive 15, which advocates for 15 counties in northeastern Colorado.
The three groups this year descended on the Capitol together for a two-day tour in which they are meeting with lawmakers, hosting panel discussions and generally networking. Sponsors of the trip include Chevron, Kaiser Permanente, the Colorado Contractors Association, BNSF Railway, Tri-State Generation, Colorado Rural Electric and Black Hills Energy.
Hickenlooper has toured the state for months selling the hospital provider fee as a much-needed temporary solution to the state’s budget woes. The new budget he presented to lawmakers includes more than $300 million in cuts. Changing the hospital provider fee to an enterprise fund, he has argued, would free up hundreds of millions of dollars for state programs.
But the plan has met stiff resistance led by state Senate President Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs. In a lively morning talk where Cadman bravely played the bearer of bad news, he referenced a memo he released to the media earlier this month written by a Legislative Services staffer. The memo said the Hickenlooper plan was unconstitutional.
Cadman conceded that legal opinions differ but said he trusts the work of the nonpartisan office that drafts bills for the General Assembly.
The real budget problem is tied to Medicaid expansions, Cadman said.
“We’re ignoring part of the Constitution. What part of the Constitution?” Cadman asked the audience. “The part that says K-12 (education) has to be funded at a specific level and now is underfunded by $1 billion a year. That’s what the Constitution tells us. Ignore it? Why? Because we optionally provided funding to a program that is now 35 cents of every general fund dollar.”
He said that Hickenlooper has been going around “promising the money to everyone.”
“It’s like the governor has ridden around on a Trojan horse offering everybody these hospital provider fee vouchers, and said ‘Just take these to Senator Cadman’s door and he’ll sign it and then we can cash it.’”
But Cadman said there is no guarantee the money freed up by reworking the hospital provider fee would go into the rural projects most lawmakers agree are in desperate need of support.
“There’s no assurance that there will be one more penny that would go to a road, that it would go to a school, that it would go to higher ed, that it would go to public safety or that it would go to infrastructure that would help rural Colorado. None,” Cadman said. “I’ll tell you what is guaranteed, though. This year alone (the budget) includes $140 million more than ever before of general fund money for Medicaid expansion. We are approaching one out of every three Coloradans on Medicaid.
“I’m not telling you the moral case,” Cadman said. “I’m just giving you the money case.”
Club 20’s Reece said she thinks there needs to be more clarification on the constitutionality of the proposed hospital fee plan. Reece pointed to advice the governor reportedly received from his legal counsel and the attorney general suggesting that lawmakers turn the fee into an enterprise fund.
Reece isn’t the only one looking for some clear answers on the constitutionality.
State Sen. Larry Crowder, R-Alamosa, talked to the crowd before Cadman did, and his remarks were no doubt as hotly anticipated as the Senate president’s.
Crowder has drawn attention at the Capitol for signaling that he might break from Cadman and his fellow Republicans and support the Hickenlooper plan. Republicans hold the majority in the chamber by only one vote.
On the matter of the plan’s legality, Crowder said, “we’ll see where that goes.”
“I’m a staunch Republican,” he later told The Statesman. “I took an oath and it wasn’t the first time I’ve taken that oath,” he said, echoing Cadman’s dedication to uphold the state constitution. “[But] so far we’ve heard one legal opinion.”
Conservative group Advancing Colorado sent an email out Tuesday “pulling the fire alarm” on the lawmaker, saying he was lining up to become a “constitutional arsonist.”
Crowder is adamant that he won’t back an unconstitutional plan.
“If we could find another revenue stream, that’d be great,” Crowder said referring to the fee.