Colorado Editorial Roundup
The Gazette, June 11, on funding for Interstate 25 improvements:
Congratulations to El Paso County commissioners, Sens. Cory Gardner and Michael Bennet, U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, Mayor John Suthers, and other politicians and community leaders too numerous to list.
Because of a unified effort to stand up for Colorado Springs and the Pikes Peak region, the Trump administration awarded El Paso County a $65 million grant to help widen the notorious I-25 gap between Monument and Castle Rock. The narrow stretch of I-25 is routinely clogged. When traffic moves at highway speeds, cars are too close for safety.
“As I’ve worked with the Trump Administration over the last several months, my number one priority has been to secure this extremely important opportunity,” Lamborn said in a statement Tuesday. “I will continue working with this Administration to secure federal funding for Colorado’s Fifth Congressional District.”
Gardner and Bennet sent letters urging the U.S. Department of Transportation to approve the grant application, submitted by El Paso County commissioners.
Because of the grant, construction could begin this summer. When completed, the project will improve safety and speed mobility between Denver and Colorado Springs — the state’s two largest metro areas.
A better connection between these economic hubs will benefit people throughout Colorado. It makes the Front Range more enticing for high-end businesses that create good jobs. It means more people will venture to the Pikes Peak region to recreate on holidays and weekends, and more will travel to Denver for concerts, sporting events, and other cultural amenities.
Only two years ago, state transportation officials told the public the permitting process would put improvements to The Gap 10 years into the future. Gov. John Hickenlooper, Suthers, and others declared the proposed time frame unacceptable. President Donald Trump ordered federal agencies to expedite permits for infrastructure projects. County voters chose to invest a collective tax rebate into fixing The Gap.
Great things happen when local, state and national leaders work together toward common and constructive goals. Let’s get busy unclogging the gap and continue working toward advancements that benefit us all.
The Pueblo Chieftain, June 11, on Sen. Cory Gardner and a marijuana pot bill:
Back in February, we took United States Sen. Cory Gardner to task for holding up key appointments to the Department of Justice because of concerns about federal enforcement of marijuana laws. At the time, Gardner was worried that Attorney General Jeff Sessions might be poised to crack down on states that had legalized marijuana, including Colorado.
Gardner later lifted his hold on about 20 Department of Justice appointments after receiving reassurances from the White House that Colorado’s legal marijuana industry would not be targeted for prosecution.
It wasn’t that we disagreed with Gardner’s conviction to fight for states’ rights; it’s just that we disapproved of his chosen tactic in that case. In our February editorial, we suggested a better strategy would be for Gardner to sponsor legislation that somehow would reconcile the conflict between federal law and the laws in states where marijuana has been legalized.
Four months later, that’s exactly what Gardner has done. He and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren are co-sponsoring a bill that would change federal law so that states would be free to set and enforce their own regulations regarding the marijuana industry.
Gardner, a Colorado Republican, and Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, couldn’t be much further apart on the political spectrum. The fact that they’ve come together on this issue suggests their bill may have significant bipartisan support and a decent chance of becoming law. Already, President Donald Trump has indicated that he might support the legislation if it lands on his desk.
We hope that happens. Frankly, for the last few years, the laws governing the sale and use of marijuana products have been a muddled mess. When states began legalizing marijuana for medical and recreational uses during President Barack Obama’s administration, Obama chose to take a hands-off approach.
That was a cop-out on Obama’s part. If he disagreed with the federal ban on marijuana, he should have encouraged his allies in Congress to submit a bill like the one Gardner and Warren are proposing now. Instead, we got years of legal limbo.
Regardless of anyone’s personal feelings about marijuana, the voters of Colorado spoke when they voted to legalize the drug in 2012. Other states have passed similar laws, allowing marijuana for recreational or medicinal use, or both. At this point, enforcing a federal ban on pot in those states would be a logistical and political nightmare.
Gardner and Warren’s bill wouldn’t legalize marijuana on a national level. States that don’t want it would have the choice to ban it. And it’s naive to suggest, as some marijuana opponents have, that black market pot wouldn’t be as big of a problem if states weren’t allowed to legalize the substance. The black market existed before the state legalization movement began and it will continue, the best efforts of law enforcement notwithstanding, into the foreseeable future.
Gardner and Warren’s bill would provide a commonsense solution that recognizes current political and social realities. Let’s hope their congressional colleagues agree.
The Post Independent, June 10, on banning fireworks sales:
Every year that the fire danger builds to extreme, you’ll hear comments to the effect that it’s not a matter of “if” but “when” Garfield County’s turn will come for a big wildfire to break out.
Fortunately, the last time the dreaded combination of low snowpack and persistent dry weather into late spring resulted in conditions similar to what we’re experiencing now, timely rains helped ensure the “when” never really came.
That was 2012. Glenwood Springs did come very close that season when some juveniles playing with sparklers touched off a fire along the riverbank below Glenwood Park, nearly reaching some homes.
Drought conditions persisted in 2013, leading to extra precautionary measures, including a Garfield County ban on fireworks use, as well as sales. That was the same year a lightning-caused fire in late August forced evacuations and burned several hundred acres in the Red Canyon area.
There’s no controlling natural fire starters, namely lightning, of course. But we can control the threat of human-caused fires through reasonable measures, and some personal responsibility when we’re out recreating in high fire danger years.
On Monday, Garfield County commissioners banned the use of fireworks in unincorporated areas of the county until the fire danger subsides. The ban does not extend to sales, as the 2013 measure did.
Already, the tent has been pitched and the American flags have been raised at the Cattle Creek site between Glenwood Springs and Carbondale where a vendor plans to sell all the stuff that’s legal in Colorado when it comes to fireworks. As a reminder, that’s anything that doesn’t leave the ground or explode, such as fountains and sparklers.
But, as that 2012 incident proved, even the legal stuff can be dangerous when the fire danger is as bad as it is now.
Banning both fireworks use and sales is in line with imposing bans on open burning and other fire restrictions, as Garfield and other neighboring counties, as well as the Bureau of Land Management, have done.
The signs are there that we’re potentially in for a long fire season. May 2018 was one of the driest on record in the Roaring Fork Valley and throughout the Western Slope.
On Sunday, Grand Valley firefighters quickly jumped on a fire that started along Interstate 70 east of Parachute, and kept it from spreading.
Though there are some indications based on climate models that Western Colorado and Eastern Utah could see an earlier-than-usual summer monsoon season, these next couple of weeks and into the first part of July are crucial for limiting the potential for human-caused fires.
Please, please, please, don’t be careless with campfires, safety chains, barbecue grills, shooting sports, smoking, fireworks or any means humans wield that can cause a fire to break out. Better yet, just don’t light a flame at all if you don’t absolutely have to.
The Cortez Journal, June 7, on the state public employees’ pension fund:
We didn’t hear any trumpets sounding last week from Denver when Gov. John Hickenlooper signed a bill to rescue the Public Employees’ Retirement Association from its potentially unsustainable financial path.
Indeed, the announcements of the measure to clear the unfunded balance of $50 billion, as cited in the bill, in 30 years were rather guarded.
Perhaps that’s because in February 2010, then-Gov. Bill Ritter signed another set of PERA reforms designed to do exactly the same thing: clear the unfunded balance in 30 years.
So here we are, eight years into those reforms, and things have gotten worse.
In 2009, the funded ratio was nearly 70 percent — meaning the state had about 70 percent of the money it had promised to pay out to state workers, including teachers, judicial workers and Colorado State Patrol troopers. In December 2016, PERA reported that it was just over 56 percent funded, but under Governmental Accounting Standards Board calculations, the figure was 46 percent.
That put Colorado among the worst-performing public pension plans in the nation, and led to a credit downgrade for the state last November from Standard & Poors Global Ratings — from stable to negative.
Plenty has been written about why this all occurred, and how the state failed to properly fund its pension plan. And there have been equal numbers of arguments in the last decade over ways to fix the problem.
But let’s look at just one small group of people impacted by this mess: new teachers, which the state desperately needs to staff its classrooms.
Within two years, they will pay 10 percent of their meager salaries into PERA, while the promise of benefits to them have been reduced and the retirement age raised. Perhaps, some would argue, that puts them more in line with what’s happened in the private sector, where defined benefit plans such as PERA’s have nearly vanished. They’ve been replaced with defined contribution plans that put the burden on the employee to contribute and manage money.
Colorado teachers don’t have that choice, and the Colorado Education Association doesn’t want it because it wouldn’t help stabilize the fund. Teachers can’t opt to pay into Social Security or a 401K plan, or stuff those savings under their mattresses. They must pay into PERA.
Colorado’s average starting teacher salary is $32,980 a year; in the Montezuma-Cortez School District, it is $29,250. Nationally, that figure is $38,617.
Take off state and federal taxes, 10 percent for PERA, a chunk for health care coverage, and there’s not a lot left to cover those bills a new teacher is likely to have: student loan payments, car payments, rent, utilities, food and so on. Plus, they worry about whether PERA will survive until they retire about 40 years from now. Doesn’t make the career field so enticing.
Young teachers, of course, aren’t the only ones footing this bill. About 20 percent of payroll expenses of their employers, taxpayer-funded school districts, go into PERA, leaving less in budgets for classroom spending, raises and other expenses.
Under the latest measure, the state will kick in $225 million a year indefinitely — until PERA is 100 percent funded. Also, cost of living increases will be delayed and reduced, and the retirement age for teachers will rise from 58 to 64.
There are no easy solutions to this quagmire, but it’s a case study of what happens when promises are made (now to some 560,000 Colorado workers) and chronic issues are ignored. We hope the compromises made in this bill will stabilize the fund and allow the state to keep its promises.