After a couple of weeks celebrating our Western heritage at the National Western Stock Show, hobnobbing with steers in the Brown Palace Hotel during their high tea, enjoying dinner with members of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association and attending the Voices for Rural Colorado gathering at the Governor’s Mansion, it’s hard not to think about the issues facing the rural parts of our state.
Though rural Colorado encompasses the majority of land in Colorado, its representation is only 20% of the Legislature. We need to work together to be a strong voice, with focused advocacy.
Our issues differ wildly from those on the urban Front Range, and the rural issues of the Western Slope differ from those on the Eastern Slope. But we continue to find bipartisan ground to identify and examine the questions facing us.
A few of my early bills are addressing some of those issues.
One bill I am sponsoring with state Sen. Don Coram from Montrose focuses on rural economic development. Senate Bill 054 establishes a fund to provide matching grants from non-governmental sources to businesses in their very early stages. The businesses must be in rural areas, employ people in the area and have the potential to export goods or services outside the area.
We don’t envision these rural businesses to depend solely on rural support for their income.
Many rural parts of the state are still facing the economic hardships induced by lower-than-average population, wages, employment and total property values.
Providing a kick-start and requiring the matching funds encourages growth and innovation, while stimulating the private sector.
We want to encourage local business sustainability in areas of the state that truly need the employment opportunities and increased tax base.
A second bill, House Bill 1115, will provide a tax exemption for the farmers and ranchers who, out of necessity, need to continuously buy fencing material. I am sponsoring this bill with Sen. Coram and Rep. Marc Catlin, also from Southwest Colorado.
The fencing material is a necessary expenditure for those making a living off crop production and animal husbandry in Colorado.
“Good fences make good neighbors,” wrote poet Robert Frost, but they are expensive. If we can give these farmers just a little help, it may keep their costs down and production up.
We are working with stakeholders to decide if this should be a state income tax exemption only, permitting the local taxing districts to decide for themselves if they want to participate.
I am running a third bill with Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg from northeastern Colorado. Current state law allows school board members to participate in board meetings electronically. In rural areas, where members are often prevented from attending because of bad weather, sick animals or long days at work, the electronic participation has helped move board meetings forward and increased robust participation.
Tim Taplin, a member of both the Ridgway School Board and Colorado Association of School Boards, brought this to my attention.
Unfortunately, though members can vote electronically, they cannot contribute to the number of members required for a quorum. This bill (which doesn’t have a number yet) would add a simple fix. While members are participating and voting electronically, their presence will also be counted as part of the required quorum, keeping the gears of responsible government turning.
All members will have access to materials distributed during the board meeting. The choice to add any restrictions is in the hands of the local school board.
During the two-day Voices of Rural Colorado Conference in Denver last week, participants discussed legislation and regional issues, listening to a wide variety of cabinet members, legislators, department heads and business leaders.
Participants represented the 59 rural and frontier counties of Colorado’s 64, and were hosted by Club 20 from the Western Slope, Action 22 from southern Colorado and Pro 15 from northeast Colorado. It was a great way to have representatives of all the rural areas of the state band together to share a unified voice and educate our urban counterparts.
It is my honor to represent the people of District 59 and rural Colorado, and be one of their voices in the state Legislature. I am here to listen to your concerns as we move through this legislative season together.
Barbara McLachlan represents State House District 59. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.