HD57 candidates talk rural mental healthcare, education needs
House District 57 candidates Perry Will and Elizabeth Velasco share a similar promise when it comes to Western and rural Colorado: Putting the people who live here above anything else.
However, Wednesday’s 2022 Issues and Answers Forum at Glenwood Springs City Hall saw the candidates give varying takes on issues, like rural mental healthcare, education and the rising cost of housing.
Will, R-New Castle, is the seat’s four-year incumbent. He’s also spent 40 years working for the state via Colorado Parks and Wildlife. He emphasized deviations from Colorado’s oil and gas have caused issues in the housing market, and that “we need to pressure for federal funding for affordable housing.”
“When Dylan Roberts (D) was in the House, I ran two affordable-housing bills with him — one two years ago and one this year,” he said. “We got the revolving loan fund.”
Democrat Velasco is the HD57 challenger. She’s a small-business owner and wildland firefighter. Growing up, she said her parents had to work three jobs to afford to live here, and that “that’s something that our families are going through now.”
“As a working-class candidate and a champion for working-class families, I look forward to bringing innovative solutions to the legislature,” she said. “From supporting people so that they’re able to get a loan to buy a house and supporting municipalities so that they can work on their own affordable housing projects.
“And making sure that we are supporting mobile-home owners to buy up their land, and that they’re able to invest back in their homes.”
Despite both advocating for more students pursuing careers in the trades, the candidates shared varying ideas on rural education.
Velasco focused more on inequalities in educational access shared amongst districts in eastern and western Garfield County. She also advocated for more partnerships with Colorado Mountain College.
“In our community, the access to higher education has been limited,” she said. “I had to work two jobs to put myself through college.”
In particular, Velasco said Garfield Re-2 and Garfield 16 school districts share staff, including bus drivers, and have only four-day weeks. Meanwhile, other school districts have more resources.
“We need to make sure that everyone, no matter where they live, that all students have access to a quality education,” she said.
Will focused on teacher retention and fighting for dollars for education, while also saying rural Colorado is not unique in that “affordability is tough.”
He also emphasized the importance of sending more students into the trades, saying, “Not every kid needs to go to college.
“I fight for that everyday over there to try to get the money for rural Colorado, in the rural schools,” he said. “Teacher pay, I think, is utmost — especially for retention of teachers — because if you retain good teachers, then you have better students and good student outcomes.”
In addition to education and housing affordability, the candidates spent time identifying what they think is best fit for rural mental-healthcare needs.
Will said the state budget has increased by $13 billion since he first took office, and that the funds need to be directed into the proper places, including behavioral health.
He also said he’s run bills on behavioral health, including telehealth. He added that western Colorado needs facilities for people in crisis, and that the state has put $400 million into Colorado’s behavioral-health system.
Will also talked about the rural and urban divide, saying “it’s a real problem” when rural Colorado is trying to garner funders for the facilities they don’t have.
Velasco said she works carefully with local districts, and that access to mental-health care for students is tough, especially when there’s one counselor for every 400 students in a school.
She also said that “students and young people deserve better.
“I know that we need more addiction centers, we need more access to rehabilitation centers,” she said. “We need to make sure that whenever someone’s looking for a counselor that they have access to one.”
To accomplish this, she advocates for supporting CMC to train more providers, as well as working more with local nonprofits because they currently offer youth support groups.
“I also know that our EMTs and paramedics also need the support; they need to make a living wage, they need to be able to protect their families,” she said. “I look forward to doing that.”
Both candidates said they don’t ask or necessarily care about political parties. But, Will did voice some concern that the Democratic party appeals more to their own political caucus.
The general election is Nov. 8. Ballots are scheduled to be sent to registered voters Oct. 17.
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