Colorado Democrats plan to tackle K-12 education, high cost of living in upcoming session

Public safety proposal would increase funds for community policing

By: - January 10, 2022 5:06 am
Colorado Capitol

The Colorado State Capitol building is pictured April 1, 2020. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

It’s getting more expensive to live in Colorado, a fact that Republicans are counting on to help them in a midterm election year.

State GOP leaders held a news conference in August at a Denver gas station, seeking to call attention to rising fuel prices and blame Democrats — who control the state Senate, House of Representatives and governor’s office — for the hit to people’s wallets.

As of Friday, average gas prices stood at $3.31 per gallon in Colorado, a 45% increase from one year prior, according to AAA. The Denver-Lakewood-Aurora consumer price index — which accounts for food, energy, shelter, motor vehicles and medical care — jumped 6.5% from November 2020 to November 2021.

Though Republicans tend to place the blame for cost increases on Democratic policies, economists say a variety of factors, including widespread and pervasive supply chain issues, likely play a role. But Democrats plan to tackle affordability issues head-on this session, Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg and House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar said in a Wednesday interview.

Other key Democratic priorities for the upcoming session, which begins Jan. 12, include investing in K-12 education and public safety.

Reducing fees and prescription drug costs

“We’re hearing that over and over again: Folks may be receiving raises, but the price is going up as well, so are we really better off?” Esgar said. “We’re working to cut costs and improve affordability so that Coloradans can actually keep more of their hard-earned money in their wallets.”

Last year, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 21-175 to establish a Prescription Drug Affordability Review Board and require health insurance payers to provide more detailed drug rebate information.

The new law, which Polis signed in June, also allowed the Prescription Drug Affordability Review Board to establish upper payment limits for prescription drugs starting in April of this year. Once a limit is established for a given drug, the law prohibits insurance plans from purchasing that drug at an amount exceeding the upper payment limit.

SB-175 was sponsored by four Democrats: Sens. Sonya Jaquez Lewis of Boulder County and Julie Gonzales of Denver, along with Reps. Yadira Caraveo of Thornton and Chris Kennedy of Lakewood. It passed mostly along party lines — with Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, the lone Democrat to oppose it.

Gov. Jared Polis’ budget proposal includes $104 million in fee relief for individuals and businesses. If approved by the Colorado General Assembly, the money would be used to cover paid family and medical leave premiums, which kick in next year under a voter-approved ballot measure; fees paid by health care professionals such as nurses; and business licensing fees. Esgar also mentioned drivers license fees as an area where Democrats are looking to improve affordability.

“We’re also going to continue our efforts to save people money on health care and prescription drug costs,” Esgar said, “including making sure that drug rebates are actually passed along the consumers.”

Prescription drug rebates are a form of compensation provided by drug manufacturers to health insurance plans and pharmacy benefit managers, or PBMs, according to the Center for Improving Value in Health Care, a Denver-based nonprofit that administers the Colorado All Payer Claims Database. Rebates from drug manufacturers help cover the cost of a medication in exchange for an insurance plan placing that medication on its preferred drug list, or formulary.

Theoretically, the rebates could help reduce health insurance costs for consumers. However, opponents of drug rebates say they encourage the use of higher-cost, brand-name drugs without helping consumers save money on their medications.

More money for K-12 education

Besides working to decrease fees and rein in prescription drug costs, Esgar said Democrats plan to make the state’s largest-ever investment in public K-12 education. They also plan to lay the groundwork for a 2023 kickoff to universal preschool.

“Every year, we’ve been increasing per-pupil funding, and in the gov’s budget, he put forward a strong proposal that continues that work,” Esgar said. “We anticipate working closely together to accomplish a shared goal of actually investing in students and teachers in our schools.”

Last year, lawmakers restored education spending to pre-COVID levels, budgeting $7.8 billion for K-12 education. That was an 8.7% increase over the previous year.

Colorado’s 2021-2022 budget also significantly reduced what’s known as the budget stabilization factor, or negative factor: the amount of K-12 education funding, required by a constitutional formula accounting for population and inflation, that lawmakers withhold to pay for other priorities in the state budget. Lawmakers decreased the overall amount the state owes to schools from $1.2 billion to $572 million last year.

Daneya Esgar
Colorado House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo. (Colorado House Democrats)

Polis’ budget proposal for 2022-2023 would reduce the budget stabilization factor by another $150 million, making it the lowest it has been since 2013.

“In addition to next year’s historic increase in per-pupil funding, we’re actually looking to pre-pay funds in the future so that we can actually sustain this increase,” Esgar said.

In 2020, Colorado voters approved raising taxes on nicotine products to fund universal preschool, a pillar of Polis’ campaign platform. The state’s Early Childhood Leadership Commission released draft recommendations last month to guide the implementation of that program. Commission members will vote Tuesday on whether to finalize the recommendations and send them to lawmakers in the General Assembly.

Grants to local police departments

This session, Democrats plan to increase funding to local law enforcement agencies through a framework outlined in Polis’ budget request, Fenberg said.

“We’re going to be working on a program to provide grants to local police forces to ensure that they’re actually able to improve their community policing on the ground,” Fenberg said. “This’ll be through incentives for building out co-responder models, ensuring law enforcement has resources to do better investigations and forensics work to break up crime rings and other crimes that we’ve seen across the state, largely corresponding with the pandemic.”

Majority Leader Steve Fenberg
Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg speaks on the Senate floor Feb. 22, 2021. (Faith Miller/Colorado Newsline)

As of October, 70 law enforcement agencies across Colorado participated in 28 co-responder programs funded by the state’s Office of Behavioral Health. The programs pair police officers with behavioral health clinicians to respond to people in crisis, with the goal of diverting them from the criminal justice system and connecting them with services instead.

Democrats also are looking at ways to prevent crimes from occurring in the first place, Fenberg said.

“That has led us to having a lot of conversations about what are the root causes of some of these crimes that we’re seeing,” he said. “And in the end, we think a lot of the causes are related to our other priorities, whether it’s a lack of behavioral health resources, whether it’s skyrocketing addiction across the state, or things like a lack of affordable housing for people to just have a safe place to live. We’re going to be looking at those root causes and addressing them one by one.”

Federal pandemic relief money should go a long way toward helping prevent crime, Fenberg added. Since the General Assembly adjourned in June, lawmakers on two separate task forces have been working on recommendations for spending $850 million from the American Rescue Plan Act on affordable housing and behavioral health.

Also figuring into Democrats’ public safety agenda, Fenberg said, is preventing and responding to wildfires, as well as improving the state’s poor air quality. Last month’s Marshall Fire destroyed more than 1,000 homes in Louisville and Superior. While the Federal Emergency Management Agency is providing assistance to those impacted, there may be ways the state can play a role in addressing the immediate crisis or helping communities rebuild, Fenberg said.

Air quality represents another pervasive public safety issue. On more than 60 days last year, air quality in the Denver metro area reached a level deemed by the Environmental Protection Agency to be “unhealthy for sensitive groups” — a designation that includes any adult with a heart or lung condition, anyone over the age of 65, and all children under 18.

The Denver metro was already classified as a “serious” violator of the EPA’s ozone standards under the Clean Air Act when in July of 2021 it missed a deadline to get into compliance. Meanwhile, a Newsline investigation in September exposed a culture of secrecy and political meddling at the state’s Air Pollution Control Division.

One Democratic proposal being led by Sen. Faith Winter, a Westminster Democrat, would involve providing free public transportation during ozone season to encourage people to cut down on driving. Much of the state’s ground-level ozone — formed by chemical reactions between sunlight and pollutants like nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds — is caused by gas-powered vehicle engines.

Democrats’ efforts to improve air quality will include “ensuring we’re doing everything we can to get our ozone under control through large investments in the transportation infrastructure,” Fenberg said, “but also ensuring that the Air Pollution Control Division can effectively regulate these industries, can monitor, can model better, and enforce the laws that we do have to get our ozone problem under control.”


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Faith Miller
Faith Miller

Faith Miller was a reporter with Colorado Newsline covering the Colorado Legislature, immigration and other stories.