Did Colorado Legislature deepen rural-urban divide?

Ryan Maye Handy | May 3, 2019 | The Durango Herald

Southwest Colorado lawmakers score key victories

Southwest Colorado lawmakers were instrumental in passing groundbreaking bills this legislative session that guarantee free early childhood education; lay the groundwork for a cheaper, state-backed insurance plan; and demand accountability from hardrock mining companies.

But despite these successes, Colorado’s 72nd legislative session is likely to be remembered by many on the Western Slope as one that gave rural Colorado a beating. Friday was the last day of the 120-day legislative session.

With Democrats wielding a power trifecta, lawmakers pushed an ambitious agenda to enact sweeping oil and gas reform, impose firearm restrictions on people considered to be a threat and expand state requirements for sex education in schools. They approved joining a dozen states in a plan to jettison the electoral college, explored mandatory family leave payments and scrapped funding requests from Western Slope universities.

All these bills drew hundreds to the Capitol in protest and generated hours of often emotional testimony from rural Colorado residents.

“It feels as though they were focused on things that just benefit the Interstate 25 and Interstate 70 corridor,” said Durango Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jack Llewellyn, referring to the Front Range highways where most of Colorado’s population and industry are clustered. “I want to know what things that were done that are going to help Southwest Colorado.”

Colorado lawmakers have long grappled with the state’s urban-rural divide in their policymaking, especially as national politics and economics wedge the state’s disparate regions further apart. From the start of the 2019 session, House leadership was eager to send the message that rural Colorado was not being ignored: House Speaker KC Becker, a Boulder Democrat, rebranded the chamber’s agriculture committee as the Rural Affairs and Agriculture Committee and charged it with handling health care, affordable housing, agriculture and water quality.

But none of the issues that truly rankled rural Coloradans were heard by the committee.

In protest, hundreds of rural Coloradans made the trek to Denver during the session to give testimony and plead with lawmakers to reconsider efforts to restrict gun rights and oil and gas development, among others.

On an evening in early March, as Senate Bill 181 on oil and gas reform seemed headed toward approval, Gary Melcher, a farmer from the far eastern town of Holly, took the stand to offer what became a familiar refrain on the session:

“Too often, rural Colorado is left out,” he said. “It is particularly apparent that they were left out of this process.”

To be sure, Southwest Colorado’s lawmakers scored some important victories for the region. Durango Democrat Rep. Barbara McLachlan helped craft a plan to offer free, full-day kindergarten in all state schools, a plan that will save Southwest Colorado’s school districts about $2 million. As part of Gov. Jared Polis’ broad initiative to address high insurance costs, Rep. Marc Catlin, R-Montrose, sponsored a study for a state-backed insurance plan that would be a cheaper alternative for a region with the fewest options and highest prices. McLachlan and Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose, both backed changes to Colorado’s hardrock mining regulations inspired by the 2015 Gold King Mine spill. All three efforts were passed into law.

Coram and Catlin voted against three of the most controversial measures of the session – oil and gas reform, the so-called “red flag” gun bill and the National Popular Vote bill, which would grant all of Colorado’s presidential electors to the winner of the national popular vote. While McLachlan supported both energy reform and the “red flag” bill, she was among the few Democrats who voted against the National Popular Vote bill, saying at the time that it wasn’t an issue for her constituents.

But lawmakers’ broad support for those issues have spurred a backlash. A handful of funding campaigns have been started to recall a Front Range sheriff, several Democratic lawmakers and Polis; at least one, the effort to recall Greeley Democratic Rep. Rochelle Galindo, has an approved petition.

But to date, a referendum on the National Popular Vote bill remains the state’s most viable effort. The movement, dubbed Coloradans Vote, has at least 15 locations where voters can sign petitions to have the issue put on the ballot. Lead by Mesa County Commissioner Rose Pugliese, the effort must get at least 124,000 signatures by August to put the National Popular Vote bill on the 2020 ballot. To be safe, Pugliese is aiming for 200,000 signatures.

The movement, meanwhile, has become a catch-all for anger about other bills, Pugliese said in March. People who show up to sign Pugliese’s petition are looking for similar efforts to repeal oil and gas reform and the “red flag” gun bill. For now, rural and conservative Colorado’s frustration over a wave of bills might be focused on the effort to overturn one of them.

“I have no doubt that we will get our 200,000 signatures,” Pugliese said.