House District 57 candidates differ on energy transition, health insurance, governor’s COVID-19 response
Colorado’s “Just Transition” efforts at helping the state’s coal-producing counties recover from the move away from fossil fuels is “bad policy” and another unfunded mandate, Colorado’s House District 57 representative says.
“The state’s role in the energy transition should not be to send out bad policy from the Capitol that affects communities the way it does,” Rep. Perry Will said when the question came up at Saturday’s Club 20 debate, which was live-streamed from Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction.
“We need to plan and figure out how we’re going to do this,” Will said. “This should have been well thought-out, instead of being dictated with [goals for] renewables and this ‘Green New Deal’ … people don’t understand how that affects these communities.”
Will, from Silt, is the Republican running for election to the HD57 seat (Garfield, Rio Blanco and Moffat counties) in the Nov. 3 election. He was appointed to the vacant post in early 2019.
His challenger is Democrat Colin Wilhelm, an attorney in Glenwood Springs who had an unsuccessful bid for the same seat two years ago against former state representative and now state Sen. Bob Rankin.
Wilhelm said the energy transition plan and its timeline are being driven by the companies that run the coal mines and the coal plants, not the state.
“Market forces are going to be driving us to produce less coal and transition away from it,” Wilhelm said. “Instead of fighting that tooth and nail, we need to work at keeping the jobs that we have, keep the facilities open as long as we can, and at same time bring in new economic drivers.”
Economic issues impacting northwest Colorado, related to the energy transition, challenges in the oil and gas industry and the statewide recession brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and other factors dominated the Saturday debate.
The full debate can be viewed on Club 20’s YouTube channel, along with that between SD8 candidates Rankin and Karl Hanlon, other Western Slope house district seats and the state Board of Education race between Joyce Rankin and Mayling Simpson.
Rep. Will did acknowledge when the question of the critical issues facing the state came up, that the region does need to be less reliant on fossil industries.
“When it comes to energy needs, we have so much unrenewable energy that we’re focusing too much on that and it’s killing some of our counties,” Will said.
As for general economic recovery, “We have got to get people back to work and keep our economic engine going. Everything hinges on good-paying jobs, and we need to create new jobs, especially in our rural areas, and bring in new industry,” Will added.
Wilhelm agreed with Will that, in a addition to efforts at rebuilding the economy, restoring K-12 education funding and bringing more state transportation dollars to the Western Slope are high priorities.
“I agree there is a battle between the Front Range and the West Slope, and we need hard voices out there willing to go to battle and get those needs met,” Wilhelm said.
Will and Wilhelm also agreed in opposing the statewide wolf reintroduction measure that is on the Nov. 3 ballot (Proposition 114).
With more than 40 years as a state wildlife officer, Will said “there’s no room for wolves in Colorado.
“It’s not fair to the wolves, because we do not have the open space and the country they need … and it will cause some real harm to our current wildlife,” he said. “We are not Wyoming, we’re not Idaho and we’re not Montana.”
Wilhelm agreed. He noted that wolves are naturally migrating into the northern reaches of the state anyway, so a reintroduction effort is unnecessary and expensive, he said.
“I don’t see the need to spend money when we’re in a budget shortfall,” Wilhelm said. “There are more important ways to focus our money on now, like schools and roads.”
In the cross-examination portion of the debate, where candidates can ask questions of each other, Wilhelm grilled Will on his non-support of a public health insurance option.
“The number one thing facing rural counties … is to protect our hospitals, facilities and our clinics,” Will said, noting his opposition to pricing controls that could come with a universal health-care plan.
“You can have the best health coverage in world, but if there is no facility to treat you, it’s useless,” Will said, adding that securing “good-paying jobs” with health benefits is his preferred approach.
Will grilled Wilhelm regarding Democratic Gov. Jared Polis’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the use of executive orders to keep businesses closed or operating at limited capacity.
“The lockdown and safer at home were prudent to protect our vulnerable. But do you think it went too far?,” Will asked.
Wilhelm said the governor’s actions pass the legal test to protect public health and keep the disease in check, and also not stress the hospital system.
“Take the mask mandate, for instance,” he said. “There is a compelling government interest there to keep people safe, and keep our hospitals functioning.”
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As Moffat County continues to roll out vaccines late in February, Memorial Regional Health is turning to two vaccine clinics in the next week or so to help vaccinate the vulnerable population.