Federal changes breed uncertainty in upcoming Colorado General Assembly
January 2, 2017
Steamboat Springs — Editor's note: This is the second in a three-part series examining major issues that will face the Colorado State Legislature when it convenes its 71st General Assembly Jan. 11. The series will conclude Friday with a look at state Senate priorities.
A full plate of important issues, seasoned with a generous portion of budgetary uncertainty, awaits state legislators as they prepare to convene Jan. 11 in Denver for the first regular session of the 71st Colorado General Assembly.
Among the issues lawmakers will likely address are the state's affordable housing crisis, a rapidly evolving healthcare climate — exacerbated by uncertainty surrounding the ultimate fate of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which President-elect Donald Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress have vowed to repeal — and an estimated $500 million state budget shortfall.
Incoming Colorado Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, and State Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush, D-Steamboat Springs, spoke with Steamboat Today Dec. 19 about the upcoming session and the myriad issues facing the state as a new federal administration takes power Jan. 20.
The challenge of creating affordable housing in Colorado in the face of a rapidly growing population and limited available land and resources is all too familiar in Routt County, and it's an issue that has not escaped state legislators' notice.
And, like many other issues facing the state, the future of housing in Colorado will almost certainly be impacted by the coming changes in Washington, D.C.
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"Again, the federal level is going to be difficult," Mitsch Bush said. "We will have, on Jan. 20, a new secretary of housing and urban development, and Housing and Urban Development is primarily a financing agency. Section 8 housing is, of course … critical for affordable housing throughout this state. So, we don't know what's going to happen there."
At the state level, she said, the main role has been to provide tax incentives and/or direct funding to local governments, and this approach, she said, will likely continue.
As an example of one success story precipitated by such efforts, she cited 2014's extension of the State Low Income Housing Tax Credit program, or LIHTC, by way of a bill sponsored by Duran. Administrated by the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority, LIHTC proved a significant boon to the state's housing needs following its 2001 inception.
"It (LIHTC) is very important for the Yampa Valley Housing Authority and for many other such organizations at the local level across the state," Mitsch Bush said.
"It's a proven way to address affordable housing in the state," Duran added.
And, while the details of housing design and zoning are governed at the municipal and/or county level, Mitsch Bush said legislators are interested to hear from local housing authorities about any state regulations that may be hampering development.
"We certainly want to hear from the housing authority and others if there are any state regulations they think are impeding affordable housing, and we'll look very closely at those," she said.
Duran also said she wants to address issues impacting renters.
Addressing the state's many needs under the constraints of a $500 million budget shortfall will likely prove a challenge for legislators, and both Duran and Mitsch Bush said this challenge will be complicated by the uncertainty surrounding the incoming Trump administration.
"We're waiting to see what happens at the federal level in terms of what direction they go," Duran said. "I think there are a variety of issues that we're going to be watching very closely to see how they impact the state directly."
Notable among these, Mitsch Bush added, is the incoming administration's vow to repeal the Affordable Care Act, which she said could have tremendous effects on Colorado, particularly if the planned repeal includes Medicaid funding — a critical piece of the state's budgetary puzzle.
"I think Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act are two of the major ones," Mitsch Bush said. "I mean, we just don't know. It's like reading tea leaves. But certainly, Medicaid is a very significant part of Colorado's budget, and it is also very important to the people of Colorado. … If they try to dump in Medicaid (with the Affordable Care Act repeal), it will be very, very difficult."
"And, if you take people's healthcare, you have a terrible problem at the state level," Duran added.
Even considering the uncertainty and challenges, however, both Duran and Mitsch Bush said they hold high hopes for the upcoming session — both pointing to Colorado’s history of legislative bipartisanship.
"Going back over many years, the vast majority — upwards of 90 percent — of bills are bipartisan, and in a split chamber, you have to be bipartisan, or you're not going to pass anything," Mitsch Bush said. "And certainly, we've been able to pass … some bills that have helped people."