Gov. Jared Polis and fellow Colorado Democrats are ebullient over accomplishments pressed into state law during the 2021 legislative session.
Despite another year of fierce partisan politics and continued pandemic, the accomplishments were, indeed, not only vast but copious.
Democrats pushed past noisy but ineffectual Republican opposition to a bevy of measures, including a massive infusion into statewide transportation projects, and measures addressing gun control, oversight of police departments, housing costs and rights, property taxes, public schools funding, access to mental health services, prescription drug costs — and those are just a few of the bills that set this session apart from any other in decades.
There absolutely were huge changes made to longstanding problems in Colorado.
The 2021 School Finance Act and related bills accomplished several goals. From the funding side, the state has now finally addressed a big part of Colorado’s broken tax system. Because of complex and contradicting tax law cemented in the state Constitution, property assessment and mill levy rates in wildly varied retail markets across the state have caused decades of funding and taxing inequities and headaches. State lawmakers offered a permanent solution this year that also helps to restore school funding and education programs. The measure also increases per-pupil spending to schools that must use extra resources to ensure English learner students keep up with their peers. This alone could be a huge boon to Aurora area schools.
Also momentous this session was a long-overdue strategic investment in Colorado’s decaying and seriously deficient transportation systems. For years, lawmakers have been unable even to persuade voters to approve funding increases for roads that didn’t even require tax increases. The mind-boggling defeats speak more to voter distraction and insidious past tax-protest land-mines buried in the state Constitution than chiseling state residents.
Lawmakers this year were able to push through a measure that will equitably collect new and increased fees from road users to amass $5.4 billion to spend on road repairs and improvements across the state.
The prize bill won the support of liberal and conservative groups across the state, but only a smattering of Republican state lawmakers. Our only beef with the funding package is that it was sold as a pricey ticket out of Colorado’s endless traffic gridlock. It’s not. While there’s funding for mass transit and projects that could well improve gridlock in some highway locations, it’s naive to think Colorado could ever pave its way out of the massive traffic jams and environmental problems we’ve created. There are just too many people driving too many cars, often alone. Only accessible, reliable and affordable mass transportation and alternatives and linking services will lure enough people from their cars to reduce road congestion and pollution.
Problems in urban centers were not the sole focus of lawmakers this year. Progress on numerous fronts enacted this session will impact residents across Colorado. Bills were passed that will bring serious money and progress to lagging broadband infrastructure in rural parts of Colorado. New schools, roads and infrastructure packages were passed with all of the state in mind, not just large urban areas.
Long anticipated measures addressing the ludicrous costs of many prescription drugs, and especially insulin, are on their way to becoming law. It’s too soon, however, to tell how big an impact this Colorado solution will offer in the shadow of Congress being able to address yet another part of the growing healthcare crisis from a national level.
While Polis was able to tout a wide range of first-term campaign promises fulfilled — shoring up full-day kindergarten and accessible pre-school— a state operated health insurance program eluded lawmakers. The bane of successes made when Congress enacted the 2010 Affordable Care Act was the lack of a so-called “public option” as part of that historic legislation. A public option would have unparalleled power to force the leviathan health care system to provide at least the same level of affordable, quality care that most other large democracies enjoy.
The United States spends vastly more per capita on healthcare than any other large nation, providing far less to an increasing number of Americans. Colorado is no exception to that. After an unrelenting advertising and lobbying campaign deployed by insurance companies, hospitals and others pushing against the proposed Colorado public option, state lawmakers caved to the pressure. They settled instead for a complicated bill that is unclear what it will do. The intent is to force private health insurance companies to create policies that cost 15% less than current health care policies and force doctors and hospitals to accept it. The measure leaves unanswered numerous questions about what “15%” really means and what levels of care will be provided.
It is a move in the right direction, requiring levels of service for set prices, but it’s not a solid move toward universal care, which is the only and inevitable solution.
With so many “big ticket” items moving toward and past the governor’s desk for his signature, dozens of consequential but not landmark measures were also approved.
Bills from the House and Senate made huge inroads in providing communities options to address a wide range of housing crises. Senate Bill 242 allows cities like Aurora more leeway in buying or leasing hotels or hotel rooms for people without houses. It will create badly needed options for Aurora and Denver. Other measures address the rights of renters, accountability and transparency in how housing grant money is spent. Legislation from this session directs funds toward communities to find their own answers to the burgeoning unaffordable-housing problem.
Aurora lawmakers played a big role in addressing these and other equity questions this session. First-term Aurora state representatives Naquetta Ricks and Jodeh Iman joined House veterans Dafna Michaelson-Jenet, Mike Weissman and Dominique Jackson, and state senators Janet Buckner and Rhonda Fields in championing a wide range of bills and amendments ensuring equity among all Coloradans in schools, their jobs, at the hands of law enforcement and when searching for a place to live.
There is much work to do still on those and many fronts in Colorado, but residents should be optimistic about the future based on the groundbreaking progress made on so many areas during an unprecedented time of disruption from the pandemic and all the chaos that has wrought.