DENVER — If Tuesday’s Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce business roundtable is an indicator of the tenor of the upcoming legislative session, Coloradans can expect another year of partisan quarrelling over familiar issues such as transportation funding and paid medical leave.
The event, held in Denver and moderated by the Denver Business Journal’s Ed Sealover, brought together a quartet of state lawmakers representing both sides of the aisle to preview business-focused issues and priorities for the 120-day General Assembly session set to kick off Wednesday. Speaker of the House KC Becker (D-Boulder), Senate President Leroy Garcia (D-Pueblo), Senate Assistant Minority Leader John Cooke (R-Greeley) and House Minority Leader Patrick Neville (R-Castle Rock) participated in the chamber’s seventh annual roundtable.
Here are where the elected leaders stand on some of the issues facing businesses in 2020:
Both Democrats, who hold majorities in both chambers, and Republicans agree that Colorado’s transportation network needs to be improved. They differ on how improvement projects should be paid. The ballot box failure of Proposition CC, which would have allowed the state to keep tax revenue collected in excess of inflation and population growth to be used in part for transportation projects, sets up a likely clash during the 2020 General Assembly session.
Recent transportation projects have been paid for with money from Colorado’s general fund, but that won’t cut it anymore, Becker said. “We need new sources of revenue.”
That revenue has to come from somewhere, and Becker suggested one source could be increased gas taxes.
Republicans disagreed, and Neville argued that raising the gas tax will serve to exacerbate cost of living increases.
Paid medical leave
Every year for the better part of a decade, Colorado lawmakers have debated bills that would establish a statewide family medical leave program that would guarantee pay for workers who miss work. Democrats typically support a state-run option, while Republicans — and many business advocacy groups — favor a private model that incentivizes business owners to offer their own leave packages to employees.
Becker said the issue is likely to arise again this year, and lawmakers would be well served to be a bit more flexible than in years past.
“I’m not tied to whether it would be a private insurance model or a social insurance model,” she said. “I care most about what the benefits are and whether those benefits are sustainable.”
Cooke said Republicans have “zero interest in bringing back” a bill that would establish a state-run medical leave program.
“I think that would be harmful to our business community,” he said.
Workforce development and education
One source of bipartisan agreement Tuesday was the need to ensure Colorado’s workforce is prepared for the jobs of the future.
“We need to continue to work with our community colleges,” Garcia said. “They play a vital role in preparing people for [four-year] college and job placement. We need to work with these programs to make sure they have students ready with job skills and tools.”
On a similar note, Cooke stressed that students need more opportunities to learn skills such as construction or automotive repair.
“We need trades,” he said.
Becker highlighted the need for new revenue sources to pay for education initiatives and tied the issue back to Republican insistence on paying for items such as transportation projects using funds that could otherwise flow toward schools.
If general fund dollars are diverted away from education, Coloradans will have “great roads to drive on to their crappy schools,” she said.
Oil and gas industry regulations
Without the presence of an omnibus oil and gas regulation bill like SB-181, the 2020 legislative session is likely to be a bit quieter for Colorado’s energy industry.
Still, Republicans are vowing to protect oil and gas operations as state and local officials work through the process of establishing rules for how the new regulations are implemented.
“I was just reading an article where an executive of an oil and gas company told the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas that Colorado is now a no-investment state,” Cooke said. A slowdown in drilling activity could have “a devastating effect” on the state’s economy, particularly in areas such as Weld County.
Leaders of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce urged cooperation and bipartisanship following the roundtable.
“We agree on almost everything,” Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce CEO Kelly Brough said. “What we disagree on is how we can accomplish some of these goals.”
Brough also described the chamber’s position on some of the key issues raised by Sealover and the lawmakers.
The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce supports a flexible, “market-based solution” for providing paid medical leave for employees rather than a state-run program, she said. Public health care options shift costs from one payer to another rather than reduce those costs.
The group also favors leaving intact the state’s Labor Peace Act, which allows for workers to unionize but also requires employees to vote on whether the union can collect dues.
The chamber “continues to care about transportation,” Brough said. “We supported Proposition CC, and with it not passing there are limited dollars available for our roads. We are falling behind, and it is affecting our safety and quality of life.” She urged lawmakers to find a solution to the transportation funding stalemate.