This content was originally published by the Longmont Observer and is licensed under a Creative Commons license.
How long have you represented a House district eleven?
I have represented District 11 since January 2012. My predecessor Deb Gardiner resigned to run for county commissioner and when she resigned, I was appointed to the seat in January and then I successfully ran my first election in November 2012. I am up for election for my final term this November.
In the session that adjourned last month, what would you say we're your biggest legislative achievements?
I was able to focus on making sure that our foster kids and our kids in the foster care system get their own “fair shake”. We know that not just in Colorado but nationwide, the statistics are against our kids in the foster care system, they are more likely to end up in jail than they are to end up with a high school diploma. We took a huge leap this year in making sure that foster parents have more tools to be able to better take care of kids in foster care, if kids decide to emancipate early out of our foster care system and they need help, they have a route to get back into the system if that's what they want, and if any harm comes to one of our kids in one of our institutions, those incidents are actually investigated by the Department of Human Services. That may sound like a surprise, but our institutions take care of kids up to the age of 21, and a foster child can stay in the system that long, but the Department of Human Services was only investigating cases when the harm was coming to someone 18 years of age or less.
Of those bills, I'd say the one that was incredibly important was the bill that gave foster parents a “bill of rights”. There are so many times when foster parents are put in a situation where they don’t know what they are getting into because they don’t know the foster child’s history. Boulder County has always done a good job with that but we have 64 counties with their own way of doing it and that bill made it consistent across the state so that foster parents can get that information if they want it.
On the mental health system, we're in the middle of an opioid crisis, and I spent all of last summer focused on new solutions to that problem and we passed a package of 5 bipartisan bills to make sure that people can get help when they're ready to accept help. For every 10 people that ask for help, only 1 person actually gets it and part of that is because we don't have enough mental health practitioners out there, and that is mostly due to the how expensive it is to get the proper education. So we've got a system now to provide more scholarships for people who want to pursue these kinds of degrees and they don't end up in crushing debt. We've also cut red tape in our health insurance system so people can access the medication they know is most effective. Health insurance companies were telling them that you've got to try these other 5 things first, and the bill that passed just says, “let's just cut to the chase folks and do it right.”
And the last thing to mention is that a lot of people have been really upset about bills from these freestanding emergency departments that have been popping up. We've seen $1000 bills for people getting splinters removed. We passed a bipartisan transparency bill this year that says as soon you walk into one of those free-standing ERs, unless you need to be stabilized for a medical emergency, you have the right to know about what you're going to pay and then make a choice.
In what form is the transparency?
Patients get a written estimate that says this is the range or this is the highest level that you can expect to pay. And then you can say if you want the services or not.
What would you say are your biggest regrets from this session?
It's a good question, and regret is a pretty loaded word, but I will say I always regret that I don't have more time to work on bills and do more for the issues that I care about and that impact my constituents. I can tell you what my disappointments are: although the Democrats and Republicans in the House took a really strong position on the #metoo movement in saying that harassment does not belong in this building, and we even expelled a member for it - the first time in 100 years - the Republicans in the Senate just wanted to obfuscate the issue and didn’t want to hold their own members to the same level of accountability that Democrats did for infractions that were arguably much worse. There's a real culture and climate of fear at the capital that frankly I wasn’t aware of until this year, but something that younger women and men were unfortunately intimately aware of for years and it was an undercurrent just like in Hollywood and other places, a dirty secret that's now out and my biggest regret is that the Senate didn't take stronger action on it.
Biggest legislative disappointments are the bills that Representative Foote ran over local control of fracking: better disclosure over what happens in our oil and gas operations when there's an accident, making sure that property owners can hold on to their property rights instead of being eminent domained by oil and gas companies when they have mineral rights.
This is what is referred to as forced pooling?
To everyone that sounds like some sort of summer camp prank, so I just call it corporate eminent domain. We weren't able to get any traction on those issues this year.
And would you say that was because of Republican control of the Senate?
Absolutely. The gas industry holds a remarkable political sway especially over Republicans and even some Democrats. Even simple things like, if there's a spill and if you contained it, tell us how much you spilled, what was the cause of the spill so property owners nearby know what you did. This is not rocket science, but simple transparency measures are not getting through our Republican‑controlled Senate right now.
What are your thoughts about the deal the Longmont City Council made to purchase mineral rights within city limits?
I think that was what they've been left with. They've been given the short end of the stick and that was really unfortunate. A home rule city like Longmont should be able to control its destiny whether it's over traffic or heavy industrial operations like fracking. They're basically over a barrel and I wish they could have taken stronger action, so I think that they're doing everything they can within their power knowing that until things change in the state legislature, this is the best they can do.
You are up for reelection in November, what do you think are the most critical issues to voters?
On the state level, as our economy is getter stronger, people still don't have a sense of economic security like they had before the economic crash. We need to stay focused on making sure that people have retirement security, that their kids can afford college, and they have an affordable place to live. On a more local level, I would say the focus is affordable housing, holding fast tracks accountable to a stronger timetable to ensure that we get what be paid for, and making sure that Longmont controls its own destiny over its oil and gas future. These are, I think, the biggest issues that I've been hearing when I started knocking on doors in 2012.
We also want to make sure that higher education is affordable and we have some really good leaders at the state capitol that have already been working on this, so it may not be my bill, but it may be something that I would support. We already have a great program called concurrent enrollment, where high school students can take college level classes, and these are almost free, reducing the amount of loans a college student may have to borrow to get a degree.
What do legislators do during the off season?
For me, right now, I'm focusing on my 3-week old at home, and though we weren't able to get a paid family leave bill passed this session, I'm taking time for myself right now and I feel really fortunate that we can manage that. Being a Colorado legislator pays $30,000 a year, and so it is a challenge. I've worked as an adjunct faculty member at CSU teaching social work classes before. Other times we've just had to really cut the family budget, peanut butter and jelly just turns into jelly sandwiches. I tell people if you've got a good idea for a bill, it's probably time to start in June or July because good ideas that actually pass both chambers, especially strong bipartisan support, rarely happens overnight. That means I'm going to start working on my bills in another few weeks now, I do come down to the Capitol a couple times a week during the interim phase, and then, last but not least, it is an election year and it's my job to get out there and knock on some doors and talk to voters. So, even though we're only in session for 120 days, we are really working the whole year.
Has there been any talk about extending the legislative session?
I'm not sure that we should be a full-time legislature. I like the fact that we get back to our district. Nonetheless, I think when you when go for 120 days straight, it's like you're in this pressure cooker and temperatures just go up as the session comes to an end, and I think you see some decisions get made just to make a decision when it could have been better thought out over a longer period of time. I'd love to see something where maybe we meet for 3 months, take a little bit of time after that, maybe right after we pass the budget, and then come back after being in our districts for a while and say, “OK now that we've passed the budget, we know how much money we have to spend on the bills that are remaining, let's sit down and have thoughtful conversation based on what our constituents told us how they feel about the issues.” The original schedule of January to May was set up when Colorado was mostly an agricultural community, and the majority of lawmakers were farmers, so it made a lot of sense then to meet when it was not in the middle of planting or harvest season. That doesn’t really make sense in our modern age.
Over the last couple years, have there been any changes in the legislative process of what works and what doesn't work?
I'll start with the negative and then the positive. The “Twitterization and Facebookization” of politics, while it's great for constituent interaction as I actually have immediate feedback with folks, which is really exciting and other people can see what you know in a common thread in real time. But I’ve also seen people be completely tone deaf or verbally mistreat each other with name calling and what not, and I think it's unfortunately scaring people away from politics and creating this vicious cycle where people assume that the only people who serve in politics are thugs and scoundrels and unless people participate, the only people who want to participate are those who act like thugs and scoundrels. I would say what's really exciting is that it in Colorado, even though we have a Democratic House and a Republican Senate right now, we saw over 700 bills introduced and the vast majority of them were bipartisan and we are probably going to see several hundred bills signed into law this year. Issues like marijuana or gun controls, these are not easy non-controversial topics, but we find points of commonality. We find ways to work with people who you might disagree with 90% of the time and find that one thing that you fight like hell together instead of against each other and that's one of the inspiring stories I like to tell people is that most of us came there to do the right thing, we just disagree about the right way to do it.
I think the biggest sea change we saw in how we work was in 2013 after the Aurora theater shooting. Republicans marched up and down saying “it's mental health, it's mental health!”, and though Democrats said, well that's not the whole thing but if you meet us halfway, we'll meet you halfway, we ended up passing bills that invested over $10 million dollars into our mental health system in Colorado to create a crisis system where anyone regardless of whether or not they have insurance can walk into a 24-hour center or call a 24-hour hotline and get the help they need.
Where are these crisis centers?
You can go to http://coloradocrisisservices.org/ and you can call someone or find a location. We're working on getting mobile response units created to get help to people who need it. Boulder County has this remarkable program called Edge, in other places it's called a co-responder system, where a social worker is embedded directly with law enforcement and when the call is possibly a mental health issue, the social worker takes the lead, but there may be some law enforcement concerns, so there’s an officer there as well. The program has been around for about 3 years now and we're just getting data back, but we're seeing a decrease in emergency room admissions, which is saving us money in our Medicaid system, and we are also seeing some decrease in people ending up in jail.
Is there anything else you want to add or that you'd like our readers to know?
The key thing I want people to know is that people need to stand up and not wait for our leaders to stand up for us, to take a role in our democracy. Even if can be disheartening to participate in politics, it's amazing what people can do when they show up and they don't give up.
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