Steamboat Springs Statehouse Democrats plan to spend the first month of the new legislative session introducing a series of bills aimed at creating jobs and bolstering Colorado’s economy. House Majority Leader Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, D-Gunbarrel, outlined her caucus’s priorities during a Thursday meeting with the Steamboat Pilot & Today’s Editorial Board. Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush, D-Steamboat Springs, joined Hullinghorst during the 45-minute discussion.
“Our major priority this year will be unfinished business on working on jobs and the economy,” said Hullinghorst, a Boulder County resident who first was elected to the Colorado House of Representatives in 2008.
Hullinghorst said Democratic legislators have a set of bills they plan to introduce once the legislative session begins next week. She said those bills will focus on economic initiatives like small-business development, a Buy Colorado First program, economic gardening and workforce development through community college job-training programs.
Hullinghorst and Mitsch Bush said their party’s two top priorities — jobs/economy and education — are inextricably linked.
“We need to develop our workforces locally,” Hullinghorst said. “We need to encourage businesses to come here. People move to places that have good schools. We want to be the best in the country, but we have a long ways to go to get there.”
Although public school funding is expected to increase in Colorado next year, Hullinghorst said, it will be difficult to boost education spending to necessary levels without addressing the state’s “structural revenue problem,” referring to conflicting constitutional amendments like the Taxpayers Bill of Rights and Amendment 23.
The House majority leader didn’t mince words when discussing the state of higher education funding in Colorado, particularly as it relates to the University of Colorado system and its flagship Boulder campus, which is in her House District 10.
“I think it’s disgraceful for the state of Colorado that, for instance, the state funding is at about 5 percent of the university’s general operating cost,” she said. “That gives a sense of why the tuition is what it is.”
Hullinghorst acknowledged that any long-term funding measures would have to come in the form of a voter initiative led by state residents and supported at the ballot box.
Oil and gas regulations
State Democrats have been involved in the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission’s rule-making process in recent weeks, but neither Hullinghorst nor Mitsch Bush were satisfied with the proposed new regulations that were announced this week. Hullinghorst said the setback regulations that dictate the minimum distance between a drilling operation and buildings don’t go far enough to address the concerns of her constituents on the Front Range. The proposed setback rules would increase the minimum distance between drilling rigs and buildings to 500 feet. Current rules require 150 feet in rural areas and 350 feet in urban areas.
She said Democratic lawmakers are looking at a “number” of pieces of legislation that would attempt to beef up the rule-making process while also addressing issues such as the quantity and quality of state inspections of drilling operations.
Mitsch Bush and Hullinghorst said they think an appropriate balance can be achieved between extracting energy resources from the ground and protecting Colorado’s water, air and people.
“We’re going to take the governor at his word when he said we’re going to regulate this the best as any state in the country, and that we’re going to be a model,” Hullinghorst said.
Mitsch Bush also tried to strike a conciliatory tone.
“Both houses and the governor really want balanced, responsible, science-based regulations that are good for the economy and good for the environment,” she said. “And I think the industry and Republicans want the same thing. I think there’s plenty of room to work together and come to some really good solutions.”
Colorado Democrats control the House, Senate and governor’s office. Mitsch Bush was elected in November to represent the new House District 26, which includes Routt and Eagle counties. Sen. Randy Baumgardner, a Republican from Cowdrey, represents a number of Northwest Colorado counties, including Routt County, in Senate District 8.
To reach Brent Boyer, call 970-871-4221 or email bboyer@SteamboatToday.com