Session Ends, An Eight-Year Retrospective

 

 

 

EIGHT YEARS IN THE SENATE: A BLINK OF AN EYE

Dear Friends,

The 2016 legislative session adjourned on Wednesday, May 11, and this was my final session due to term limits. It was a bittersweet day, as I remembered with fondness and pride the high points of my time in office, but also felt sadness in seeing it come to an end. I'd like to start this letter by once again saying what a privilege and pleasure it has been to serve as your Senator, and I hope you will indulge me as I go back through some of the significant political events of the past eight years.

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Outgoing Democratic Senators (from left) Michael Johnston, Rollie Heath, Linda Newell, Morgan Carroll, Jessie Ulibarri, Pat Steadman, and Mary Hodge.

I will be writing about my own career today, but please know that I couldn't have accomplished anything here by myself. At the Capitol, we use a common phrase "33-18-1," which means you need at least 33 votes in the House, 18 in the Senate, and the Governor's signature before a bill becomes law. On top of that, many of the ideas for bills or amendments came from you, my constituents. In addition, we have incredible staff throughout the Colorado government that helped greatly with research and other forms of support. 

Of course, there were disappointments - from my point of view, partially because we went through periods of split legislatures. Democrats held majorities in the Senate and House for four of my eight years here, while Republicans had the majority in the House for two years and the Senate majority for two years. This is not meant to criticize Republicans, but only to point out that there are deep philosophical divides between the parties. It's tough to reach a solution when you can't agree on the problem, and, unfortunately, we couldn't reach agreements on many key issues due to this divide.

But let's focus mostly on the positive. So much has happened over the course of eight years that I decided to write to you in three installments, one each day for the next three days. Here goes!

The Economic Crash, and Our Response

I was elected for my first term in the November 2008 election, and at that time, we were in the middle of the worst financial collapse most of us have ever experienced. The so-called Great Recession sent unemployment skyrocketing, wiped out gigantic amounts of net worth, and damaged peoples' confidence in our economic future. This called for action.

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I did lots of business tours to meet Coloradans and learn more about their successes and challenges.

In Colorado, we formed a Joint Select Committee on Job Growth and Economic Development, and I started serving on it before I was sworn in as a Senator. We started by holding public hearings so we could learn what was happening from the people of Colorado, and we heard hours of testimony from all segments of our economy - business, labor, education, traditional and alternative energy, nonprofits, and many more. Committee members then proposed 24 bills for the 2009 session, and 18 of them were signed into law - six of which I sponsored.

The crash made it tougher for businesses to get loans, but a bill I sponsored (SB 09-067) re-established the Colorado Credit Reserve program, which provided credit to qualifying small businesses. We needed jobs badly, so HB 09-1001 established a Job Growth Tax Credit for companies creating at least 20 new jobs in Colorado, or five in rural areas. Many Coloradans needed help just paying monthly bills, so SB 09-178 extended the availability of job-attached unemployment benefits. We also passed bills to complement Gov. Bill Ritter's "New Energy Economy" clean-energy initiative, and to foster job training so more Coloradans could qualify for good jobs once the economy improved.

No single bill or program from 2009 would have lifted us out of the recession, but the topic of getting our economy back on track was foremost on every legislator's mind - and we continued running economic bills in the years to come. Unfortunately, this crash was so severe that Colorado's unemployment rate hit its high point of 8.9 percent in both September and October of 2010, before it finally started turning around.

By 2016, our rate actually dipped below 3 percent for a time, and now stands at 3.1 percent. We've added several hundred thousand jobs since our low point in 2010, and we've attracted major new companies and encouraged existing firms to expand. It took a real team effort to make Colorado one of the most highly regarded states in which to do business today. I'd like to thank Gov. Ritter and Gov. John Hickenlooper, the state Office of Economic Development and International Trade, our private sector (both for-profit and not-for-profit), our colleges and universities, legislators from both parties, and everyone else who played a role. We were in real trouble in 2008, but we joined hands and steered the ship into more favorable waters.

Fiscal Follies

Many of you know I ran for Governor of Colorado in 2002, and even then I realized that our fiscal structure needed a major overhaul. Basically, the combination of the Gallagher Amendment (passed in 1982), the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights (TABOR, 1992), and Amendment 23 (2000) all worked together to create a system of conflicting provisions that we couldn't adjust when needed. All three were Constitutional amendments, so we couldn't even make minor amendments without a statewide vote of the people.

In 2009, I chaired a state Long-Term Fiscal Stability Commission, formed during the recession with a goal of making sure we could weather the inevitable fiscal storms of the future. We held 11 eight-hour sessions, examining our Constitutional structure and our state governmental departments. For me, this process reinforced the notion that some of our departments (for example, Transportation and Education) are severely underfunded, while the more conservative members of the commission suggested we could do a better job funding certain services by cutting back elsewhere. This commission provided a great illustration of the differences between political philosophies.

Sen. Rollie Heath in the State Affairs committee

We heard many challenging bills and resolutions when I chaired the Senate State Affairs Committee.

In 2010, I sponsored a resolution (SJR 10-002) calling for Colorado's first comprehensive tax study in decades. It passed, and the University of Denver completed a study showing that, without change, the state's General Fund might only be able to pay for K-12 education, Medicaid, and corrections within just more than a decade. I also sponsored another resolution (SCR 10-001) which would have called for a limited state Constitutional Commission devoted to fiscal issues. The members were to study the issues and hold a series of statewide public meetings, to help formulate possible Constitutional amendments for statewide ballot measures. Regrettably, this resolution did not get the 2/3 majority vote in the Senate it required to move forward.

During the recession, we didn't have to worry about providing TABOR refunds because state revenues were so far beneath the TABOR cap. But as the economy recovered, it became apparent that we might need to plan for refunds in the years to come, which was frustrating because we were still underfunding transportation, education, health care, mental health, services for the developmentally disabled, and more.

In 2016, state voters will probably have a chance to "de-Bruce," or let the state retain the tax revenue it collected, to better fund key services without raising tax rates. But I still believe we need to seek a more comprehensive fix to a revenue formula that was cobbled together based on political climates of the past, and doesn't work well for us in modern times.

Education Funding Challenges

Education is one of the most fundamental core responsibilities of government, since it's a foundation for the future success of individuals and our society as a whole. But the economic collapse cost our state so much that we couldn't avoid touching education as we cut our budgets. In 2009, the School Finance Act was altered to include what we now call the "negative factor," allowing for significant cuts to our K-12 budgets. Also, higher education in Colorado does not enjoy any funding guarantees or safeguards, so our institutions suffered through years of inadequate state support.

By 2011, I had seen enough. I decided to run a statewide citizen's initiative to better fund public education in Colorado. Proposition 103 would have simply restored the state's sales and income tax rates to what they were in the year 2000, with the money being used to fund K-12 and higher education. Gov. Bill Owens cut the tax rates during better economic times, but thanks to TABOR, we can't restore tax cuts without a vote of the people. Prop. 103 was defeated by about 64-36%, but I felt good about running this campaign because it got Coloradans talking about the consequences of poor education funding.

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We gathered about 142,000 petition signatures for Proposition 103, and had this great rally on the Capitol steps.

We tried again in 2013. First, we passed a major rewrite of the School Finance Act with a bill (SB 13-213) which would have, in part, provided greater funding for school districts with larger percentages of poor families or students for which English is a new language. However, the bill depended on raising taxes through a statewide ballot measure, and Amendment 66 was defeated by about the same proportion as Prop. 103.

The economy was starting to recover, and we boosted education funding to the best of our ability through the yearly budget process. Still, the negative factor has kept us about $830 million per year below full K-12 funding, and state support for higher education remains near last among states in the nation. Our inability to adequately fund education is one of the great disappointments of my time in the General Assembly, but I hope others will carry the torch forward so we can get it right someday.

 

 

EIGHT YEARS IN THE SENATE: PART II

Dear Friends,

Thanks for joining me for Part II of a three-part series about my eight years in the Senate. I've enjoyed going back through the years, and I will miss things like discussing the issues with you at our monthly town hall meetings like the gathering pictured below from the Dairy Center for the Arts! 

Dairy Town Hall

Human Rights for All

The quest for equal human rights regardless of gender, sexual identity, race, ethnicity, or even economic status has been a struggle throughout history, but we made some real advances during my time in the Senate.

In 2012, it appeared as if we might pass a bill legalizing same-sex civil unions in Colorado, but the bill was allowed to die on the calendar in the House near the end of session. Gov. John Hickenlooper called for a special session because this bill and roughly 30 others died on the calendar, but the civil unions bill died in committee during the special session. Next year, we passed a bill (SB 13-011) that established civil unions, and in 2014 the Colorado Supreme Court went one step further - ruling that county clerks in Colorado could issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples who requested them.

Civil Unions demonstration on May 8%2C 2012

A huge crowd supporting civil unions attended this 2012 rally on the Capitol steps.

We tackled a rights issue of great local importance in 2010. Mobile home owners face a special challenge in that they own their homes, but someone else owns the land the home sits on, and it's often a corporation from another state. A group of Boulder-area homeowners approached me and Rep. Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, asking us to run a bill to help protect some of their rights. Before the session, we met with the homeowners and officials with the City of Boulder, and during the session we introduced SB 10-156. It faced resistance, and we didn't get everything that was in the original bill, but in the end we passed legislation protecting the right to peaceably assemble in the mobile home park, updating laws regarding eviction and what happens if the park is sold, and maintaining adequate water and sewer service. We had a wonderful bill signing ceremony in downtown Boulder, and in 2016 a Boulder mobile home owner greeted me and thanked me once again for this bill. She said the legislation had changed the lives of homeowners and the children who lived in the mobile home park, and that the process restored their faith in government.

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Gov. Bill Ritter signs SB 10-156, with Boulderites who worked on the bill behind him.

Until 2013, undocumented high school students had to pay out-of-state tuition in Colorado colleges, even if they had lived in Colorado for years. We changed that by passing the ASSET bill (SB 13-033), which allowed the students to pursue degrees affordably in hopes of living a more productive life, and simultaneously required them to sign an affidavit saying they would seek citizenship. In many cases, out-of-state tuition rates are prohibitive to students who don't come from wealthy families, and during the debate it was pointed out that a number of our neighboring states already allowed in-state tuition rates for undocumented students.

On certain women's issues, we either had to play defense or watch bills be defeated. Republican legislators tried on a number of occasions to chip away at reproductive rights, occasionally through model legislation from the organization Americans United for Life. The legislature was able to defeat these bills in committees controlled by Democrats, and we were at least able to maintain the status quo. Also, we tried several times to re-establish a Pay Equity Commission to try closing wage gaps based on gender or race, but the bills died in committee on partisan lines. Some struggles continue.

Workforce Development

I have a four-year college degree and a Juris Doctor, but the fact remains that many Colorado students will not earn or even pursue a four-year degree. What becomes of them? Through experience, I've found that certain students who don't go to college might lose motivation, or even drop out of high school before graduation. In many ways, they face an "all-or-nothing" situation, where they earn a college degree or wind up working unskilled jobs. I've spent much of my time in the Senate trying to foster an "either-or" choice, where students who don't go to a four-year college could instead gain technical training for middle-skilled jobs and make a good living.

We started with some great bills in 2009, including establishing the ASCENT program through HB 09-1319. ASCENT allows high school students to earn an associate's degree while still enrolled in high school. My companion bill SB 09-285 allowed career and technical education courses to be part of concurrent enrollment programs, where students can take higher education classes while still in high school.

The high point for me was in the 2015 legislative session, where we worked in a bipartisan manner on a bill package known as "Colorado Ready to Work." We passed eight bills from this package, including one allowing qualifying internships and apprenticeships to be part of concurrent enrollment programs, and another bill offering incentives to companies that hire paid interns or apprentices. I have long known that Americans don't use apprenticeships to the same extent as nations such as Germany, which is unfortunate since they provide tremendous hands-on training for direct entry into the workplace. We also passed a bill in 2015 establishing schools where tech-minded students could get applied sciences degrees while enrolled in specialized high schools, known as P-TECH schools.

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Gov. John Hickenlooper signed four bills from the 2015 workforce package at Intertech Plastics in Denver.

The numbers show that we've made great accomplishments in workforce development. More than 30,000 Colorado high school students typically are now involved with some type of dual-enrollment program, and high percentages of them earn jobs shortly after graduation due to their efforts. But perhaps what I'm proudest of is that the programs offer hope and motivation for students who might otherwise give up, earning them a chance to compete and enjoy a higher quality of life in young adulthood.

Investing in a High-Tech Future

We all depend on high-tech advances in areas such as bioscience, computing, communications, and advanced manufacturing. Of course, successful companies in these fields bring economic activity to Colorado along with the advances, and provide good-paying jobs for their employees. With that in mind, I sponsored a number of bills in the interest of a better high-tech economy in Colorado.


In fact, my first bill in the Senate would have provided grants for emerging companies in the clean technology field. However, the state was so broke that we passed a bill (SB 09-031) that created a grant program but provided no funding. We fixed this in 2011 with a bill (SB 11-047) that created a grant mechanism for early-stage clean tech and bioscience companies, with funding based on existing economic activity in related fields. In 2013, HB 13-1001 expanded the idea to additional "advanced industries" sectors, such as aerospace, advanced manufacturing, and information technology.

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From Aerospace Day at the Capitol, where we learn about technological advances that play a big role in Colorado's economy.

Senate District 18 residents might already be aware of the Colorado Renewable Energy Collaboratory, a joint effort between CU-Boulder, CSU, Colorado School of Mines, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratories (NREL). In 2014, we passed a bill (SB 14-011) that extended state funding for the Collaboratory, allowing it to qualify for federal matching funds and continue its invaluable research into cutting-edge renewable energy technology. For an added benefit, having research institutions involved in the Collaboratory provides students with opportunities to learn about or participate in projects that might become part of our energy future.

Once again, the numbers show that our efforts in high-tech have provided results. As of late last year, Colorado had about 135,000 jobs in our advanced industries sector, with average earnings of about $100,000 per year across the board. Our high-tech sector helps attract other industries to Colorado, provides prestigious jobs as well as support positions, and stimulates local economies as employees patronize local businesses.


 

 

EIGHT YEARS IN THE SENATE: PART III

Dear Friends,

Here's the final installment of the three-part series on my eight years in the Senate. We've covered some difficult topics so far, but I'd like to add that we had some fun when we could. This year, the Denver Broncos won the Super Bowl, and hundreds of thousands of people came to downtown Denver to watch a parade and celebrate the victory on the Tuesday after the game. Late in the session, Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. visited the Capitol, and I got to meet a very nice person who helped Denver's defense shut down the opposition.

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We've Seen Fire, and We've Seen Rain

Colorado had more than its fair share of natural disasters during my time in office. In fact, the 2009 Old Stage Road fire began on the day I was sworn in as a Senator, and wind gusts of up to 65 miles per hour helped fan the flames, which eventually destroyed at least four structures and burned more than 1,000 acres. In 2010, the 6,200-acre Fourmile Canyon Fire burned for days, taking 169 homes and leading to at least $217 million in insurance claims.

The Fourmile fire was a devastating event for Boulder County, but the wildfires continued in other parts of the state. The 2012 High Park fire in Larimer County ravaged more than 80,000 acres, while in El Paso County, the Waldo Canyon Fire (2012) and the Black Forest Fire (2013) destroyed hundreds of homes and caused two fatalities.

In September 2013, heavy rains pounded Boulder County and much of the Front Range for roughly four days. This created devastating flood conditions which cost eight people their lives, displaced hundreds from their homes, washed out many miles of roadways, cut off access to and from several communities, destroyed many millions of dollars in residential and commercial property value, affected agriculture and livestock, tore open existing drainage paths for creeks and ditches, and much more. This was a horrific tragedy, one that we will all remember in the decades to come. 

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Surveying flood damage in Lyons with Mayor Julie Van Domelen.

The state government had to play a major role in helping people get back on their feet, providing assistance to fix damage if it was possible to repair, and planning ahead to mitigate future natural disasters. The General Assembly formed interim committees to study wildfire and flooding issues, and we passed a number of bills coming from those committees in the past few years.

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With Mayor Tara Schoedinger at a Fourth of July celebration in Jamestown.

Personally, I deeply valued meeting with our local residents and officials from impacted areas, to learn more precisely what happened and see what communities needed. I attended a number of the town hall meetings that the Town of Lyons held at a church in Longmont, and marveled at the resiliency of the people of Lyons. I also had the chance to go to Jamestown and witness the same spirit there. It was inspiring to me to observe the coming together of the residents of these towns along with the leadership of the mayors, including but not limited to Julie Van Domelen of Lyons, Tara Schoedinger of Jamestown, and Joe Gierlach of Nederland. I wish a future free of major natural disasters to all of us.

Educational Performance

I've been a strong supporter for better education funding for decades, but many Coloradans want assurances of top performance before they'll support sizable funding increases. With that in mind, my colleagues and I have sponsored a number of bills geared towards making sure Colorado students receive the best education possible.

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It's great to know that many Coloradans support education. Here, we're delivering 142,000 petition signatures for Prop. 103 to the Secretary of State's office.

As the title suggests, the READ Act (HB 12-1238) set up a structure to make sure elementary students are on a path to read at grade level by at least the third grade. This is vitally important because at that age, students should ideally move past the "learning to read" stage to "reading to learn." It's truly unfortunate when a student falls behind and stays behind, because those who gain strong reading skills have a better shot at strong accomplishment in most other disciplines.

We've set new performance standards for our institutions of higher education, through bills like SB 11-052. This bill tied state funding to how well each institution met standards set through individualized performance-based contracts.

Colorado Heights International Business Students

With a group of international business students in the Old Supreme Court Chambers.

To understand how K-12 schools are performing, we need some form of evaluation, and in recent years we've seen expansion of standardized testing. However, many students, parents, and teachers have expressed displeasure about the amount of time spent on the tests. As a result, many legislators worked long hours to pass HB 15-1323, a bill that significantly reduced hours of testing, but kept enough evaluation in place so those interested in results can find the numbers. The bill should also free up time during the school year for deeper classroom instruction. This process was a great example of bipartisanship and cooperation between the House and Senate, and in the end I believe we crafted a quality, balanced bill.

Thoughts on the 2016 Session

If you follow Colorado news, you've seen many different wrap-ups of this year's session, and some of them focused on the things we didn't get done. We didn't create a Hospital Provider Fee enterprise fund, which would have freed up resources for transportation and education. We didn't pass a bill to establish a Presidential primary election, despite some real dissatisfaction with the 2016 caucuses across the state. We didn't amend state law on construction defect litigation, which some people believe would stimulate condominium construction in Colorado.

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The Capitol press corps met with me and Senate Minority Leader Lucia Guzman to talk about the 2016 session on the day after it ended.

But by the time Gov. Hickenlooper reaches his bill signing deadline, we will have passed perhaps 350-400 bills this year. While many of them weren't of the same big-picture significance as those mentioned in the previous paragraph, they will still provide value to targeted segments of the Colorado population. For example, we passed several bills to address our very real problem of affordable housing (HBs 16-1006, 16-1465, and 16-1467). Sen. Linda Newell and other legislators took our state's relatively high suicide rate to heart and carried SB 16-147, designed to establish a state Suicide Prevention Plan, in the interest of encouraging people to seek help and decide against taking their own lives. We will know more about the effectiveness of our existing tax credits and exemptions, as a result of a study authorized in SB 16-203. And our Joint Budget Committee crafted a good yearly budget that prevented the cuts to education we expected at the start of the year.

When you have split legislative chambers, it's very tough to pass bills with partisan leanings. I will say again that this is because of how vastly differently each party views the role of government. But over the past two years, we have found ways to work together and find common solutions to issues that weren't heavily politically charged. This is partially because Senate Democratic and Senate Republican leadership met together almost weekly over the past two sessions. The conversations were productive, and they kept us on a course to pass what we could and get our work done within our allotted 120-day sessions.

Moving Forward

There has been some talk that Gov. Hickenlooper might call a special legislative session in the weeks to come, possibly to tackle issues such as the Hospital Provider Fee and construction defect litigation. This is by no means a done deal, but I will send out notification if it happens - and you can be sure the media will publicize it as well.

I will remain your Senator until my successor is sworn in, when the 2017 session convenes in early January. However, unless there is a special session I can no longer introduce new legislation. As always, feel free to e-mail me or call the office if you have questions or concerns - rollie.heath.senate@state.co.us or (303) 866-4872. Office staffing will be limited during the summer and fall.

While my career as a Senator is rapidly drawing to a close, I plan to stay involved in other ways. I will certainly be active in many roles leading up to the 2016 elections. Those who care about our future hopefully will do the same, since the political world is similar to other pursuits in that you can't win if you don't play! We will see some incredibly important races and issues on the 2016 ballot, and I encourage you to learn as much as you can and work for what you believe in.

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Speaker of the House Dickey Lee Hullinghorst started in the legislature the same year I did, and now we're both term-limited. She's done an amazing job, and it's been a true pleasure to work with her.

In conclusion, let me re-emphasize what a joy it has been to serve, and acknowledge that I've had plenty of help along the way. I've been the luckiest man alive to have the love and support of my wife, Josie Heath - who is, as many of you know, a constant source of inspiration - and the support of the rest of my family. Also, I offer special thanks to my assistant Richard Valenty, who has been with me through all eight sessions and worked behind the scenes to keep my hectic life on track. I hope we will see each other in the future, and let's continue making our great state of Colorado even greater!

All the best,

Senator Rollie Heath    

 

 

 

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