Boulder Reporting Lab
Marshall Fire recovery is top of mind for Boulder’s delegation of state lawmakers as it gears up for the 2022 legislative session, which begins on Wednesday.
Before the fire destroyed more than a thousand homes, legislators were working on bills to set new standards for home insurance policies related to fires. They were also drafting bills to ratchet down the emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases, which make wildfires burn hotter and more frequently.
The disaster is another reason to pass these policies, lawmakers said. But the fire is just one of several crises shaping their agenda.
Before entering the Capitol, lawmakers will don masks, again, before gaveling in amid an unprecedented surge in Covid-19 cases. As part of another policy priority, lawmakers hope to increase funding for the state’s behavioral health treatment programs, which have failed to meet new demands brought by two years of isolation, economic insecurity and grief.
The backdrop is a November 2022 election in which Democrats will seek to maintain their control of state government. Some legislators have new constituencies, too, as last year’s legislative redistricting commissions redrew the political maps across the state.
Boulder County’s representatives, all of whom are Democrats, are Judy Amabile of Boulder, Edie Hooton of Boulder, Karen McCormick of Longmont and Tracey Bernett of Louisville.
The county’s two Democratic senators are Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg of Boulder and Sonya Jaquez Lewis of Longmont.
Here’s a look at what’s on their agenda.
Dozens of residents displaced by the 2020 East Troublesome Fire, which tore through Grand County before jumping the divide into Rocky Mountain Park, still haven’t received a full payout from their insurance carriers. Now, hundreds more could be in that same position.
Rep. Amabile said new home insurance policy standards are needed for residents displaced by fires. She said she’s working on a bill to tighten timelines for payouts from carriers and extend benefits for consumers.
Under current Colorado law, insurance policies are required to cover one year of additional living expenses while people rebuild or look for another home. Amabile wants to increase that timeline. Colorado law also requires insurance companies to pay out 30% of the contents of the home at the time a person files an insurance claim for a total loss.
Amabile wants to make it easier for people to receive more of this money upfront without providing a detailed inventory.
Many residents displaced by the Marshall Fire are underinsured, Amabile said. In the next year or so, she said she plans to address the issue of underinsurance in part to make sure policies more accurately cover the value of residents’ properties.
Unfortunately, she said, this year’s insurance reforms won’t provide much relief to people already affected by fires. She said new laws can not apply retroactively to insurance policies people already have.
During a virtual town hall on the Marshall Fire recovery efforts on Sunday, Majority Leader Fenberg said lawmakers plan to look for gaps in financial and technical assistance that the state can help fill in.
And when it comes to rebuilding, Fenberg said lawmakers will use half a billion dollars from the federal American Recovery Plan Act to increase spending on affordable housing. He also wants to discuss policies to help the community build back more resilient to fires, he said. This could include enacting laws requiring fire-resistant construction materials.
Fenberg said he wants to allocate more money to the state’s agency regulating air quality, the Air Pollution Control Division.
“It is not actually sufficiently staffed and resourced to do some of the things we expect from them,” Fenberg told the Colorado Sun last week. “When there’s a disaster, like the Marshall Fire, we expect the government to respond. To be able to do that, we need to invest.”
The Marshall Fire has caused indoor air quality problems for residents moving back into their homes. Ash from the fire is toxic to breathe in.
Fenberg said the agency also needs resources to carry out laws aimed at bringing the state’s northern Front Range back into compliance with federal standards for ozone, a toxic gas formed from sunlight and emissions from automobile tailpipes and oil and gas extraction.
Rep. Hooton said she is planning to write bills that will help Boulder meet its climate goals and be more resilient in the face of disasters like the Marshall Fire.
“Boulder County is burning up as we speak,” Hooton said the day the Marshall Fire tore through the community.
One bill would require the Colorado Energy Office to come up with a roadmap for how to accelerate the adoption of microgrids, which are electrical grids detached from regional electrical infrastructure. Such microgrids can supply electricity generated from wind and solar and help keep the lights on when wind gusts and fires knock out power lines elsewhere on the grid.
Hooton is also planning a bill that would make it harder for Xcel Energy, the region’s power utility, to continue buying electricity from coal-fired power plants to supply its energy mix.
From her seat at the Capitol, Hooton has continued in the city’s decade-long effort to break up with Xcel Energy. In 2020, Boulder residents voted against cutting ties with the electric utility, effectively ending the municipalization effort. But efforts to shift the city’s energy supply to cleaner, renewable sources persist.
Separately, Rep. Bernett has been deep in the weeds of energy policy. She helped pass a law requiring utilities to come up with plans to reduce emissions from buildings that use natural gas heating. Another law she worked on created an “embodied carbon” label for construction materials like cement and asphalt, detailing how much CO2 was produced to create the materials. She said she’ll continue this work, but declined to elaborate on specific policy goals for 2022.
“In terms of addressing the climate crisis, decarbonizing buildings is one of the hardest nuts to crack, and it will take the longest to do,” Bernett said. “I want to work on those hard problems.”
Colorado is facing a shortage of mental health services, which are in high demand due to the psychological and economic toll of the pandemic.
A $450 million payment to the state from the American Rescue Plan Act could help shore up treatment resources, according to Rep. Amabile, who serves on the Behavioral Health Transformational Task Force and will be writing legislation to decide how to spend the money.
To address the workforce shortages, Amabile said she wants to write bills to forgive loans, reform licensure requirements and incentivize internships. She wants to direct money to crisis intervention programs and help communities establish residential drug treatment programs. She said one of the goals is for fewer people with mental health and substance use issues to end up in jail.
Separately, when people sign up for a Covid-19 test or vaccine, the state records demographic information such as age, race and ethnicity. But it doesn’t collect sexual orientation and or many preferred gender identities.
Rep. McCormick said not having this data has made it harder to track vaccine hesitancy and improve outreach to the LGBTQ commiunity during the pandemic.
“We know that better data drives better outcomes,” McCormick said. “We don’t know where the problems are if we don’t start asking questions.”
She said she is working with Out Boulder County on a bill that would direct the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to update its information technology systems to collect this information at various points of contact with health care services.
Other bills to keep an eye on
Predatory Towing. Rep. Hooton hopes to enact new state guidelines for “predatory” towing at mobile home parks. She is also considering changes to state law to make it easier for mobile home owners to form a cooperative and purchase their park.
Student data privacy. Bernett said she wants to write a bill to ensure Colorado’s laws, including privacy protections, are applied to procurement contracts between the school districts and private companies. The bill was already in the works when the website for the Boulder Valley School District went down due to a potential ransomware attack.
Bees. In recent years, beekeepers across the state have been reporting colony loss, said Sen. Jaquez Lewis. She said Colorado is home to more than 950 species of native bees and more than 250 species of native butterflies. To protect the pollinators, she hopes to pass a bill to restrict the purchase of a class of insecticides known as Neonicotinoids, or Neonics, which kill insects pollinators.
End tampon tax. Jaquez Lewis is drafting a sales tax exemption for menstrual and feminine hygiene products. “As a pharmacist, I know there is no sales tax on erectile dysfunction drugs,” Jaquez Lewis wrote in an email. She added, “We can remedy this inequity based upon gender like many other States and Cities have done.”
Horses. McCormick, a veterinarian, is working on a bill that would increase Medicaid reimbursement rates for occupational therapists who use a mental health treatment known as “equestrian therapy,” which uses horses.
Jails. Amabile said she’s working with Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams on a bill to set statewide standards for county jails. She said this issue came up when county sheriffs opposed her bill to require several larger jails to begin reporting on solitary confinement practices starting on Jan. 1.