DENVER – Southwest Colorado lawmakers spent the legislative session advancing bills on water, wildfires and response efforts in the wake of the Gold King Mine spill.
The three Republican lawmakers – Reps. J. Paul Brown of Ignacio, Don Coram of Montrose and Sen. Ellen Roberts of Durango – saw several successes during a session mired in failure on most major policy issues.
Brown found his voice on several key issues that he failed to advance during previous legislative sessions.
“J. Paul definitely stepped up,” said House Minority Leader Brian DelGrosso, R-Loveland. “He learned some things in his little vacation for a couple years and came back, and I think that he learned about some more things that he was passionate about in his district.”
DelGrosso was referring to Brown’s departure from the Legislature in 2012 after losing a re-election bid. He won his seat back in 2014.
Brown said a bill that creates a study of the amount of water delivered over 20 years to Nebraska from the South Platte River was his greatest accomplishment.
“It’s historic because we’re actually looking at water storage and not depending on the federal government to do it for us ...” Brown said. “We’re wasting that water out of the state, we’re not storing it, we’re not managing it efficiently.”
Brown also shined in discussions on changing the structure of a hospital provider fee to free money for state services.
The idea – which would have restructured the fee as an enterprise fund, or government-owned business – was strongly opposed by many Republicans. But Brown bucked the majority of his party in supporting the effort, which ultimately failed.
“There were other Republicans that came to me in confidence and said, ‘I think you’re right, and I would like to vote with you, but I can’t,’” Brown said.
He did, however, draw the ire of progressives for backtracking on funding for a program that provides intrauterine birth control to low-income teens.
Brown supported the effort last year but reversed course when it came up during debate on the state budget this year.
His reversal won left-leaning ProgressNow Colorado’s award as “worst flip-flopper,” which came in the shape of flip-flop footwear.
“I had really been hammering hard on K-12 education and transportation funding, and I still think that needs to be a priority, and when that (IUD funding) came up, I guess I was thinking more in the line of prioritizing transportation and K-12 funding. That had more to do with my vote than where I am on IUDs,” Brown said.
The funding ultimately passed, including $2.5 million for the program.
Coram led the charge to secure money for the program over the past two years. Roberts also helped to garner support in the Republican-controlled Senate.
“We’re thankful that we got it through,” Coram said.
He also worked on issues related to the Gold King Mine spill, passing a bill that would authorize emergency funds any time hazardous circumstances exist at a legacy mine site. The bill is awaiting the governor’s signature.
But Coram was less successful with another Gold King Mine bill that would have allowed the state to file lawsuits against the federal government on behalf of individuals impacted by the spill.
“I would give them an F,” Coram said of his colleagues on Gold King issues. “That was a huge failure on the part of the Legislature. ... Had that happened on the Platte River on the Front Range, it would have been taken care of.”
Roberts said that while the Legislature can address certain issues related to draining inactive mines – such as Gold King, which polluted the Animas River on Aug. 5 last year – many of the solutions fall on the federal level.
The Legislature passed a measure encouraging Congress to act on Good Samaritan legislation, which would eliminate liability concerns related to restoring abandoned mines.
“We’ve, as a Legislature, spoken to Congress, saying we want them to deal with that,” Roberts said.
She said her greatest success this year was securing funding for wildfire mitigation efforts. Gov. John Hickenlooper’s budget proposal would have slashed funding for the Department of Natural Resources’ Wildfire Risk Reduction Grant Program.
But Roberts was able to find $1 million to fund the program for a year.
“I fought tooth and nail to get any funding for that program,” Roberts said. “It’s not just the dollars, it signifies an awareness that we need to move from reacting to wildfires to getting proactive.”