Q&A: Senate District 8 candidates talk state budget, water plan updates, education funding
In order of funding priority, what are the three most important issues facing Colorado, and how will you address them?
- Economic recovery and renewal of the state’s tax base through jobs, people going back to work and balanced, protective measures to control the spread of COVID.
- Funding for our schools and roads. We need jobs, not taxes.
- An unbalanced Legislature. I’ll continue my years of working with my colleagues across party lines to defend and support Western Colorado.
— Sen. Bob Rankin
- Our No. 1 priority in Colorado needs to be finding ways through the rest of the coronavirus pandemic that support working and middle-class families while being guided by science. We need to support programs and policies that make sense for rural Colorado, which has its own challenges unique from the Denver area.
- Second, I’m committed to lowering the cost of health care for rural Colorado. Too many of the solutions that have been proposed so far focus on the big cities and leave the small towns of the Western Slope behind. We need a low-cost option for health care that isn’t written by special interests and will actually keep our rural hospitals open.
- Third, we need to protect public education. We can’t afford to divert funds away from our public schools with voucher programs, as my opponent has proposed. Most folks I know can’t afford to just put their kids in private schools. Our working families rely on good public schools to teach their kids while they work. We need to make sure that opportunity continues for everyone in the state — not just those who can afford private tutors.
— Karl Hanlon
What ideas do you have for bringing Colorado out of the economic slump brought on by the coronavirus?
First of all, we need to accept that we can’t go backward with this virus. A key to being able to kickstart our economy is making sure our local communities are healthy. By most metrics, rural Colorado is doing well in that regard. Where restrictions are hurting our small businesses and our working families, I support temporary programs to make sure those folks can make it to the other side of this pandemic intact. It doesn’t do our communities any good when a successful business has to close through no fault of its own. Making sure our neighbors are making ends meet is what builds up the resilience of the Western Slope, and I think that’s what we’re all about out here.
As the senior member of the Joint Budget Committee, I’ll be very involved in setting priorities and planning for the several years needed for recovery. Education will be the largest spending element of the budget, but we can’t neglect the responsibility to take care of our most needy citizens. I believe we can reach out to community resources and nonprofit organizations to shoulder some of the missions that we have tended to take on at the state level. I know that we can examine regulations and licensing requirements to get people back to work sooner. We can make sure that our business development incentives work for all of Colorado, not just the Front Range.
What’s your position on implementation of the state water plan, and what revisions could be made five years after it was adopted?
The good news about the water plan is that it was developed with input from the roundtables and reflects regional differences and priorities. Five years later, some of those priorities have shifted to drought concerns and demand management to consider the possibilities that our downstream partners may fall short of their compact-defined allocation. My concerns have focused on funding of the water plan. The plan did not specify funding sources but did attempt to define a range of potential need. With the rapid decline of severance taxes from oil and gas, the major source of funding is drying up. I’ve worked to keep funding for the roundtable grants and even to divert some general funds to water projects. I believe reliance on gaming tax revenue is a false promise and new funding sources have to be found.
Implementation of the state water plan is a critical component of our response to a changing climate, economic prosperity on the Western Slope and increased population pressure on the Front Range. Since its adoption five years ago, we have seen an evolving climate changing faster than we ever imagined. Updating the plan to be responsive to those changes is a major part of the update going on now. I am proud to serve on the Colorado Basin Roundtable, which is working on the update to our Basin Implementation Plan for inclusion in the updated State Water Plan. As a rancher and water attorney, I plan to take my experience to the state Senate and continue to fight for the Western Slope.
Education funding continues to be an issue in Colorado. What’s the long-term solution?
In Senate District 8 alone, there are 16 school districts and many more throughout the state. Each one has its own unique strengths and challenges. In our part of Colorado, public education is the heart of our communities. I’ll make sure to protect existing funding for our schools and oppose any attempts by wealthy metro area politicians to cut our school funding. Moving forward, as our economy recovers, we must prioritize our public education system and recognize that Colorado’s long-term success is directly tied to high-quality public schools. I have served on my local school board, and professionally I’ve had the pleasure to work with a number of school districts. That experience allows me to be a strong voice for our local districts, our teachers and our kids in the state Senate.
I’ve been a leader in the bipartisan work to redesign school funding for the past six years. My goal has been to provide equal opportunity to the rural schools that I represent. So fair distribution is my first issue. The much discussed underfunding of K-12 is largely a result of the state share, which comes from the general fund, incrementally growing from 40% to 63% while the local share from property tax declined. That’s over $1 billion more demand on the state budget and is a major cause of our underfunding. There are fixes that I have worked on and proposed, but they would be painful to local taxpayers. The other gross inequity in school funding results from local mill levy overrides that allow local taxation to support local schools. Some districts have large asset values and can pass new taxes and some don’t. Again, we need to fix this distortion. I have supported and will continue to support an extra bump for rural schools to make up for these very difficult complications.
With more state budget reductions likely on the horizon, what’s your approach?
It’s all about renewal and economic rebound. We are ahead of most of the nation, and our August forecast to the Joint Budget Committee beat my expectations for the speed of recovery. Tourism will come back strong next year in our area. Oil and gas will suffer immensely and won’t contribute the property taxes and severance taxes that we have come to depend on. Bottom line, we have to plan for three to five years of very careful prioritization. We cut $3.3 billion from the spending relative to our last full year. About $1.5 billion of that was from reserves and one-time possible cuts. Another $1 billion was from K-12 and higher education. We should be able in the first recovery year to avoid further cuts to education and maintain other programs.
There’s no doubt managing the state budget will be a challenge moving forward. We have to prioritize state funding that protects the safety of our communities, promotes our health, provides for our kids’ education and protects our public lands. When I’m out talking to voters, these are the issues that keep coming up, and as your state senator, they’re the budget priorities I’ll set.
Sen. Bob Rankin, a Republican, is running for reelection in state Senate District 8 against Karl Hanlon, a Democrat.
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Moffat County wrestling sure knows how to bounce back in a big way.