Town Hall: Health Care, Fracking, Role of Government

We held our first town hall meeting of the 2012 session on Jan. 14, and I was pleased to have about 50 people spend part of their Saturday morning with me. I started the meeting by asking each attendee to give a brief introduction, and then we went straight into the issues.

Sen. Heath town hall, Jan. 14

Since I was elected in 2008, one of my most fundamental questions as a legislator has been "What is the role of government in our society?" I led off Saturday's discussion with that very question, and noted that there are strong differences between those who believe there should only be a few legitimate core functions of government and those who think the public sector should play a robust role.

But in my opinion, Colorado's public systems are underfunded in a number of areas, and we handed out a pamphlet called "Budget in Brief" so attendees could read key fiscal statistics for themselves. I pointed out that our General Fund budget is only slightly larger for FY 2011-12 than it was in 2000-01, but we've had substantial growth since then - at least 700,000 more people, 100,000 more K-12 students and 225,000 more Medicaid recipients.

As a result of flat revenues relative to steady growth, many of our programs and services have suffered. I spoke briefly about my reasoning behind running Proposition 103 in 2011, and it was largely because we've made recent cuts to our K-12 budget while state support for colleges and universities has dwindled. But education is by no means our only problem, and our first guest speaker talked about health care in Colorado.

Pete Leibig, President and CEO of Clinica Family Health Services, spoke about the numerous modern accomplishments of an organization that has grown from very humble beginnings in the 1970s. Clinica now handles about 200,000 visits per year from about 40,000 unique individuals, the majority of whom are uninsured. Clinica will also deliver 1,500 babies or more per year.

He also mentioned some troubling Colorado health care statistics. About 829,000 Coloradans are completely uninsured, with another 670,000 underinsured. About 615,000 are enrolled in Medicaid, with another 72,000 on the Children's Health Insurance Program. Add in the Coloradans on Medicare, and about 57 percent of our residents are either on some form of public coverage, uninsured or underinsured.

Clinica can help the poor and uninsured by providing a wide array of direct services, but it also helps manage the overall cost of health care by emphasizing preventative strategies. For example, it provides vaccinations, helps people manage longer-term conditions such as diabetes, and helps mothers prevent delivering underweight babies through prenatal care programs.

"We've done a lot to manage the cost of health care in this state," said Leibig.

Our next speaker was Elise Jones, Executive Director of the Colorado Environmental Coalition, who spoke about a very current concern - hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." According to Jones, the practices of fracking and horizontal drilling have opened access to sources of natural gas, including Niobrara Formation deposits in eastern Colorado and neighboring states. However, current exploration has taken place near populated areas, and the press has covered recent controversies about it in Longmont, Erie and Aurora.

Jones said certain chemicals found in some types of fracking fluid are known neurotoxins or possible carcinogens, although they make up small percentages of the total amounts of fluid used in fracking. She said chemicals typically used in fracking have been found in well water in Pavillion, Wyoming, and that fracking fluid typically resurfaces and can contaminate surface areas. She noted that fracking requires tremendous amounts of water in general, while another meeting attendee said workers at fracking sites can be exposed to toxins while on the job.

While Jones did not suggest that fracking could be banned, she did speak of possible precautions for future operations. She said adequate setback distances could be required between operations and homes; "green" fracking fluids could be required; groundwater testing could be enhanced; and "tracer" elements could be required so regulators could tell where contamination came from.

Jones' presentation served as another reminder of the challenges in dealing with multifaceted public policy issues. While she pointed out problems associated with fracking, natural gas production is a major part of our economy and Coloradans use gas for heating, cooking and energy generation. As legislators, we're tasked with finding balance on a number of issues that can be as complex as oil and gas exploration, and we continued talking about more of them Saturday.

For example, an attendee asked if we would once again run a bill that would allow in-state college tuition rates for qualifying high school graduates born of undocumented parents. In fact, we are running a tuition bill this year in SB-015, but the bill actually creates a new rate that is higher than in-state but lower than out-of-state. In theory, the new rate could make it easier to pass a bill in the General Assembly, but another meeting attendee said it might influence her to vote against it since it would create an unequal playing field for a class of humans.

We continued by touching on current talks about constitutional and fiscal reform. A number of groups are talking about running a ballot measure in the future that could address provisions such as TABOR, the Gallagher Amendment, Amendment 23 or others that help define our fiscal structure. Our Constitution also helps define proper levels of education funding, and we talked about the recent Denver District Court ruling on the Lobato v. Colorado case that said we don't fund our K-12 finance system in a "thorough and uniform" manner.

We ended the meeting by talking about new bills for 2012. The Senate Democratic Majority is working on its "Colorado Works Jobs Package" of bills designed to help get Coloradans back to work. Personally, I will sponsor SB-058, designed to help bolster future availability of venture capital in Colorado, along with another bill that would direct our Office of Economic Development to create "key industries" strategies to help us enhance business competitiveness. 

All in all, it was a very informative meeting and I was overjoyed with the turnout. Our next meeting will be held Feb. 11 at 10 a.m., in the Boulder City Council Chambers at 1777 Broadway, and I hope to see you there!


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