Colorado Democrats plan to tackle K-12 education and high cost of living in next session

It’s getting more and more expensive to live in Colorado, a fact Republicans rely on to help them in a midterm election year.

State GOP leaders held a press conference in August at a Denver gas station, seeking to draw attention to rising fuel prices and blame Democrats – who control the State Senate, House of Representatives and the Governor’s office – for the blow to people’s wallets.

As of Friday, average gasoline prices were $ 3.31 per gallon in Colorado, a 45% increase from the previous year. according to AAA. The Denver-Lakewood-Aurora consumer price index – which includes food, energy, housing, motor vehicles and medical care – jumped 6.5% from November 2020 to November 2021.

While Republicans tend to blame the cost increases on Democratic policies, economists say a variety of factors, including pervasive and pervasive supply chain problems, are likely playing a role. But Democrats plan to tackle affordability issues head-on this session, Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg and House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar said in an interview on Wednesday.

Other key Democratic priorities for the next session, which begins Jan. 12, include investing in K-12 education and public safety.

Reduced Fees and Costs of Prescription Drugs

“We hear this over and over again: people might get increases, but the price goes up as well, so are we really better off? Said Esgar. “We’re working to cut costs and improve affordability so Coloradians can actually keep more of their hard-earned money in their wallets. “

Governor Jared Polis’ budget proposal includes $ 104 million in fee relief for individuals and businesses. If approved by the Colorado General Assembly, the money would be used to cover paid family and medical leave premiums, which will take effect next year under a voting measure approved by voters; fees paid by health professionals such as nurses; and business license fees. Esgar also mentioned driver’s license fees as an area where Democrats are looking to improve affordability.

“We’re also going to continue our efforts to save people money on health care and prescription drug costs,” Esgar said, “including making sure drug discounts are actually passed on through. consumers. “

According to Center for Improving the Value of Healthcare, a Denver-based nonprofit that administers the Colorado All Payer Claims Database. Drug manufacturer discounts help cover the cost of a drug in exchange for an insurance plan putting that drug on its Preferred Drug List, or formulary.

Theoretically, the discounts could help reduce health insurance costs for consumers. However, opponents of the drug discounts say they are encouraging the use of more expensive brand name drugs without helping consumers save money on their drugs.

More money for K-12 education

In addition to working to lower fees and keep prescription drug costs under control, Esgar said Democrats plan to make the state’s largest investment in K-12 public education. They also plan to lay the groundwork for a 2023 launch of the universal preschool.

“Every year we have increased per student funding, and in the government budget it has put forward a strong proposal that continues that work,” Esgar said. “We plan to work closely together to achieve a common goal of actually investing in the students and teachers in our schools. “

Last year, lawmakers restored education spending to pre-COVID levels, budgeting $ 7.8 billion for K-12 education. This is an increase of 8.7% over the previous year.

Colorado’s 2021-2022 budget also significantly reduced what is known as the Fiscal Stabilization Factor, or negative factor: the amount of K-12 education funding required by a constitutional formula that takes into account population and inflation, which lawmakers withhold from paying for other priorities in the state budget. Lawmakers reduced the overall amount the state owes schools from $ 1.2 billion to $ 572 million last year.

Colorado House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo. (Colorado House Democrats)

Polis’ budget proposal for 2022-2023 would reduce the budget stabilization factor by an additional $ 150 million, making it the lowest since 2013.

“In addition to the historic increase in per student funding next year, we’re actually looking to prepay funds in the future so that we can actually support that increase,” Esgar said.

In 2020, Colorado voters approved increased taxes on nicotine products to fund Universal Kindergarten, a mainstay of Polis’ campaign platform. The state’s Early Childhood Leadership Commission released draft recommendations to guide the implementation of this program last month. Commission members will vote on Tuesday on whether to finalize the recommendations and send them to lawmakers at the General Assembly.

Grants to local police services

This session, Democrats plan to increase funding for local law enforcement agencies under a framework outlined in Polis’ budget request, Fenberg said.

“We will be working on a program to provide grants to local police forces to ensure that they are actually able to improve their community policing on the ground,” Fenberg said. “This will be done through incentives to create co-responder models, ensuring law enforcement has the resources to do better investigations and forensic work to break down criminal and criminal networks. other crimes we’ve seen statewide, largely matching the pandemic. “

Majority Leader Steve Fenberg
Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg speaks in the Senate on February 22, 2021 (Faith Miller / Colorado Newsline)

In October, 70 law enforcement agencies across Colorado participated in 28 co-responder programs funded by the state’s Office of Behavioral Health. The programs pair police officers with behavioral health clinicians to respond to people in crisis, with the goal of diverting them from the criminal justice system and connecting them to services instead.

Democrats are also looking for ways to prevent crime from happening, Fenberg said.

“This has led to us having a lot of conversations about the root causes of some of these crimes that we are seeing,” he said. “And at the end of the day, we think a lot of the causes relate to our other priorities, from a lack of behavioral health resources, to a skyrocketing addiction statewide.” or things like the lack of affordable housing for people. a safe place to live. We will look at these root causes and address them one by one. “

Federal pandemic relief money should go a long way in preventing crime, Fenberg added. Since the General Assembly adjourned in June, lawmakers from two separate task forces have worked on the American Rescue Plan Act’s $ 850 million spending recommendations for affordable housing and behavioral health.

Also on the Democrats’ public safety agenda, Fenberg said, preventing and responding to wildfires, as well as improving the state’s poor air quality. Last month’s Marshall Fire destroyed more than 1,000 homes in Louisville and Superior. While the Federal Emergency Management Agency provides assistance to those affected, there may be ways for the state to play a role in resolving the immediate crisis or helping communities rebuild, Fenberg said. .

Another pervasive public safety issue is air quality. For more than 60 days last year, air quality in the Denver metro area reached a level deemed by the Environmental Protection Agency to be “unhealthy for sensitive groups” – a designation that includes any adult with heart or lung disease, anyone over the age of 65 and all children under the age of 18.

The Denver metro was already classified as a “serious” violator of the EPA’s ozone standards under the Clean Air Act when in July 2021 it missed a deadline to become compliant. Meanwhile, a Newsline investigation in September revealed a culture of secrecy and political interference within the state’s air pollution control division.

A Democratic proposal led by Westminster Democrat Senator Faith Winter would provide free public transport during ozone season to encourage people to reduce their driving. Much of the state’s ground-level ozone – formed by chemical reactions between sunlight and pollutants like nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds – is caused by gasoline vehicle engines.

Democrats’ efforts to improve air quality will include “making sure we do everything we can to bring our ozone under control through major investments in transportation infrastructure,” Fenberg said, “but also ensuring that that the Air Pollution Control Division can regulate them effectively. industries, can monitor, better model and enforce the laws we have to get our ozone problem under control. “

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