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Four Corners legislators cheered by session

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald file

Rep. Mike McLachlan, D-Durango, and Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, experienced success during the 2014 Legislative session. Roberts’ bills on emergency radios and health care passed, while McLachlan says additional funding for Fort Lewis College was a significant achievement.

By Joe Hanel Herald staff writer

DENVER – Southwest Colorado’s lawmakers agree the 2014 legislative session was a good one for the region.

It’s a different story from last year, when Republicans left the state Capitol complaining about a “war on rural Colorado.”

“I feel so much better than I did a year ago,” said Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango. “Last year, I went home demoralized and wondering if it made any difference to be up here.”

This year brought a long-sought law to expand rural broadband, extra money with no new mandates for schools, an aerial firefighting fleet and the beginnings of a plan to fix the state’s emergency radio system.

Fights over water rights returned to the stage this year, and Roberts was in the middle of most of them. She brought the Legislature a plan hatched by a Durango water engineer to limit the size of lawns in new suburban neighborhoods. It riled homebuilders and city governments, and eventually it was turned into a study – a common way for legislators to delay inconvenient legislation.

Roberts also pushed for the Legislature to have veto power over the Colorado Water Plan, which Gov. John Hickenlooper wants to have crafted by December. Legislators of both parties had complained Hickenlooper was bypassing them, and that the public at large knew very little of the water plan.

Although her bill was scaled back, it still requires hearings around the state in front of the Legislature’s water committee before the plan can be finished.

“We weren’t invited to the party,” Roberts said. “We had to crash the party, but we are now at the table.”

Rep. Mike McLachlan, D-Durango, points to funding for Fort Lewis College as a significant accomplishment. A last-minute budget maneuver nearly cost FLC the money it had expected to rebuild its science building. Other colleges around the state sustained a similar hit, so members of the House rebelled and rewrote the budget to restore funding in the fall. Later, the Senate bumped FLC up in line, so it will get some of its money in time to start construction this summer.

McLachlan also sponsored the Democrats’ highest priority bill, Senate Bill 1, which caps college tuition increases at 6 percent and adds $100 million in funding for colleges. The numbers match a plan Hickenlooper announced last fall.

“I hope that will have a really beneficial impact on both Fort Lewis and Western (State Colorado University). Each will get over $1 million in supplemental funding,” McLachlan said.

McLachlan’s bill to give a tax credit to farmers who donate food to the needy should cost the state about $150,000 a year.

“I will produce over a million and a half dollars of free food for the needy. I think that’s a really good deal,” McLachlan said.

Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, also noticed a change in tone from 2013, when pressure from party leaders led to a series of partisan votes.

“The lock-down mode wasn’t there this year, on either side,” Coram said.

Coram, whose district includes all of Montezuma County, sponsored 22 bills, an unusually high number for someone who is not in leadership. All but six passed.

His most controversial bill died early in the session. It would have forced people prone to seizures to give up their driver’s licenses.

Another bill, though, stands out as a statewide highlight of the 2014 session. It was a rural broadband bill that finally passed after four years of unsuccessful efforts. The bill converts part of the phone company’s subsidy for serving hard-to-reach customers into a grant fund to build high-speed Internet lines to unserved areas.

Last fall, Coram began crafting the bill with Club 20 and others on the Western Slope.

“The last couple years, that bill has failed because it was a top-down approach. This year, it was truly a grass-roots, bottom-up effort,” he said.

jhanel@durangoherald.com

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