Although the Colorado General Assembly usually sees the most fervent action late in its sessions, state Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose, and state Rep. Barbara McLachlan, D-Durango, are gearing up for opening day on Wednesday in Denver.
The state Senate is divided 18-17, with Republicans holding a single-seat advantage, and the state House of Representatives is split 37-28, with Democrats holding a nine-seat advantage. Both Coram and McLachlan emphasized that the split status of party control reinforces the need to work across the partisan divide if anything is to be accomplished.
“I really want to stay positive and work with everyone,” McLachlan said of the upcoming session.
Coram added: “I think the biggest obstacle in the Legislature, when you get here, is not Democrat-Republican, it’s rural-urban. I think everyone who represents Southwest Colorado realizes that when you get here. Your district is more important than your party.”
From the rural teacher shortage to finding some state money to help cash-strapped Archuleta County renovate or replace its trouble-plagued courthouse, here’s a look at what Coram and McLachlan rank as top priorities in the upcoming session.
State Rep. Barbara McLachlan
Rural teacher shortage: Several avenues will be pursued in Denver to deal with a shortage of teachers in rural Colorado, said McLachlan, a former teacher.
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“The Department of Higher Education conducted a study, and now we’re trying to figure out how to do something with what they discovered,” she said.
Bills to implement reforms based on the study are likely to come toward the latter half of the session, McLachlan said, but she highlighted several areas where legislative efforts to help are expected. Among them:
Increasing pay is important in rural areas struggling to attract teachers. “Money is always the first thing,” McLachlan said.One proposal under consideration for a bill would require all teachers to be paid at the livable wage of the community in which they teach.
“The study showed something like 40 to 46 percent of teachers are not making a living wage in their communities,” she said.
Retaining young teachers is another area under consideration for action by lawmakers.McLachlan says one idea would be to provide more funding for mentors for first-year teachers and more professional development for young teachers as well.
“What we want to do is improve conditions for first-year teachers. We want to give them every opportunity to succeed,” she said.
Targeting more interest in fields where the teacher shortage is particularly acute – such as math, science and special education – is also an area that might generate legislative action, McLachlan said.One idea might be to enhance recruitment in college of students who are more likely to go into the hard sciences to consider teaching as a career option, McLachlan said.
“There are a lot of smart kids in college, and oftentimes, no one talks to them about considering a career in education,” she said.
Increasing the number of students pursuing education degrees, which also could generate a bill to provide more funds for scholarships and increase funds for student teaching time in classrooms, she said.Allowing retired teachers to go back into the classroom in inner-city schools without affecting their retirement pay. The state already allows retired teachers to work in rural school districts without affecting their retirement pay.
PERA reform: McLachlan said many reports of the demise of the Public Employee Retirement Association fund are greatly exaggerated, but the fund does need reform to put it on a sound, long-term financial basis.
“People are screaming, ‘It’s dying.’ It’s not,” she said. “But in 30 years, it might, and we need to address that.”
McLachlan said she didn’t know what a bill might look like, but she believes reform of PERA will be a legislative focus this session.
Off-highway safety rules: San Juan, Ouray and Hinsdale counties all would like to implement stricter safety rules on all-terrain vehicles, and McLachlan said she will sponsor a bill that would give counties the freedom to introduce stricter rules for use of off-highway vehicles than what is now required under state law.
Among the rules that might be adopted by counties are a requirement that drivers wear a helmet and a requirement that drivers be licensed.
Young farmer mentoring: Another bill McLachlan plans to introduce would create a program that matches young farmers just entering the field with a mentor to learn the ins and outs of the field.
“We have young kids graduating from college who want to go into farming, and we have farmers who don’t have family members to take over the farm, and we’d like to match them up,” she said.
The program, she said, also would help preserve farmland and prevent its loss to commercial and residential development.
State Sen. Don Coram
Broadband: Redefining what areas can be considered “rural” to obtain broadband development funds in Colorado would produce a vital boost to economic development across Southwest Colorado, Coram said.
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“Right now, Parker, which is as big as Durango, Montrose, Cortez and Rico combined, is considered rural,” he said. He said the current rural definition is too broad and harms broadband development in true rural areas of the state because providers flock to more easily reached and less costly projects in Front Range communities that are more aptly described as suburban rather than rural.
Coram also wants to ensure 20 percent of fees collected for the next five years from broadband development on phone service bills are dedicated to the development of broadband internet in rural Colorado.
“I’ve been working on this for four years, and I think my odds are good. Let’s put it that way,” Coram said of the chances of getting his broadband priorities enacted.
Emergency radio service: All areas of Colorado are blanketed with complete emergency radio coverage for law enforcement and fire protection districts, Coram said, except Southwest Colorado, which presents challenges because of rural communities and mountainous terrain.
Coram noted a Montrose Sheriff’s Office deputy was involved in a shootout near the Utah border in which he killed the suspect and was wounded himself, but he was out of radio contact and could not immediately report the incident.
“It’s a situation we just can’t have,” he said.
As part of improving emergency radio service, Coram says he wants to establish emergency radio communication links between all schools and emergency responders.
“We want direct communication with emergency responders and the schools themselves,” Coram said.
Courthouse and jail funds for small counties: Coram wants the state to dedicate $30 million a year for five years to modernize courthouses and jails and make them safe and functional in rural counties struggling with funds to improve their buildings.
Archuleta and Huerfano counties were cited by Coram as the most extreme examples of rural counties struggling to adequately maintain their facilities.
On Sept. 6, all courthouse proceedings stopped at the Archuleta County Courthouse in Pagosa Springs and were moved to La Plata County Courthouse in Durango. The move came after multiple reports of health-related issues involving county and judicial employees who work in the Archuleta courthouse. Two sheriff’s deputies have passed out inside the building, and three deputies have been admitted to intensive-care units at hospitals for problems related to air-quality issues in the building.
A flood in April 2015 closed the Archuleta County Jail, requiring inmates to travel 60 miles to Durango for housing at the La Plata County Jail. Archuleta County’s jail remains closed, and Archuleta County continues to transport prisoners back and forth between Pagosa Springs and Durango.
Coram wants $10 million of the $30 million to be set aside so cash-strapped counties like Archuleta could use the money as its local match, which is required when state funds are awarded to remodel and build new courthouses and jails.