Politics, hot-button items will keep things lively in Colorado Legislature | AspenTimes.com

Politics, hot-button items will keep things lively in Colorado Legislature

John Colson
Aspen CO, Colorado

As Colorado lawmakers head home for the holidays, any warm and fuzzy feelings might be tempered by the fact that some are saying the upcoming session of the Colorado General Assembly is going to be a corker.

With 11 senators and 56 representatives gearing up for election-year battles to save the Democrat’s majority, and a number of hot-button items on the legislative agenda, the session starting on Jan. 9 has potential to be tempestuous.

“Any election year has the effect of elevating the temperature, the blood pressure, the nature of the discourse,” Colorado State University political science professor John Straayer said.

But Aspen’s senator, Gail Schwartz, who is not one of those up for election, said she expects to “get a lot done in this session,” naming a range of issues that include energy exploration and severance taxes, health care, environmental protections, water regulations and more.

And, she said, she plans to not dive into the fray of the election tussles.

“We’ve got to stay focused,” she emphasized, referring to those not facing electoral challenges, as well as those who are.

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Schwartz, a Democrat from Snowmass Village who represents Senate District 5, which includes Aspen, said she already has a bill nearly ready for introduction.

“One of my first bills out of the box will be the BOCES bill,” she said, referring to a bill proposed by the state Boards of Cooperative Educational Services.

The bill, according to a summary provided by Ed Vandertook of the Mountain BOCES in Leadville, would create an overlapping network of a dozen or so Regional Cooperative Services to work with all of the 178 school districts in Colorado.

Operating under the principle known as “economies of scale,” the RCS centers would provide a variety of services to all 178 school districts around the state.

“The regional delivery of services,” the summary states, “will extend into areas such as: Professional development, data centers, financial services, cooperative purchases, technology support, capital construction planning assistance, drop out prevention, career tech, curriculum and instructional expertise and support, trainer of trainers for regional and state level initiatives, and shared administration and services among school districts.”

The BOCES themselves, which are formed by individual districts banding together to reduce costs for certain services, work with 168 districts and provide specialized educational services only. The Mountain BOCES, according to its Web site, represents 10 school districts including Aspen and Roaring Fork, and Colorado Mountain College.

One of Schwartz’ key issues in the coming session, she said, will be searching for ways to make health care more affordable and more accessible to citizens of the state.

The commission was created by legislation in 2006 “to study and establish health care reform models for expanding coverage, especially for the underinsured and uninsured, and to decrease health care costs for Colorado residents, according to its mission statement, and its report to the legislature is due out on Jan. 31.

Schwartz conceded that, in an election year, it is difficult to tell what to expect, but she predicted that one potential problem area will be immigration reform, which has been viewed as primarily the province of Republicans.

“How do we make sure that we are providing benefits in this state to those who are legally entitled to it?” she asked rhetorically.

Also on the agenda, she said, are bills dealing with the increasingly controversial issue of water rights and water storage. As national water shortages worsen due to droughts and weather-related phenomena, the Colorado River Compact and related laws are expected to come under increasing scrutiny from downriver states and from water development interests in Colorado.

Aspen’s state representative, Kathleen Curry (D-Gunnison), who is up for reelection in the fall of 2008, said this week that she isn’t worried at this point since no opponent has yet appeared in her district.

But even if an opponent does materialize, she said, she will take it as just another part of the job.

“I think we all have to face that challenge,” she remarked.

Aside from the political possibilities, Curry has a slate of bills already lined up for introduction.

One is a bill that would require that land developers, as part of the review process before a city or county government, “demonstrate that water supplies are sustainable and sufficient before growth occurs.”

She said state law already required developers to show that they have access to sufficient water for a development, “but we’ve never defined ‘sufficient.'”

Curry also is planning to propose legislation that would expand enforcement authority on federal lands, including the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service lands, to county sheriff’s departments and state division of wildlife officers. Currently, she said, deputies and wildlife rangers cannot enforce off-road vehicle restrictions on federal lands.

The bill also would increase the penalties for violators.

She said she is working on two other bills, both still in the preliminary stages. One would make modifications to the structure of Colorado’s mineral severance taxes, and the other would raise the allowable maximum speeds for electric vehicles, from 25 to 35 miles per hour, so they could be driven on a greater variety of roads. Curry said both bills need more work on a number of details before they can be introduced.

jcolson@aspentimes.com