Good News on the Budget
We had some good news as the Joint Budget Committee finalized the 2012-13 budget bill, aka “the Long Bill”. Revenue collections have been stronger than we had initially expected. As a result we are able to put a bit more money into important programs, including a full funding of the senior property tax deduction and providing $9.7 million to provide dental benefits and additional Old Age Pension support to seniors living at or below 130% of the federal poverty level. We will restore most of the projected cuts to higher education, taking pressure off of increases at the University of Colorado.
Voting Rights and Access to the Ballot
Colorado Republicans have launched a series of initiatives intended to limit who can vote. House Republicans killed a solid Senate bill which was intended to clean up the muddle that Secretary of State Scott Gessler has created by attempting to deny mail ballots to registered voters who did not vote in the last election. This leaves voters who missed a single election caught between Secretary of State Gessler who has issued regulations preventing County Clerks from mailing ballots to them and a District Court injunction which permits the counties to continue their mailing ballots to registered voters even though they failed to vote in the last election.
The House passed a measure to require every voter to present photo ID at the ballot box. While polling indicates this is a popular measure, I oppose the requirement since it puts up formidable barriers to voting for people who do not have a driver’s license - the elderly, the young and those with disabilities. This bill has gone on to the Senate where I am hopeful it will die.
Drug Testing for Public Assistance is Defeated
We defeated a particularly unnecessary and insulting Republican bill to require anyone seeking assistance under the Colorado Works program to undergo drug testing. The bill - HB1048 - would have diverted $700,000 from programs supporting the unemployed and getting them back to work into a mandatory drug testing program. Studies show that people in programs like this are actually less likely to be using illegal drugs than the general population. I objected to the assumption underlying the bill, which was that people who need public assistance are drug users. I joined my fellow Democrats on the House floor to expose the gratuitous, punitive nature of the bill. The bill was defeated by a voice vote after the debate.
Medicaid Reform Advances - An important aspect of health care reform and the Affordable Care Act involves shifting Medicaid from a fee for service payment system to a global payments system. Instead of paying for each discrete procedure that is ordered up under a fee for service approach, a global payments system measures health outcomes and pays according to results of the treatment. The global payments system should reduce the tendency to overprescribe expensive or ineffective medicines and procedures. Along with being more efficient use of public dollars, it shifts the focus away from how much the doctor is doing to how well the patient is performing.
Sentencing Reform - This year we have a good chance to scale back the number of people who are convicted of felony drug possession for relatively small amounts of Schedule I and II drugs. I have joined a bipartisan group of Senators and Representatives to sponsor Senate Bill 163, which reduces penalties for possession of small amounts of drugs from a felony to a misdemeanor; and also reduces penalties for possession of larger amounts from a Class 4 felony to a Class 6. (The bill does not change laws that address manufacture and distribution of drugs.)
Housing prisoners is one of the most expensive things the state of Colorado does. When the prisoners are non-violent drug users, the cost to the tax payer is compounded by the failure of the prison system to treat and rehabilitate the offender. SB163 takes the savings from diverting drug users from prison and puts it into new treatment programs. The net result for the state will be more rehabilitated workers and fewer low level users taking up prison beds.
As of this writing the SB 163 is working its way through the Senate and continues to pick up support from Republicans and Democrats alike.
Fracking and Local Control - Many of you have concerns about the oil extraction technique known as hydraulic fracturing. I share your concerns. Fracking poses challenges to the health, environment and quality of life for people living nearby and has the potential to contaminate groundwater. Local communities have zoning and land use powers that should be available to keep drilling operations away from homes and schools. In this context, local land use control is good policy.
Several bills have been introduced to strengthen local land use powers to protect neighborhoods from the impacts of oil and gas operations. Bills have also been introduced to take all land use powers away from local governments with respect to oil and gas drilling. I come down strongly on the side of neighborhoods and the environment. Sensible land use regulations will not harm responsible development of oil and gas resources.
End Corporate Personhood – The Supreme Court’s decision in Citizen’s United has opened the floodgates of corporate money and influence pouring into the electoral system. It has also generated a flood of mail calling for a constitutional amendment declaring, “human rights are only for human beings.”
The Citizen’s United decision is wrong and has opened a Pandora’s Box of corporate election buying. It elevates the role of money in political speech under the First Amendment to an absurd extreme. However, I am not convinced that amending the United States Constitution is the right way to address the problem. It is a very lengthy process with an uncertain outcome. The problem is not with the First Amendment; the problem is this particular Supreme Court’s interpretation.
Rather than focus on amending the United States Constitution, I believe there are a number of steps we should take at this time to tighten up our campaign reporting laws to increase public knowledge of the source of funds. I also believe shareholders should have more knowledge and control over corporate contributions to political campaigns. Congress should act in this area, as should the Colorado legislature.
Civil Unions – Senator Pat Steadman has introduced a bill to grant any two adults – without regard to gender - the right to enter into civil unions. This will grant them the same legal rights, protections and responsibilities that apply to married people. While I support full marriage equality, short of that I wholeheartedly support this bill. I am optimistic that we will have a chance to vote on and pass civil unions this year.
Early Literacy versus Early Childhood Education – A bipartisan group of legislators have introduced a bill that will encourage retaining (failing) students in 3rd grade until they have passed a state designed reading test. The bill, HB1238, is built on the best intentions and incorporates some interesting educational practices, but the key implementation mechanism – holding children back based solely on their reading score - is not based on sound research and will cause serious problems for students and school districts alike. As of yet we have seen no estimate of the costs associated with the bill, but they will be substantial if any of the beneficial changes in educational practice are to be realized.
The same study that proponents of this bill are using as their rallying cry for their bill points to an even more concerning problem which this bill does nothing to address, “At a minimum, children must be ready to succeed when they get to school (cognitively, socially, emotionally, and physically) before they can learn there.” This tells me we need to reach our youngest students earlier, not merely command them to do better.
Colorado has very little funding for preschool. That is where we can get the most bang for our buck – with respect to reading and all other aspects of school readiness. I believe we should fully fund the Colorado Preschool Program for all at-risk children before we spend money on a statewide experiment in mandating changes in every K-3 classroom in the state. Early childhood education is a far better investment than the rigid regime that the Early Literacy Act proposes.
Labeling GMOs– The mailbox has quite a number of emails asking the legislature to pass a law requiring labeling on foods containing Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).
I agree that this is an important public policy issue and I do support a national program to label GMOs in all foods. However, handling this issue on a state-by-state basis is unworkable. Most of our food supply is distributed across state borders; this makes enforcement of the labeling requirement extremely difficult. While I will not introduce legislation in the Colorado House of Representatives, I will support our Congressional delegation in passing a national requirement that GMOs should be labeled in all foods.
ASSET – The rhetoric around the ASSET bill is heated. Opponents talk about “subsidizing illegals” and “giving in-state tuition to foreigners”. ASSET allows any graduate of a Colorado high school to attend a state institution of higher education while paying full cost of their education without receiving the in-state subsidy from the Colorado Opportunity Fund. Students who cannot prove citizenship are eligible for this standard tuition rate provided they sign a pledge to seek citizenship as soon as they are eligible. These children are here for any variety of reasons but what is sure is that they are innocent children working hard to become adults. This is the only country they have ever known, and we should offer more than a dead-end life in the shadows. In return for allowing them to pay full price for their schooling, Colorado gains a steady stream of highly motivated new citizens and workers. That is the American Dream in action. We all gain by making this bill law.
Make My Day Better – This bill comes before us every year – it never gets better. The law allows a business manager, owner or employee to shoot someone on the premises unlawfully who is committing a property crime or who they believe intends to commit a crime. The bill sanctions the use of deadly force by untrained civilians against people engaged in or believed to be committing non-violent property crimes. Everyone has the right of self-defense and defense of their property in Colorado. We do not need to make people immune from prosecution in these situations.
Sentences for Drug Offenses – Low-level drug offenders continue to be sentenced to the Department of Corrections and occupy expensive prison beds. I believe the law should distinguish between offenses that arise out of use and possession and those that arise out of manufacturing and distribution. I will be sponsoring legislation that will reclassify Class 6 felony possession offenses down to a Class 1 misdemeanor. That means prison will not be an available sentence and offenders will not have a felony record. Instead, they will be eligible for treatment for addiction disorders. It is time to treat drug use and possession as more of a health problem than a criminal problem. Prison beds should be reserved for people who threaten the safety of the public.
The Affordable Care Act and Medicaid – The long recession has forced more people into the state’s Medicare program. The Affordable Care Act requires all states cover those who earn 133% or less of the federal poverty level. We are making progress thanks to the hospital provider fee passed in 2008, but we need to keep costs down in order to cover everyone.
We are now embarked on the process of figuring out how to fund “health” rather than “sickness.” It is much cheaper to pay people to stay healthy than it is to heal them when they are sick. We will bankrupt the state if we continue on the traditional path.
Another important initiative is the creation Accountable Care Collaboratives. This would give Medicaid recipients a medical home that would coordinate their care and, presumably, produce better health outcomes while saving the state money.
I am concerned that exploding health care budgets will cause us to sacrifice real health care in search of budget savings. We cannot do that. People receive Medicaid because they are too poor to get health care from any other source. This is a challenge we must meet.