2014 good for Four Corners in Legislature

DENVER – Southwest Colorado’s lawmakers agree the 2014 legislative session was a good one for the region.

It’s a different story from last year, when Republicans left the state Capitol complaining about a “war on rural Colorado.”

“I feel so much better than I did a year ago,” said Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango. “Last year I went home demoralized and wondering if it made any difference to be up here.”

This year brought long-sought law to expand rural broadband, extra money and with no new mandates for schools, an aerial firefighting fleet and the beginnings of a plan to fix the state’s emergency radio system.

In the 2013 session, Democrats passed gun restrictions and a renewable energy mandate that angered rural Republicans. Roberts said she doesn’t believe Front Range Democrats harbor any malice toward other parts of the state, but she thinks heated rhetoric from the right helped to moderate the Democratic agenda in 2014.

“I think talking about the war on rural Colorado was necessary and significant in causing that change to occur,” Roberts said.

Fights over water rights returned to the stage this year, and Roberts was in the middle of most of them. She brought the Legislature a plan hatched by a Durango water engineer to limit the size of lawns in new suburban neighborhoods. It riled homebuilders and city governments, and eventually it was turned into a study – a common way for legislators to delay inconvenient legislation.

Roberts also pushed for the Legislature to have veto power over the Colorado Water Plan, which Gov. John Hickenlooper wants to have crafted by December. Legislators of both parties had complained Hickenlooper was bypassing them, and that the public at large knew very little of the water plan.

Although her bill was scaled back, it still requires hearings around the state in front of the Legislature’s water committee before the plan can be finished.

“We weren’t invited to the party,” Roberts said. “We had to crash the party, but we are now at the table.”

Roberts sponsored the bill with two Democrats and Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose.

“We held strong. It was truly a bipartisan effort that the people of Colorado have to have a voice in this,” Coram said.

Coram also noticed a change in tone from 2013, when pressure from party leaders led to a series of partisan votes.

“The lock-down mode wasn’t there this year, on either side,” Coram said.

Coram, whose district includes all of Montezuma County, sponsored 22 bills, an unusually high number for someone who is not in leadership. All but six passed.

His most controversial bill died early in the session. It would have forced people prone to seizures to give up their drivers’ licenses.

Other bills, though, should have a lasting effect.

Coram sponsored a rural broadband bill that finally passed after four years of unsuccessful efforts. It converts part of the phone company’s subsidy for serving hard-to-reach customers into a grant fund to build high-speed Internet lines to unserved areas.

Last fall, Coram began crafting the bill with Club 20 and others on the Western Slope.

“The last couple years, that bill has failed because it was a top-down approach. This year, it was truly a grassroots, bottom-up effort,” he said.

Colorado has more waste tires than any other state, and nearly every year the Legislature passes a bill to try to deal with the problem. Coram sponsored this year’s effort, and lawmakers are hoping it finally will begin to solve the problem. The bill imposes new regulations on tire handlers and gradually ends a subsidy the state has paid to tire recyclers.