The subject of veterans benefits was the topic that kept coming up for discussion Saturday during a town hall meeting, with local lawmakers tackling the issue after a young veteran asked if someone could address and begin fixing what he described as a broken Veteran Affairs system.
State Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose; state Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango; and U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez, spoke at the meeting, while state Rep. Mark Waller, the House minority leader, was also present and took part in the discussion at the Holiday Inn Express.
Tipton was taking questions when the issue was raised and said he is well aware of the problem, noting that in some areas of rural Colorado, veterans are forced to drive hours over mountain passes and through inclement weather to see a VA doctor.
“One of the best things we can do is have a benefit system that works for our veterans rather than our veterans working for their benefits,” Tipton said after thanking the man for his service.
The topic of veterans services was also brought up by Roberts, who recognized the problem of slow claims processing. She saluted Montrose for taking active measures to address problems for veterans.
“I think Montrose is setting an example of what it means to support veterans,” she said. “But there is a problem. People are waiting six months for a wheelchair — six months for someone who gave up their legs serving in Afghanistan.”
Roberts said the first step in finding a solution is holding the federal government accountable, but also to make sure state and even county governments are doing their part.
Education reform was also discussed during the 80-minute meeting.
Roberts said that SB 213, which recently passed the House, would lead to a $1 billion tax increase for education in Colorado.
The issue that struck deepest for Montrose resident Kay Heinschel was when Roberts said that language in the bill suggests that if school districts don’t have some form of local funding in place, they would not be eligible to receive their portion of the $1 billion tax pool after a period of time.
“I think it comes down to the fact that you have a state government that is going to threaten the taxpayers with an action,” Heinschel said. “I don’t know if that is constitutional or not, but if people are not up in arms over this, they should be.”
Coram said after the meeting that this particular bill might hit rural Colorado the hardest.
“You are looking at an area with one of the highest unemployment rates in the state right now,” he said. “So the chances of a mill levy or sales tax passing in this region would be minimal. That I-25 corridor doesn’t understand Western Colorado.”
Coram said one of his biggest goals of the legislative session, besides answering the questions asked by his constituents, is to make people aware of a renewable energy bill that might have a devastating impact on the West End.
Coram, Roberts and Waller explained that SB 252 would require energy providers to obtain 25 percent of their electricity from renewable resources by 2020. Currently, only 10 percent of the energy is required to be derived from wind, solar or other renewable sources.
“This is going to cost Tri-State $1 billion,” Waller said. “They can’t absorb that. They are going to pass that on to you.”
Coram said that regardless of political affiliation, area residents should be especially concerned, because if the bill passes and Tri-State is forced to cut traditional energy providers, he believes it might choose to cut the coal-fired plant in Nucla.
“I talked about that because of the real impact it will have on Montrose County,” Coram said. “That’s 150 jobs.”
Montrose resident Tom Oliver came to the meeting to become better informed, but left a little discouraged.
“The biggest thing for me was the realization of how all these bills are going to cost the taxpayer,” Oliver said. “A billion here, a billion there, it all adds up. I think it’s going to come to a point were people are going to have to decide if they are going to stay in this state. It’s going to be leave or bite the bullet.”