EDITORIAL: Colorado’s extraordinary 2021 legislative session deserves recognition and more of it

Gov. Jared Polis delivers his speech to the House of Representatives at the Colorado State Capitol Building in Denver on Wednesday, February 17, 2021. (AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post via AP, Pool)

Gov. Jared Polis and other Colorado Democrats are elated about the achievements being pressed into state law during the 2021 legislative session.

Indeed, despite another year of fierce partisan politics and the ongoing pandemic, the achievements have not only been enormous, but plentiful.

Democrats edged past vocal but ineffective Republican opposition to a range of measures, including massive interference in statewide transportation projects and gun control measures, oversight of police departments, housing costs and rights, property taxes, public school funding, and mental health access Services, prescription drug costs — and these are just a few of the bills that have set this session apart from any other for decades.

Absolutely huge changes were made to longstanding problems in Colorado.

The School Funding Act of 2021 and associated bills have achieved several goals. On the funding side, the state has finally addressed a large part of Colorado’s broken tax system. Because of the complex and conflicting tax code enshrined in the state constitution, asset valuation and mill levy rates in widely diverse retail markets across the state have created funding and tax inequalities and headaches for decades. State legislators offered a permanent solution this year, also helping to restore school funding and educational programs. The measure also increases spending per student for schools that need to dedicate additional resources to ensure English learners are keeping up with their peers. This alone could be a great boon to schools in the Aurora region.

This session was also significant for a long overdue strategic investment in Colorado’s decaying and seriously deficient transportation systems. For years, lawmakers have failed even to persuade voters to authorize an increase in funding for roads that didn’t even require tax increases. The stunning defeats speak more to the distraction of voters and the insidious tax-protest landmines buried in the state constitution than to the chiseling of state residents.

Lawmakers this year passed a measure that will equitably collect new and increased fees from road users to raise $5.4 billion for road repairs and improvements across the state.

The award proposal won support from liberal and conservative groups across the state, but only a fraction of Republican lawmakers. Our only problem with the financing package is that it was sold as an expensive ticket out of Colorado’s never-ending gridlock. It is not. While there are mass transit funds and projects that could well improve gridlock at some freeway locations, it’s naïve to think Colorado could ever find its way out of the massive traffic congestion and environmental problems we’ve created. There are just too many people driving too many cars, often alone. Only accessible, reliable and affordable mass transit, alternative and connecting services will draw enough people out of their cars to reduce road congestion and pollution.

Problems in urban centers were not the sole focus of the legislature this year. Advances on numerous fronts passed in this session will impact residents throughout Colorado. Bills have been passed that will bring big bucks and advances to the lagging broadband infrastructure in rural Colorado. New schools, roads, and infrastructure packages were adopted with the entire state in mind, not just large urban areas.

Long-awaited measures to combat the ridiculous cost of many prescription drugs, particularly insulin, are on the way to becoming law. However, it’s too early to say how big the impact of this resolution will be in Colorado, as Congress will be able to address another portion of the growing health crisis nationally.

While Polis was able to announce a wide range of fulfilled campaign promises for the first term — support for an all-day kindergarten and an accessible preschool — a state-run health insurance program eluded lawmakers. The curse of the success of Congress passing the Affordable Care Act of 2010 was the lack of a so-called “public option” as part of that historic legislation. A public option would have unprecedented power to force the gargantuan healthcare system to provide at least the same level of affordable, quality care that most other major democracies enjoy.

The United States spends far more per capita on health care than any other major nation and provides far less for a growing number of Americans. Colorado is no exception. After a relentless publicity and lobbying campaign by insurance companies, hospitals and others opposing Colorado’s proposed public option, state lawmakers gave in to pressure. Instead, they have settled for a complicated calculation that is unclear as to what effect it will have. The intent is to force private health insurers to create policies that cost 15% less than current health insurance policies and force doctors and hospitals to accept them. The measure leaves numerous questions unanswered as to what “15%” really means and what levels of care are provided.

It’s a step in the right direction that requires service levels at fixed prices, but it’s not a solid step towards universal coverage, which is the only and inevitable solution.

With so many “big” items being moved to and around the governor’s desk to get his signature, dozens of consequential but not landmark measures were also approved.

House and Senate bills have gone a long way in providing local governments with options to address a variety of housing needs. Senate Bill 242 gives cities like Aurora more leeway in buying or leasing hotels or hotel rooms for the homeless. It will create much-needed options for Aurora and Denver. Other measures address tenants’ rights, accountability and transparency in the use of housing funds. Legislation from this session directs funds to communities to find their own answers to the burgeoning problem of unaffordable housing.

Aurora lawmakers played a large role in addressing these and other justice issues at this session. Aurora State Representatives Naquetta Ricks and Jodeh Iman joined House veterans Dafna Michaelson-Jenet, Mike Weissman and Dominique Jackson, and Senators Janet Buckner and Rhonda Fields in lobbying for a wide range of bills and changes requiring justice ensure among all Coloradans in schools. at work, in law enforcement and when looking for housing.

There is still work to be done on these and many fronts in Colorado, but residents should look to the future with optimism based on the groundbreaking advances being made in so many areas during an unprecedented time of disruption from the pandemic and all the chaos that it has caused have been achieved.

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