The two state lawmakers representing Aspen and Pitkin County say they’ve been doing their homework with respect to the upcoming session of the Colorado General Assembly, which kicks off Friday.
State Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, and state Rep. Julie McCluskie, D-Dillon, hope to advance causes on issues concerning health care, education and climate change. Both chambers of the legislature are now operating under a Democratic majority for the first time in years, and support from newly elected Gov. Jared Polis sets the stage for a session that will be marked by action on progressive causes rather than partisan stalemates.
“Friday is an exciting day because the Senate will be majority Democrat,” said Donovan, who in November was easily re-elected to her Senate District 5 seat. Little was accomplished in the past four years amid the separate party control of the state House and Senate, she suggested, but now things will be different.
“Being in the majority means a different calculus of the types of bills and ideas that you can take on,” said Donovan, who is co-sponsoring a bill that could lead to the creation of state-backed “public option” health insurance plans.
McCluskie will be participating in her first session as a lawmaker after succeeding state Rep. Millie Hamner in House District 61. Hamner was term-limited after serving four two-year terms.
McCluskie, like Donovan, had little trouble disposing of her Republican opponent in the Nov. 6 general election. McCluskie received 63 percent of the vote while Donovan garnered 59 percent in the head-to-head contests against their GOP rivals.
McCluskie, who recently stepped down from her position as a Summit County school district communications specialist to be a full-time legislator, struck a bipartisan tone when speaking about her expectations for the upcoming session. She said she recently completed her legislative orientation sessions and looks forward to working with experienced and novice colleagues on both sides of the political aisle.
“I think we’re all excited to get to work,” McCluskie said. “Something I emphasized throughout my campaign and will continue to emphasize is that to be a part of good government, you need to work for all the people, not just one party or the other. I think it’s critical that as a new legislator, I stay committed to listening and learning.
“While I’m excited that Coloradans have voted in Democrats, I think we will continue to do things the Colorado way,” she said. “Good policy should have input from a diverse group of stakeholders, not just the people who might think the same way you do.”
New lawmakers will be sworn in on Friday while Polis’ ceremony is set for Tuesday. Legislative committee work is expected to begin Monday. McCluskie will serve on the House education, rural affairs and appropriations committees. Donovan will serve as Senate majority whip, while also chairing the agriculture and natural resources committee and sitting on the transportation and energy committee.
McCluskie is co-sponsoring a bill with state Rep. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale, which would allow the creation of special districts for early childhood education. Such districts would manage early childhood education initiatives in communities that have few options for them. The bill does not provide a funding mechanism and should it become law and the districts are realized, voters within a district’s boundaries would need to authorize a way to generate revenue for it, such as a dedicated property tax.
Another bill McCluskie is co-sponsoring with Republican colleague Rankin addresses the high cost of health care premiums. Along the Western Slope, individual premiums are considered to be among the highest in the country. The bill would allow for “reinsurance,” which is insurance for insurers.
The “reinsurance” program would provide funding for the most high-risk cases in health care, while taking them out of general insurance pools. In the 2018 session, a bill to allow “reinsurance” had bipartisan support, but failed due to concerns about funding mechanisms. McCluskie said an estimate by the state Division of Insurance shows that “reinsurance” could lead to a 20 percent decrease in premiums. She said details on the funding mechanism for the program are still being worked out.
“Health care was the most important topic that I heard on the campaign trail,” McCluskie noted.
Donovan also said she would push for legislation that aims to lower health-care costs, including “reinsurance.” She said she and other lawmakers also will be looking at how to bring about more transparency in relation to hospital and pharmaceutical company pricing.
In addition, she said she will be working on a “state-backed public option” for an entirely new health insurance product. A pilot program may be set up over the next few years to study the various issues surrounding such a product before its potentially final implementation.
She and state Rep. Dylan Roberts, D-Steamboat Springs, have companion bills relating to the state-backed health care public option. If implemented, “It would be a lower-cost product and it would create competition in places where there is only a single option in the individual market,” Donovan said.
She said she’s also examining climate-change legislation and how the state, having an economy that is dependent on outdoor recreation, “can thoughtfully impact climate change on a larger scale.” Donovan said she also would continue her efforts in securing broadband infrastructure for rural communities that are lacking in the technology.
Donovan said it’s hard to predict what the big-topic debates between Democrats and the GOP will be during the upcoming session. But she said this year’s flip in the Senate from a Republican to a Democratic majority will enable lawmakers to move forward over the next four years in many areas without much of the gridlock that has stymied legislation in recent years.
“I think having that majority in the Senate does provide the opportunity to fight for the middle class and ensure that everyone in Senate District 5 has an opportunity to succeed,” she said.