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Colorado lawmakers launch bipartisan effort to repeal Gallagher Amendment

The vision of an empty fire station in Glenwood Springs keeps Fire Chief Gary Tillotson up nights. Should a fire break out or someone need medical aid, help would have to come from further away — meaning much longer response times when people can least afford them.

The vast majority of the fire department’s calls are for medical emergencies like heart attacks and strokes, Tillotson said — situations in which the chances of death escalate dramatically if responders don’t arrive within five to seven minutes.

But if the department’s $4 million annual budget dwindles any further, that vision of empty fire stations and delayed response times will become a reality.

The coronavirus pandemic has already meant a costly drop in sales tax revenue for the Glenwood Springs Fire Department, and the economic devastation the pandemic is wreaking — combined with a state law called the Gallagher Amendment — means local governments’ property tax revenues will suffer for years to come.

“It’s an insurmountable obstacle,” Tillotson said. “We work on a relatively meager operations budget anyway and with the current devastation to our sales tax, we’re already having to cut back and basically we’re furloughing our firefighters. Any further cuts are going to reduce service.”

Read more via The Denver Post.

Eagle County launches COVID-19 budget trimming discussions

As Eagle County businesses and residents begin their transition from COVID-19 lockdown, county officials know the full financial ramifications of the virus have yet to hit.

But when they do, local officials expect a wallop.

While it is too early to tie down actual numbers, this week the Eagle County Commissioners began talking about priorities. Or, rather, they began talking about how they will determine priorities.

“We are on strong financial footing. We can weather this storm. But we will have to make some hard decisions in 2021 and 2022,” said Eagle County Finance Director Jill Klosterman during a discussion with the commissioners.

Right now, the county has more than $30 million in its general fund reserves. The commissioners dipped into those reserves earlier this spring to fund two resident assistance programs. Reserves can also be used to balance the county budget if expenditures outpace revenues, but that’s not a sustainable solution and it could leave the county in a precarious position if another emergency arises.

The alternative, naturally, is to reduce spending. But the county wants to be thoughtful about how it cuts back.

“Cutting with a scalpel instead of a hatchet is the intent,” Klosterman said.

Morale and integrity

As the county embarks on its budget priorities discussions, personnel decisions will be one of the touchiest subjects. At the same time, it is a subject that’s hard to avoid. As Klosterman noted, 45% of the county’s operating budget goes to salaries and benefits. 

“We want to allow for natural attrition to lead the cuts,” Klosterman said.

Eagle County Manager Jeff Shroll supported Klosterman’s proposed surgical approach to budget cuts, noting that it has taken years for the county to recover from the early retirement and reductions in force that followed the economic downturn in 2008.

“That doesn’t mean we won’t lose folks,” Shroll noted. “But we want to recognize how powerful our organization is and be careful with that integrity.”

The county will begin formulating its post COVID-19 budget priorities in early June during a special retreat. The tentative date for the work session is Monday, June 8.

Key strategies

Even before the retreat begins, the county knows it has some key budget responsibilities including the delivery of core and essential services. But defining what makes a service “core and essential” is another task county leaders will grapple with. 

“We won’t have the luxury of doing core and essential services and some other things,” said Commissioner Kathy Chandler-Henry.

But while the county is busy talking about what to cut from the budget, there may still be some discussion about what to add. Specifically, Commissioner Matt Scherr noted the COVID-19 experience has demonstrated the need to diversify the county’s tourism economy.

“I don’t think we want to recover this economy. We want a different economy over time,” said Scherr. “The landscape has totally shifted and this could be our opportunity, now, to figure out how we can begin to address that.”

Eagle County Special Projects Manager Abby Dallmann noted that post-COVID-19 planning won’t be resolved in a single retreat. It will take years to adapt to the impact, she noted. 

“But we can conclusively say that Eagle County government, as an organization, has been pretty adaptable and responsive to change,” Dallmann said.

With that in mind, Dallmann said determining long-term spending priorities is the first step in the county’s new adaptability challenge.

And as they head into the discussion, county officials know it will be a tough exercise.

“This is a much more pleasant exercise when there are excess funds,” Chandler-Henry said.

Gov. Polis signs executive order allocating $1.674 billion in federal funds for COVID-19 relief

State distribution of $1.674 billion in federal funds from the CARES Act, to support recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crisis it caused, was announced Monday by Gov. Jared Polis who signed an executive order pursuant to coronavirus aid and relief.

CARES funds of $48 million will be transferred to the State’s Disaster Emergency Fund for medical expenses and public health expenses incurred or expected to be incurred for the fiscal year 2019-2020, with $157 million earmarked for FY 2020-21, according to a news release. “This includes amounts expected to be distributed to local public health agencies for COVID-19 response.”

The executive order also authorizes transfers including $500 million to local school districts and “proportionally by student population to the Charter School Institute and the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind and $25,000 to each Board of Cooperative Education Services (BOCES) in the state for a total of $510 million above the Constitutionally required state share of public school finance to increase free instructional hours for our kindergarten through 12th grade education system while complying with COVID-19 public health orders.”

Public institutions of higher education will receive $450 million to “increase student retention and completions, given Colorado’s critical shortage of skilled workforce.”

Polis in the news release said: “My administration is working closely in a bipartisan way with the federal delegation and legislative leadership to do everything in our power to help Coloradans overcome this generational challenge. The steps we are taking now will allow us to increase much needed economic activity in our state.”

Read more via The Denver Post.

President Trump praises Colorado’s coronavirus response in meeting with Gov. Jared Polis

President Donald Trump praised Colorado’s response to the coronavirus, and its Democratic leader, in a meeting at the White House on Wednesday.

“You’re both doing an excellent job, and it’s an honor to have you at the White House,” Trump told Gov. Jared Polis and North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, a Republican who also was invited.

The White House is grappling with a coronavirus outbreak of its own, and Polis said in a Facebook video ahead of his meeting with Trump that he was tested at the White House and came back negative.

Polis, who has been in regular touch with the Trump administration through the coronavirus pandemic, said the president invited him to meet in person, and that he could not turn down that invitation.

Among the other attendees at Wednesday’s meeting in the Cabinet Room were Colorado’s Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner; Jill Hunsaker Ryan, the director of the state health department; Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator; and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a Colorado native.

Read more via The Denver Post.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis to meet with Trump at White House to seek more federal support

Gov. Jared Polis will travel to Washington, D.C., this week to meet with President Donald Trump as part of the governor’s continued efforts to seek federal support for Colorado’s pandemic response — including additional testing supplies and personal protective equipment, a spokeswoman said.

Polis is scheduled to meet with Trump on Wednesday, said Shelby Wieman, the governor’s deputy press secretary.

“The governor’s first priority is the health and safety of Coloradans, and the federal government is an important partner in Colorado’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Wieman said in a statement Sunday. “Gov. Polis looks forward to a productive conversation.”

Polis’s trip to the White House first was reported by Politico, which noted that Trump also is scheduled to meet with North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum this week.

Colorado’s governor repeatedly has called on the White House for assistance in ramping up the state’s COVID-19 response, and has been critical of the lack of testing capacity. He even accused the Federal Emergency Management Agency of swooping in and buying ventilators his office had been trying to purchase. A FEMA regional director later denied that allegation.

Read more via The Denver Post.

Colorado is the only state without a rainy day fund. Now the coronavirus means it will pay the price.

In early February, the governor’s office and state treasurer issued a warning to lawmakers: Colorado is the only state in the nation without a rainy day fund to buffer against a recession. Now is the time the state should save for a downturn, they said, before it’s too late.

“We all know that the economy, at some point, may turn,” Treasurer Dave Young said at the time. “It usually does. We don’t know when.”

The Feb. 6 presentation to the legislative budget committee made no mention of the coronavirus. But only weeks later, the spread of COVID-19 became a pandemic that crippled the economy and made the premonition about Colorado’s weak fiscal safety net all too real.

“No one could have imagined at that point in February that we were going to be in this kind of economic and health crisis today,” Young said in a recent interview. “It didn’t give us enough time to actually enact the plan and start to carry it out.”

Even if a pandemic is difficult to imagine, the state’s lack of preparation for an economic slump is entirely predictable. The warnings about the state’s limited savings date back at least a decade to the end of the Great Recession, according to a series of interviews and review of legislative documents. 

Read more via The Colorado Sun.

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported news organization dedicated to covering the people, places and policies that matter in Colorado. Read more, sign up for free newsletters and subscribe at coloradosun.com.

Colorado governor slashes state spending, outlaws evictions and keeps ski areas closed in series of late-night orders

In a late-night executive order, Gov. Jared Polis declared Colorado does not have the money “to carry on the functions of the state government” amid the coronavirus and immediately slashed $229 million in spending.

The emergency move to reduce state services — included among a series of other executive orders limiting evictions, boosting the response to coronavirus outbreaks at nursing homes and extending the closures of ski areas — is one of the most significant actions the Democratic governor has taken to address the impact of the coronavirus. And it’s possible more cuts will come from Polis in the weeks ahead.

“The economic disruption associated with (COVID-19) is causing precipitous and significant revenue shortfalls for the state,” the governor’s budget director Lauren Larson wrote in a letter to state lawmakers. “These are challenging times that force difficult financial decisions to maintain a balanced budget.”

When revenues decline so sharply that it will drain half or more of the state’s $814 million reserve fund, Polis is required by law to notify lawmakers and develop a plan to reduce the $30.5 billion budget. 

The governor’s office made the order public after 9:30 p.m. and did not respond to repeated messages from The Colorado Sun seeking explanation. In the letter to lawmakers, Larson said the administration did not rely on “broad across-the-board cuts but rather specific line item reductions that can be made with the least possible impact to state programs and services.”

Read more via The Colorado Sun.

Colorado’s Democratic race for U.S. Senate is essentially set. It’s Romanoff vs. Hickenlooper.

The primary ballot is all-but official: It’s a two-man race for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate in Colorado.

John Hickenlooper, the two-term former governor, and Andrew Romanoff, the former state House speaker, will compete in June for the chance to challenge Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner in one of the nation’s most-watched November contests.

The intraparty battle pits the national Democratic establishment behind Hickenlooper against more progressive forces that back Romanoff, not unlike the dynamic that shaped the party’s presidential race. 

The long-foreshadowed duel was poised to test support for liberal litmus test issues, including the Green New Deal and “Medicare for All,” but now may become obscured by the coronavirus pandemic.

Read more via The Colorado Sun.

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported news organization dedicated to covering the people, places and policies that matter in Colorado. Read more, sign up for free newsletters and subscribe at coloradosun.com.

Bernie Sanders drops 2020 bid, leaving Biden as likely Democratic nominee

Sen. Bernie Sanders, who saw his once strong lead in the Democratic primary evaporate as the party’s establishment lined swiftly up behind rival Joe Biden, ended his presidential bid on Wednesday, an acknowledgment that the former vice president is too far ahead for him to have any reasonable hope of catching up.

The Vermont senator’s announcement makes Biden the presumptive Democratic nominee to challenge President Donald Trump in November.

Sanders plans to talk to his supporters later Wednesday.

Sanders initially exceeded sky-high expectations about his ability to recreate the magic of his 2016 presidential bid, and even overcame a heart attack last October on the campaign trail. But he found himself unable to convert unwavering support from progressives into a viable path to the nomination amid “electability” fears fueled by questions about whether his democratic socialist ideology would be palatable to general election voters.

The 78-year-old senator began his latest White House bid facing questions about whether he could win back the supporters who chose him four years ago as an insurgent alternative to the party establishment’s choice, Hillary Clinton. Despite winning 22 states in 2016, there were no guarantees he’d be a major presidential contender this cycle, especially as the race’s oldest candidate.

Sanders, though, used strong polling and solid fundraising — collected almost entirely from small donations made online — to more than quiet early doubters. Like the first time, he attracted widespread support from young voters and was able to make new inroads within the Hispanic community, even as his appeal with African Americans remained small.

Eagle voters resoundingly pass home rule, also pass keeping tobacco tax money

Eagle voters said loud and clear that they want to control their town government through home rule in Tuesday’s municipal election. Voters also supported keeping their town’s share of the county’s tobacco tax.

The turnout was substantial for a municipal election with 1,365 returned ballots.

Eagle voters, by a margin of 929-372, approved keeping a projected $600,000 in annual tobacco tax revenue in Eagle, instead of letting the county government have it. Countywide voters passed a $4 tobacco tax on packs of cigarettes and 40% on all other tobacco taxes.

When the final tally of mail-in ballots was counted just after midnight Tuesday, Eagle voters also resoundingly approved going to home rule, 993-372. The town’s new home rule charter maintains the town board composition of six members elected at large and a mayor, and it changes the name to the town council.

Voters elected three town council members: incumbent Mike “Pappy” Kerst and newcomers Adam Palmer and Ellen Bodenhemier.

Scott Turnipseed ran unopposed for mayor. The town council will fill his seat for the fourth new town council member.

“I agree with everyone I’ve spoken with in our community who have said that this is a solid field of strong candidates and there’s really no ‘wrong’ answer,” Palmer said. “This election will bring some new blood to the board and I’m confident we’ll be in good hands.”

Kerst, the only incumbent in the town board field, called it the COVID Campaign. He returned from a trip in time to campaign and knock on doors around Eagle, but quarantine and social distancing nixed those plans. Instead, he strolled around town and talked to people from a respectable distance.

COVID and local businesses were on people’s minds, Kerst said.

“The question I was most often asked was, ‘How can we help these businesses?’” Kerst said.

Bodenhemier said she’s grateful for the opportunity.

“It is with deep gratitude that I thank my friends and neighbors for supporting me with a vote to successfully pursue the role of trustee in Eagle. I am humbled to be given this opportunity. I will fill the responsibility with integrity, resilience and perseverance, always keeping the best interest of our town in my head and heart. Thank you Eagle,” Bodenhemier said.

“Win or lose, it’s been a great experience,” Kyle Hoiland said. “For those that were not elected, good job on making the effort to lead this town. There are still plenty of opportunities to be a part of the town and make a difference. I hope we all continue to make that effort. For those who were elected, congratulations. Now the work begins.”