Rural economies need special attention, Sen. Don Coram said, especially if state revenue plunges in the wake of declining oil and gas industries.
Coram carried or supported 40 bills in the Colorado Senate this past legislative session and is crafting more for the upcoming session that are aimed at teacher retention, providing funding for entrepreneurs and protecting the lifeblood of the Western Slope, water.
Coram said he is working on creating more stable funding for the implementation of the Colorado Water Plan, a statewide roadmap to conserve 400,000 acre-feet of water per year by 2050, by which time Colorado’s population is expected to swell by millions.
“There really isn’t any sustainable funding right now,” Coram said. “We’re looking at several options. There’s nothing off the table. We can’t rely on severance tax and that’s where we’re at right now.”
Severance taxes come from natural resource extraction, such as oil and gas. The extraction industry is entering a slowdown, with 6,000 permits waiting in the wings, plus there have been layoffs, Coram said. Less extraction means less severance tax, and it could also increase fuel prices for critical sectors such as agriculture, he said.
Additionally, millions in severance tax has been shunted to the state’s general fund over the years, Coram also said.
“We’ll do something to try to recoup some of that into water projects,” Coram said.
In a few years, state finances might not be as rosy as they are now. “The economy’s been pretty strong, but there’s some indicators out there that people are telling me it certainly could slow down,” the Montrose Republican said.
Work this past session to help rural entrepreneurs stalled when the calendar ran out on Senate Bill 67, the
Rural Development Grant Program Creation Act, which Coram introduced with Reps. Barbara McLachlan and Jeni James Arndt.
It would have created a grant program to provide funding to entrepreneurs who are primary employers in rural areas, with potential to export goods or services elsewhere. The money could be used for developing prototypes, proof of business concepts or proof of business models. Recipients have to provide a match of at least a third of the grant amount they seek.
“If an entrepreneur that has great ideas but doesn’t have the resources to build a prototype, they could get up to $150,000 if they got $50,000 in seed money themselves. It’s basically to help get them started,” Coram said. “There will be some who do it well and others that don’t make it. It’s just kind of a jump start for rural Colorado.”
Coram said he’s confident the bill will pass when it is reintroduced next session — and the new version would make more money available, after the Joint Budget Committee’s projected $5 million could be in play.
“The March (budget) projections came in and they thought they would be $250 million short, so they didn’t fund it, but then we ended up with a $570 million surplus. Had they not panicked, it would probably have been funded this year,” Coram said.
Helping the West End repurpose Tri-State Generation and Transmission’s power plant for possible biomass power generation remains on his agenda, too.
“We’re just trying to create jobs,” Coram said.
Coram backed the successful Senate Bill 9, which amended existing law to provide more stipends to those who agree to teach in rural areas.
The bill, whose primary sponsors were Sen. Nancy Todd, McLachlan and Rep. J. Wilson, boosted to $4,000 the department of education stipends available to teachers who agree to teach in a rural school or district.
For educators in rural schools and districts who are seeking certain certifications, the bill also eliminated the cap on the number of stipends that could be awarded, which formerly was 60.
“It’s an incentive to keep teachers in rural Colorado. The only tool we have now is (the dating site) Farmers Only.com. If we don’t get them married off, they don’t stay,” Coram joked, concerning the lack of incentives for teacher retention.
The senator continues legislative efforts to increase school safety.
“The softest target around is probably the school bus itself. We’re looking at the situation, coming up with school safety on buses,” Coram said.
The legislative clock ran out on his efforts this past session, but Coram plans to again take up technology to boost bus safety. The legislation would support “smart bus” technology, which includes an app through with parents can check when and if their children get on and off their buses, plus enhanced communication capabilities, similar to those of an airliner.
“We will know where the bus is at all times, if it is stopped, if it is idling, if it’s off course. … It’s using the new technology of the First Net situation the government is coming up with to replace 911. You can overload 911. It can also be used as a great tool for a community in (emergency) situations,” Coram said.
He wasn’t necessarily fond of all bills he backed and even dropped his sponsorship of one that allowed kids as young as 12 to seek counseling services without parents ever being informed. Coram offered amendments to allow that kind of privacy only in such situations as incest and abuse, but could not get the votes to advance the amendments.
“All this works best when you have parental involvement and I think 12 is too young,” he said.
Coram also defended his backing of a controversial sexual education bill that had hundreds of citizens pouring into the Capitol for testimony earlier this year. House Bill 1032 “was a horrendous bill as written,” Coram said; by joining on, he said, he and others were able to have several pages of the initial legislation stricken.
HB 1032 reiterates that a school district where sex ed is taught must teach medically accurate information, he said.
“No district is required to teach it and no parent in a district that does teach it is required to have a child in that class. It basically became a grant program for people who wanted to do it,” Coram said.
The bill bars instruction that endorses particular religious ideology or doctrines, but the final version encourages students to discuss their personal religious values, while still precluding teachers from participating in such discussions.
The legislation drew fire because of its language including the experiences of LGBTQ people and related issues. Coram in January said the law does not mean school districts are required to teach children homosexual activity.
“That was a very, very controversial bill that took a lot of holding the cards close to my vest, because I couldn’t come out with my game plan of what I had in mind,” Coram said Friday.
“I don’t marry a bill. I do what I think is best.”
Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.