PUBLIC POLICY COMMITTEE WRAPS UP EVENTFUL SESSION OF GENERAL ASSEMBLY
By now, anyone following state politics is aware that a Grand Bargain was struck in the final hours of the legislative session, as Senate Bill 17-267 converted the hospital provider fee to an enterprise, freeing over $800 million from the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) limits on income that the state can collect and spend. It was a compromise that left no one fully happy. Democrats had to swallow a $200 million lowering of the TABOR cap, a doubling of certain Medicaid copayments, a 50% increase in the tax on recreational marijuana, and the possibility of a 2% reduction in the budgets of most state executive departments. But those who voted for the measure (including the entire Denver delegation) say the price was not too much to pay for getting the hospital provider fee permanently out of the TABOR vice.
The Public Policy Committee (PubPolCom) intently followed the progress of this bill through its roller coaster ride, as it affected a number of priorities that the Democratic Party of Denver has long espoused. Much of the detailed work of the PubPolCom is carried out by its various study groups. By breaking down SB17-267 through the lens of each study group, and looking at other bills of lesser visibility that the study groups worked on, I hope to give a fuller picture of what the PubPolCom contributes to the policy dialogue within our party.
Health Care. Diane Dunn, a resident of our neighboring HD4, chairs our Health Care Study Group. She has decades of experience in working with the Medicaid program in Colorado, and was instrumental in implementing the state’s health insurance exchange made possible by the Affordable Care Act.
The positive impact of the passage of SB17-267 on health care in Colorado cannot be overstated. Converting the hospital provider fee to an enterprise means that payments to hospitals for uncompensated care – treatment of uninsured or underinsured patients – can be maintained at current levels, which rural hospitals that bear the brunt of uncompensated care say is vital for their survival. But it certainly helps Denver Health, our own major provider of uncompensated care, as well. While an increase in Medicaid co-pays hits low-income residents the most, the number of services affected and the dollar amounts required are relatively minor.
A couple of other bills, little noticed but of keen interest to our study group, included SB17-065, which requires public posting of prices for the most common medical procedures provided by clinics and medical practices. This is a small but significant step toward greater transparency in health care costs. Another significant bill was HB17-1115, which allows individuals to contract with medical care providers for unlimited primary care – in effect allowing for self-insurance without the inefficiency and bureaucratic obstacles of a third party payer.
Finally, the Health Care Study Group encouraged the defeat of several bills intrusive into reproductive rights and women’s health, such as mandates on unnecessary renovations of abortion clinics (HB17-1085), required advice to women about abortion reversal which has been scientifically discredited (HB17-1086), the ever-popular attempt to endow a fertilized human ovum with personhood (HB17-1108), and a laughable prohibition against trafficking in aborted human body parts, which never happens.
Education. J. D. MacFarlane chairs our Education Study Group. He is a distinguished former member of the State House of Representatives and the State Senate, and has served as the Attorney General of Colorado.
SB17-267 benefitted education by blocking the need to increase the negative factor even more – i.e. reducing further the amount of state aid to local school districts below that required by a constitutional amendment that preceded TABOR. In fact, the increased dollars that the passage of SB17-267 made possible from the general fund will enable a small increase in per pupil allocations statewide.
One controversial bill on which DenverDems themselves are divided was HB17-1375, which requires that school districts share the proceeds of mill levy overrides with the charter schools in their districts up to a level of 95% equity. An earlier, more rigid version of this bill which would have stripped all discretion from local school districts was defeated, but this more flexible version was supported by the entire Denver delegation, at the special urging of HD5’s Representative, Speaker Crisanta Duran.
The Education Study Group has taken a special interest in the impending closure of the Gilpin Montessori Elementary School, near Five Points just outside the boundaries of HD5. The decision to close this school was based on a performance rating of just one point below the cutoff for survival of a struggling school. This rating was lowered from a higher initial rating for reasons that are unclear. The Study Group is continuing to investigate the circumstances of this suspicious action.
With four school board seats up for election in the fall of this year, the Education Study Group is turning its attention to the actions and composition of the Denver Public Schools (DPS) Board. The Study Group expects to develop a questionnaire for candidates and interview them all as the countdown to the election progresses.
Criminal Justice. Tim Lopez, a tireless advocate for victims of crime, with deep knowledge of the practices and procedures within the Department of Corrections (DOC), chairs our Criminal Justice Study Group. He lives in the Baker neighborhood of our adjacent HD2.
The major focus of this study group for the last few legislative sessions has been to get more funding for rehabilitation of prisoners. In particular, we have been advocating that more funds be expended at the front end of an offender’s sentence, when rehabilitation can better take hold and prepare inmates over a sustained period for return to life outside of prison. Toward that end, members of this group have met with prison officials, and testified on behalf of more appropriations for the DOC. By freeing up more dollars in the general fund, SB17-267 has the potential to contribute indirectly to enhanced public safety.
Repeal of the death penalty (SB17-095), sponsored by our own State Senator Lucia Guzman, once again failed in this session. While a clear priority of the majority of DenverDems, opinion on the wisdom of this repeal is divided within the study group, and a great deal of vigorous discussion on the topic takes place at frequent intervals. This is an example of how policy issues with advocates on more than one side of an issue among DenverDems can debate their positions within a tolerant atmosphere of mutual respect.
The Criminal Justice Study Group has consistently sought the right balance between public safety, justice and support for victims, and successful rehabilitation of offenders. Bills supporting restorative justice (HB17-1039) and clarifying the purposes of community corrections (HB17-1147) are examples of laudable legislation that should help achieve this balance. At the same time, actions that endanger public safety, such as carrying covert firearms without a permit (SB17-116) and lifting the limit on the size of ammunition magazines (SB17-007), were opposed by the study group and rightfully defeated, as was a bill (HB17-1013) that would have legalized discrimination by businesses based on alleged religious convictions.
Energy and Environment. Thyria Wilson, a resident of HD5 and lawyer with extensive experience in water law, heads our Energy and Environment Study Group. While SD17-267 had little direct effect on energy and environmental issues, the drastic reduction of federal funding for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by the Trump Administration may signal the need for more state resources to protect Colorado’s invaluable outdoors and its continued progression toward the use of green energy.
Though availability of water does not have the same urgency along the Front Range on a daily basis that it has in the agricultural and ranching areas of our state, the entire population of the state ultimately depends on a reliable source of water; so this study group pays more than token attention to legislation on this issue. Certainly one matter of concern in urban areas is relentless expansion of housing, which takes an ever-growing share of the state’s water resources. This study group has been particularly vocal in advocating that developers show feasible plans for meeting the needs of their expanding developments for water.
Fracking requires an enormous amount of water. Recognizing the importance of this technology to the economy of Colorado, we have not called for a ban on fracking (unlike many Democrats), but have strongly advocated for the recycling of water through closed-loop systems for fracking. Of equal concern are the toxic chemicals employed in fracking operations. Ground contamination is of course an urban problem as well, to which this study group devotes a good bit of attention.
The Energy & Environment Study Group has the good fortune to be regularly attended by experts, including not only Thyria, but Tim Lopez (ground contamination), Chuck Norris (hydrogeology), and Hanna Aucoin (chemical engineering). Like all our study groups, however, we welcome the expert and the layperson alike, as everyone has a stake in policy.
Others. The above study groups are the ones currently active, but there is no reason that others couldn’t be formed. Among the topics ripe for more intensive policy review are taxation and financing, human services, and electoral reform. The study groups are self-forming in composition and self-defining in their objectives. Suggestions for these and any other subjects of particular interest to DenverDems are cordially invited.
Louis Irwin, Chair
Public Policy Committee, Democratic Party of Denver