Water, insurance top area issues

Chamber of commerce sends representatives to talk to legislators

Denver -- Health care, budget cuts and water issues are among Western Slope residents' top concerns and those concerns are echoed among Western Slope legislators.

Four representatives from the Craig Chamber of Commerce teamed with the Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce Thursday and Friday to travel to Denver for legislative days -- a chance for those people to bring their communities' issues to the attention of their legislators.

"It's so important to meet our legislators in person and get information one-on-one," Craig Chamber of Commerce director Cathy Vanatta said.

"That's why I advocate this trip so much."

This is the second year the Craig Chamber has partnered with the Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce for the trip.

Rep. Jack Taylor, R-Steamboat Springs, joined the Craig contingent for most of the trip. Rep. Al White, R-Winter Park, did not.

Gov. Bill Owens, Lt. Gov. Jane Norton, state economist Nancy McCallin, Greg Walcher, with the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, and Tim Foster, executive director of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education all made presentations to the group.

Vanatta said the issues Craig residents asked her to address with legislators were Colorado's no-fault insurance laws, telecommunication legislation, drought solutions and health insurance.

She met with Taylor Friday morning to share viewpoints and get information on each of those issues.

"There's never enough time," she said. "We needed a full day with Jack."

The rest of the time was spent with speakers updating the travelers on issues.

Water issues

"My big fear is that we'll do more damage than good," Taylor said about the many water bills being addressed by the Legislature.

Senate bill 73 is one that concerns Taylor and one he's fighting against. That bill would allow nearly 4,000 high-capacity wells to be drilled near the South Platte River, including legislation that gives the state engineer more power and takes some cases out of water court.

"It takes a 125-year-old system that works and works well. This bill throws this out of whack," Taylor said. "This bill turns the water system in this state, as I understand it, upside down."

The politics of water have changed in the face of the worst drought in more than three centuries, Walcher said.

"For the first time ever, the majority of the public is interested in information and demanding we do something about water," Walcher said. "Nothing gains people's attention like brown lawns."

Five years ago, he said, conventional wisdom was that the era of water projects was over. Now, the public is clamoring for more storage and legislators are fighting over who will provide the solution.

"We have 50 legislators who desperately want the credit for solving this problem," Walcher said. "We're trying to keep the debate focused on what will actually help."

There are three issues legislators need to look at, he said, long-term and short-term solutions, and conservation.

Long-term solutions mean being able to capture moisture when it is available.

"Our obligation now is that future generations don't look back and say, 'Why didn't you fix it?'" Walcher said. "And we have an opportunity now that we've never had before because of the public focus on the issue."

More than 400 water storage sites across the state already have been identified but Walcher doesn't recommend building another large storage site.

"What we need to do, in my opinion, is build hundreds and hundreds of small reservoirs all over the state," he said.

The first step in long-term water use already has been taken, which was securing the rights to the Colorado River that the state is entitled to. Another major step is a study that has been commissioned on the use of the water in an aquifer that lies under Denver, which Walcher said could supply water to the current growth in Denver for two centuries.

"We don't know the cost, availability or the technical issues of bringing up the water for use," Walcher said. "It would be irresponsible not to study it."

Several issues on short-term use are before the Colorado Legislature now, including water banking, interrupted supply and water loans.

"In the long term, these ideas may protect agriculture," Walcher said.

Owens said 85 percent of the state's water is used for agricultural interests and the short-term solution

is ensuring that water is used efficiently.

Six to 7 percent of the state's water is used in industry and 6 to 7 percent in homes.

"It's not about our lawns," Owens said. "We need more water in Colorado to save agriculture."

Walcher is recommending the Legislature give incentives for better irrigation practices.

Health care

The number of health insurance providers in Colorado has fallen from 82 to 12 -- three of which are on the Western Slope.

The situation is so critical that health insurance reform is one of Lt. Gov. Jane Norton's major projects.

"I'm focusing on the small group market because that's where the biggest problem seems to be," she said.

It is estimated that nearly 50 percent of Coloradans are without coverage.

Understanding the problem means understanding the causes, Norton said.

Studies show 70 percent of small businesses experienced rate increases of 20 percent or more on their health insurance this year and premiums are expected to rise 15 percent annually, causing 82,000 people to leave the small group market in 2001.

There are several factors that cause cost increases in insurance:

  • 18 percent -- general inflation
  • 22 percent -- drugs and medical advances
  • 18 percent -- rising provider expenses
  • 15 percent -- government mandates and regulations
  • 7 percent -- risk and litigation
  • 5 percent -- fraud and abuse

Norton said the solution is for government to affect the cost drivers it has power over.

One bill yet to be introduced this session would give businesses a choice in the type of insurance and level of coverage.

"We know every time we add a mandate, small businesses drop out because of rising costs," Norton said.

She expects the bill to be introduced soon in the House or as a late bill in the Senate.

Other pending related legislation includes:

  • SB 68-- Removes government mandates and red tape from the insurance industry and requires the government to have an independent analysis done on the cost and benefits of any new regulation or mandate. This bill would create an independent commission to analyze mandates.
  • HB 1164 -- Allows businesses to form associations to get health insurance.
  • HB 1261 -- Discourages lawsuits that have no merit.
  • SB 78 -- Encourages competition by making it easier for insurance companies to return to the market after leaving by reducing the time before they can return from five years to three.

"It's obvious that health insurance is just too unaffordable to too many Coloradans," Norton said. "That's why we need to look for solutions."

Economy

"It is a challenging time, but it's important to not lose site of where we are overall," Owens said. "While we did have a drop in revenue, it did follow the proverbial good 10 years."

After the 10 years of a more-than-healthy economy, Colorado is now in a time of stabilization, he said, in which some companies are failing, leaving the most efficient to continue.

"We have the third most diversified economy in the nation," Owens said.

Economist Nancy McCallin, director of the Office of State Planning and Budgeting, expects the economy to improve in 2004 but not by much.

"The Colorado economy mirrors the national economy," she said.

Colorado's tourism-based economy was one of states hardest hit by the impact of Sept. 11. That caused a slow-growth economy to become no-growth, McCallin said.

But federal economic stimuli, such as low interest rates, are expected to work their way into the system, giving Coloradans more spending power and marginally improving the economy.

Along with that, the federal government's increased defense spending and Colorado's increased tourism spending should be a shot in the arm to the state, McCallin said.

"I'm seeing some early positive signs in the tourism sector, but I think it's a wait-and-see situation," she said.

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