This was a significant area of concern even before the nationwide financial crisis became apparent in the fall of 2008, and it remains my most pressing issue. On a fundamental level, we can't adequately address key areas such as education, transportation, the environment, health care and human services without sufficient revenue. Also, many Coloradans faced dire consequences as a result of the recent recession, including the loss of employment and difficulties paying mortgages or other bills. Our economy has shown slow, steady improvement over the past several years, but we still need to keep economic vitality on our front burner in 2014 and beyond.
Job creation and/or retention - a vital component of our economic health - will be one of our most important endeavors in the years to come. Unemployment or underemployment hurts not only the individual and his or her family - it can also cause problems in regional or local economies, because people will in turn need to cut back on spending. The General Assembly formed an interim Joint Select Committee on Job Creation and Economic Growth in late 2008, and I was honored to serve as a committee member. Gov. Bill Ritter signed 18 bills sponsored by committee members into law in 2009. I have personally sponsored a number of "jobs" bills every year that I have been in office, and I plan to continue doing so in 2014 and beyond. Colorado's unemployment rate has decreased substantially since the depths of the recession, but we can continue to improve with strong focus and wise policies.
I've said many times that education is the key to our democracy, since without an educated populace, our form of government simply can't work. It's vitally important for us to provide quality education for all of Colorado's children, starting as early as preschool. Eliminating our current achievement gap is also essential. Top-notch education can lead to excellent future employment opportunities for the students, and will help young Coloradans learn the civic and social values necessary to build the engaged citizenry of tomorrow. In addition, we need the most important part of our education system - our teachers - to do the best job possible. Our improving economy has allowed us to recently put some money back into education budgets that were slashed during the recession, but it will take adequate funding for us to attract and hire the best teachers, make sure classrooms aren't overcrowded, and provide facilities and technological tools that will enhance the learning process. Still, Coloradans rightfully expect strong educational performance, and our General Assembly will continue to make performance a top priority even if our funding rankings are not among national leaders.
While only about 25 percent of Colorado high school graduates will attend a four-year college, we must make sure that public higher education is not priced out of the reach of our lower and middle class students. Also, it would be quite shortsighted to let our institutions of higher education slip even deeper into financial difficulty. Our universities and colleges build the skilled work force and educators of the future. Our research institutions develop the cutting-edge products that our economy will need to compete in the national and global marketplace. Our community colleges and vocational schools train the many other types of professionals we need to offer a full range of services in Colorado. On both personal and societal levels, wise investments in higher education generally lead to favorable long-term returns. The many positive attributes of higher education led us to make Senate Bill 14-001 our first bill of the 2014 session, and we need a consistent focus on higher education for the rest of this session and beyond.
Colorado's natural beauty is one of its strongest calling cards, and we must protect our environment to keep it that way. Our open wilderness areas provide habitat for a tremendous diversity of plant and animal species, and they draw out-of-state visitors who hike, bike, fish, hunt, ski and/or raft in Colorado. We might not have all the answers yet on how climate change could damage our environment, but we've seen studies suggesting that it could impact our already limited supply of water. Many Coloradans hold strong commitments to environmentalism, but work remains to be done when it comes to protecting air and water quality in certain parts of our state. Last but not least, our environment is an economic issue, since many Coloradans work in our numerous businesses that rely on our great outdoors - in industries such as tourism, outdoor gear retail or manufacturing, and providing supplies or services at popular tourist destinations.
We can't afford to underfund transportation infrastructure in Colorado any longer. We still have too many bridges that are rated structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, too many miles of highway lanes in severe states of disrepair, a backlog of roadway projects that would help relieve congestion when completed, and a need for increased mass transit and bike/pedestrian path capacity. Some good things have happened in recent years. Our FASTER transportation and jobs bill has helped us put a dent in our list of substandard bridges. Federal funding and our RAMP program has helped us get other key projects started. While we all see many road projects underway as we travel around Colorado, we still need to craft longer-term solutions to our transportation challenges since our population is growing and we have too much aging infrastructure that is being patched up instead of being renovated.
Health care has been one of the most controversial political issues, both on the state and federal levels, since I was elected in 2008. My goal then was to make sure that all Coloradans under 18 years of age have access to quality, affordable health care. This was largely because proper health care for our children and teens should help minimize future health problems, which can be many times more expensive to solve at a later date than they might be to diagnose and treat while they are still minor problems. Since 2008, the federal government adopted the Affordable Care Act, and our state government authorized Medicaid expansion along with a Health Benefits Exchange. These developments have helped us move forward toward our goal of making sure most Coloradans - minors and adults - have access to health insurance that will cover the most essential health care needs. We obviously have a long way to go before all parties are satisfied, but with thoughtful and detailed conversations, we should be able to continue improving access to the medical care that everyone will need at one time or another.
Colorado has become a national leader in renewable energy production, thanks in part to former Gov. Ritter's leadership through his New Energy Economy effort. We have tremendous solar, wind, geothermal and agricultural (for biofuels) resources, and we can harvest a significant amount of clean energy if we can make the proper investments in infrastructure. We also have institutions such as those on the Colorado Renewable Energy Collaboratory team of CU-Boulder, CSU, Colorado School of Mines and NREL that are performing cutting-edge renewable energy research. Clean energy is certainly an environmental issue, but it's also a major part of our economy, partially because successful renewable energy businesses generate jobs and revenue from selling the fuels or electricity.