State legislators to talk healthcare, transportation and more | VailDaily.com

State legislators to talk healthcare, transportation and more

EAGLE COUNTY — The Colorado Legislature begins its annual 120-day session this week, and the people representing Eagle County know they have work to do.

Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush, a Democrat who represents Eagle and Routt counties in the Colorado House of Representatives, is back for a second year with a bill that would require drivers to have "adequate traction equipment when driving the Interstate 70 mountain corridor."

"This proposed bill does not establish checkpoints," Mitsch Bush, adding that the bill clarifies motorists' responsibilities and requires that the Colorado Department of Transportation provide public education and proper signage.

While the department this winter has started informing motorists of when chain laws or other traction rules are in effect, Mitsch Bush said the result has been confusing for many motorists.

"With this bill, if it's snowy, icy and snowpacked between Morrison and Dotsero, you have to (have proper equipment)," she said.

The first iteration of the bill passed the house in the 2015 session, but it failed in the Colorado Senate due in large part to opposition from Grand County Republican Randy Baumgardner.

Mitsch Bush and Carbondale Republican Bob Rankin are again co-sponsoring the bill in the House.

For this session, the bill has been forwarded to the legislature by the Transportation Legislation Review Committee. Whether that recommendation helps the bill pass is anyone's guess, Mitsch Bush said.

Eagle County Democrat Kerry Donovan is sponsoring the bill in the Colorado Senate. Donovan said she's looking forward to working on the bill with Mitsch Bush and other legislators.

"We'll give a full effort on that," Donovan said. "People need to understand how important this is — it's more than just getting people to the resorts, it's about workers getting to their jobs. I hope my colleagues will be able to get on board and support it."

Vail Town Manager Stan Zemler said he expects town officials will be asked for their input on the bill as the legislative session moves along.

Helping the high country

Zemler said the town has plenty of statewide and regional help in tracking the hundreds of bills introduced each session — around 600 bills were proposed in 2015. That help comes from the statewide Colorado Municipal League, the Colorado Association of Ski Towns and the I-70 Coalition, a consortium of town and country governments and private-sector partners along the highway's mountain corridor.

While majority of bills die in committee, Zemler said he's aware of a couple of legislative efforts that are worth watching.

The legislature last year passed a bill that changes the way "tax increment financing works." That system — used to help finance public improvements in Lionshead Village over the past several years — uses property taxes from new buildings to pay for public improvements.

Another idea is to try to free up more money for transportation projects. But, Zemler said, that idea will try to work around a state constitutional amendment called the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, which limits governmental tax and spending authority.

In addition to Eagle County, Donovan's district also includes Pitkin, Lake, Gunnison, Delta, Hinsdale and Chaffee counties. While that district includes the state's premier ski areas, it also includes a lot of agricultural and mining country. With that economic diversity, Donovan said she's happy to be on the Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee.

With some of the district's economically hard-hit areas in mind, Donovan said she'll introduce a bill to help counties that suffer heavy layoffs. One of those areas is Somerset, where the closure of a large coal mine resulted in the loss of 300 jobs.

To help, Donovan is sponsoring a bill that provides expanded economic-development grants and other assistance to those areas.

Closer to home, Donovan said she's working with the Eagle County Commissioners to find a way to bring more affordable health insurance to resort counties. Under the federal Affordable Care Act, mountain counties are now listed as some of the highest-cost areas in the country for health insurance.

Budget battles

But, Mitsch Bush said, the biggest challenge facing the legislature this year is the budget. Due to the details of the Taxpayer Bill of Rights amendment, state government during times of economic growth has to refund money to taxpayers if state revenues exceed predetermined levels. Mitsch Bush said that means the state government this year will have to issue refunds — the average is about $16. Those refunds will force cuts to higher education and Medicaid funding, she said. Legislators are working on a fix, but are, as you'd expect, split largely down party lines on solutions.

It's not all heavy lifting in Denver, though. Donovan said this year she's working on a bill that would allow hunters to wear blaze pink in addition to the usual blaze orange.

"The only part of the hunting business that's growing is women hunters," Donovan said. "We've proven that blaze pink is just as visible as blaze orange at sunrise and sunset, so why not have that option?" she said.

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, smiller@vaildaily.com or @scottnmiller.