Candidates running for Colorado’s District 6 Senate seat and District 59 House seat squared off in an informative forum Thursday at the Cortez City Hall attended by about 50 people.
For the Senate seat, incumbent Don Coram, a Republican from Montrose, faces challenger Guinn Unger Jr., a Democrat from Bayfield.
For the House seat, incumbent Marc Catlin, also a Republican from Montrose, faces challenger Seth Cagin, a Democrat from Telluride.
After introducing themselves, the candidates answered more than a dozen questions submitted by the audience. The forum was put on by the League of Women Voters of Montezuma County and moderated by Judy Schuenemeyer.
Issues and questions focused on health care, water, education, the economy, social issues and broadband.
Water issuesCatlin said more Western Slope water is at risk of being diverted toward the Front Range’s growing population, a problem worsened by drought. “We need to look at ways for Front Range cities to use less transbasin diversion water in order to protect our agricultural economy,” he said.
Unger suggested upgrading to more efficient irrigation systems, but Coram cautioned that irrigation upgrades can limit runoff that other farmers need. Catlin said more reservoirs are needed, and the state should help fund lining canals. Catlin added that required irrigation upgrades might prove too expensive for small farmers, who could then be bought out by wealthier corporations. Cagin emphasized that negotiations with states that rely on Colorado River basin water will be key to moving forward in a time of drier conditions.
Health careHigh health care rates for rural residents are a big problem, the candidates said, and many people have told them they cannot afford to pay for insurance.
Coram said that under the current rate system, urban areas enjoy lower rates than rural areas.
“Our city cousins would rather see us pay that higher rate,” he said, and legislative attempts to address the imbalance have failed so far.
Cagin said creating a public option on the insurance market place could help lower rates for rural residents.
“One of the reasons the cost is so high is most of the insurance companies have pulled out of rural areas,” he said. In the absence of competition, prices have increased, Cagin said, and more state regulation is needed to address the issue.
Unger said he’s been told insurance rates on the Western Slope can be double that of the Front Range. To be fair, “their (Front Range) rates have to go up a little for ours to go down a lot.” He said he’d like to pass a bill that insurance companies in Colorado should be required to set up shop and offer the same rate in every county.
The candidates agreed that additional detox facilities were needed. Catlin proposed incorporating detox facilities into all health clinics to help confront the issue early. “It’s a thorny problem because Denver is always sucking up all the money, because they believe the problem is worse for them,” but per capita, that is not true, Catlin said.
Rural broadbandOn bringing more high-speed internet to rural areas, Unger said local electric cooperatives should play a role, just as they did to bring electricity to rural areas in the past. “Incentivizing electric co-ops to bring broadband should be encouraged,” said Unger, who serves on the La Plata Electric Association Board. Coram noted that he sponsored a successful Rural Broadband Senate Bill that took 2.6 percent of taxes paid on cellphones and landlines to help fund rural broadband projects.
Catlin sponsored successful legislation that “levels the playing field” to aid rural areas. Under the new law, if a local company successfully bids to install fiber optics for improved broadband, and another company claims right of first refusal, that company must match the technology and cost per household of the original bidder “and not install slower copper lines instead of faster fiber optics.”
Amendment 112Three of the four candidates disagreed with Amendment 112, which proposes a 2,500-foot setback for oil and gas drilling sites. Cagin was on the fence.
Coram said the measure was too extreme and would hurt the economy. Catlin also opposed the measure, saying that it would reduce oil and gas production, thereby reducing funding for the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Local Affairs’ community grant program, which both rely on severance taxes from the industry. Cagin said he had “mixed feelings” about the measure. He worried that it could reduce natural gas production, which is “a necessary transition fuel as we move to a renewable energy future.” Unger said he was not in support of it because the 2,500-foot buffer zone is an unreasonable “one-size-fits-all” requirement that does not fit all circumstances.
Education issues, Amendment 73On education funding, candidates disagreed on the severity of the problem and whether Amendment 73, which boosts income taxes for higher income residents for the state education budget, is a good idea.
Cagin said Colorado is in the bottom half in country for school funding and that rural districts like Montezuma-Cortez “are the poster child” for underfunded schools. He wants to see increased funding for all-day preschool and kindergarten programs, and he supports Amendment 73.
Unger also supports Amendment 73, and said good schools are tied to the economy, because “if there are subpar schools, companies won’t relocate to our towns.” Coram, who is against 73, said Colorado school funding is “middle of the road” nationwide. He countered that higher taxes would dissuade corporations from moving to the state. Catlin also opposed 73 because he disagrees with a graduated income tax and said the new tax would burden the rural assessors and clerk offices.
Candidates also gave their backgrounds. Unger in an engineer who worked on the space shuttle program, had a career in the Army Reserves and was in the software business. Coram comes from a farm and ranch background, worked in the mining industry and is an active senator. Catlin has a farming and banking background and managed the Uncomphagre Valley Waters Users for 17 years. Cagin started The Watch Newspaper in Telluride and worked as editor and reporter for decades covering local issues and state politics.