Western Slope representatives talk legislative priorities in first town hall of 2023

Carolyn Paletta
Vail Daily
Western Slope representatives hold the first town hall of the year on Zoom. Clockwise, from top left, are Senator-elect Dylan Roberts, House Speaker-designate Julie McCluskie, Representative-elect Elizabeth Velasco and Representative-elect Meghan Lukens.
Screenshot by Carolyn Paletta/Vail Daily

The 2023 Colorado legislative session begins on Monday, Jan. 9, kicking off 120 days of lawmakers introducing, modifying and passing bills that address our state’s most pressing issues.

Ahead of the opening session, four state representatives from the Western Slope — Senator-elect Dylan Roberts, Representative-elect Meghan Lukens, Representative-elect Elizabeth Velasco, and House Speaker-designate Julie McCluskie — convened for a virtual town hall meeting via Zoom to address some of the top policy priorities for the upcoming session.

Water rights and conservation were front of mind for all representatives, and, with Roberts serving as the chair of the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee and Lukens and Velasco sitting on the House Agriculture, Livestock, and Water Committee, the Western Slope will have a prominent voice in determining water policy moving forward.

“Colorado will be a leader in this space,” McCluskie said. “We will work not only to protect the Colorado river basin, which is so near and dear to all of our hearts on the Western Slope, but think about the strategies for decades to come and how we protect this resource for the next generation.”

She emphasized that the state’s Joint Budget Committee has prioritized spending on the Colorado Water Plan, and that she expects a continued push for accessing federal resources to support planning processes. Roberts also mentioned that he would support the creation of a full-time position for an upper Colorado River commissioner to defend water rights in upcoming negotiations.

“We know our Colorado River negotiations and dealings with the other states is an incredibly serious and high stakes position right now, and so I think having a person focused solely on that is important and necessary,” he said.

Lukens, a former teacher who now serves on the House Education Committee, noted that lawmakers are looking at opportunities to retain excess state revenue to fund public education while searching for additional ways to support students and teachers, such as the Interstate Teacher Mobility Compact, which would reduce barriers for teachers to become licensed to work in other states.

The state also put $80 million towards special-education services in the last legislative session through the School Finance Act, and McCluskie said that lawmakers are entertaining a bill to invest more this year. In addition to funding special education, the state is looking at opportunities to alleviate the Medicaid waitlist for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities, though this service gap goes beyond funding alone.

“I will say one of the challenges we have faced, certainly in Summit County and across some of our smaller rural communities, is capacity,” she said. “We have lost the individuals who provide these services to our IDD community members … we came up with some creative solutions for group settings, but it’s certainly something we need to continue to pay attention to.”

Velasco, a certified wildland firefighter who campaigned on her advocacy for emergency preparedness and environmental resiliency, talked about working on bills that will increase funding opportunities for local fire districts, making emergency information accessible to everyone, and removing barriers for volunteers to be able to participate in firefighting efforts.

“We just had the anniversary of the Marshall Fire that was the most destructive, most expensive fire for our state, so this is definitely something that’s very important at the legislature, and we are working together to bring the solutions for everyone,” she said.

Reproductive rights were also brought up in the town hall, with Lukens highlighting efforts to keep planning clinics accessible and operational now that the Reproductive Health Equity Act guarantees the right to abortion in Colorado.

“We’re looking at increasing state funding for family planning clinics to ensure that Coloradans can get access to comprehensive planning services and strengthen state coverage requirements for private health plans to ensure that Coloradans have access to preventative care, and that would include reproductive-health, oral-health, behavioral-health services,” Lukens said.

“Also, we are a desert — a lot of the states around us don’t have access to reproductive rights, so we are seeing the opportunity of supporting other states as well,” Velasco added.

On the topic of housing affordability, McCluskie talked about working on a property-tax reduction proposal, as well as potentially instituting tax credits for first-time home buyers.

Attendees at the town hall also asked about expanding the jurisdiction of physician assistants in Colorado, to which McCluskie responded that, if a statewide approach cannot be found, lawmakers will look into regional options for rural parts of Colorado, where access to care is such a critical issue. She encouraged physician assistants with questions or insight on this issue to reach out directly.

Roberts said that this was to be the first of numerous town halls, both virtual and in-person, that the legislators plan to hold over the span of the 120 days in session to keep constituents up-to-date with their progress.

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