In a series of weekly interviews, I’ll speak with two state lawmakers from El Paso County each Friday about what they think are the most significant happenings at the Capitol, and we’ll also try to get a sense of what Statehouse-watchers can expect to see in the coming days. This week, I spoke to House Majority Leader Amy Stephens, R-Monument, and Rep. Marsha Looper, R-Calhan.
The Gazette: What’s happened this past week that you think is significant and that voters should know?
Rep. Marsha Looper: Well, I think passing the supplemental bills and ensuring that the budget is balanced for the 2010-2011 year is probably one of the more significant things we’ve done this year. And the budget cuts, just to balance this year, were pretty deep. I mean, we’re talking another couple hundred million dollars worth of budget cuts…But at the end of the day, we have a constitutional mandate to balance the budget, so of all the things this week, that was probably the most significant…In Appropriations, we spent three and a half hours in Appropriations, and a great time was spent on protecting the local government dollars, the limited gaming dollars for El Paso County. And the severance tax impact for those counties that have oil and gas production. And when we debated the education bill, it’s my understanding that they took their 1 percent cut across the board like many of the other departments took. And so it may not have been as deep as what originally was planned, but unfortunately they still took a hit. They certainly are going to have some deep ones in the upcoming Long Bill.
The Gazette: What else has been going on this past week? Want to talk about anything else?
Looper: Oh, well, I’ve got a—El Paso County’s home, as you know, to Fort Carson, Peterson and Shriever Air Force Bases, and a couple of bills I’ve been working on—I’ve got a bill that would require the Department of Regulatory Agencies to accept military credentials for state jobs. That’s in committee this week. It’s sitting in Appropriations.
The Gazette: Has it been heard already?
Looper: It’s been hear in the House State, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, and was approved unanimously. So now it’s just sitting in Appropriations because there’s a small fiscal note to the bill, because DORA and the governing boards of the different licensing branches would have to promulgate rules to ensure that those are accepted.
The Gazette: And that would allow service members to use Military ID’s for, what, various different purposes, like driver’s licenses?
Looper: Oh, no. It’s military experience and education, to get a job, to get a Colorado license, like a firefighter. To transition, if they are a doctor at Evans Army Hospital, to transfer their VA medical license to a Colorado license. Currently in Colorado, we only recognize two professions, there are two professions—plumbing and electrical—that accept military licenses and military education for a state license. And so we have a big problem. Twenty percent of the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are unemployed in our country, and a big barrier is being able to transition their experience and their education in (the Department of Defense) to a state license.
The Gazette: Instead of having to go take a bunch more classes when they already know—
Looper: Yeah, two or four years of classes. So that’s pretty significant…My (military childcare bill) passed on (third reading). And Colorado is one of ten states that is eligible, and we’re going to move forward with a pilot program that would allow for off-base daycare for military families. Then the Department Human Services will work with daycare centers in El Paso County to ensure that they’re at the (Department of Defense) standard, and once they get that credentialing from the Department of Human Services, then those daycare centers can open their doors to military children, and then the military stipend, that benefit, will follow those children to the daycare centers. This is one of the biggest issues that our military families have. Many of our service members are making what I believe is just a meager wage. Some of our young men and women who start are E-3’s and E-4’s. They’re just above the poverty level. They can’t afford good daycare. But this allows them to be able to tap into private sector daycare centers, more jobs, more, hopefully more private sector daycare centers, and top-quality care for these service members’ children.
The Gazette: And what’s coming up for next week that you can see that voters should know about or pay attention to?
Looper: I’m working on the conservation easement issue, and currently—we hope to get the draft of that bill out next week. It’s a late bill. It’s pretty big. We’ve got about 600 conservation easements that are in question right now from the Department of Revenue. Property owners are saying they’ve been mistreated badly by the Department of Revenue. The people who purchased the credits are being treated badly. So what I want to do—which has not ever happened before—is move all of those credits out of the Department of Revenue’s hands and move them to the district court, to give those property owners a fair hearing in court, instead of the current—in the current setup, the Department of Revenue has already pretty much judged them guilty. So we’re going to get it out of the Department of Revenue, allow the district courts to hear them. And these district courts are in these property owners’ communities. They know the property owners. They know the credit buyers. And at the end of the day, try to resolve an issue that’s been on Colorado’s books for the last seven to eight years.
The Gazette: Is that a big deal around El Paso County?
Looper: In El Paso County, yes, it is. We have property owners, who have donated their land to the Colorado and federal conservation easement program, who are in limbo. And so the Department of Revenue has questioned the value of that land. Many of their credits are in question right now. And so the people that purchased their tax credits for a tax write-off are now being targeted by the Department of Revenue. And so this is a Colorado program that, it was legislation that was run back in, seven, eight, 19 years ago, that has had a lot of problems with it. And I don’t think property owners and credit buyers should have to be responsible because there were a bunch of holes in a program that didn’t work correctly in the first place. So we want to be able to move forward with moving those claims to the district court, but then also peel off the fees and fines that have already been levied against most of those credits and those property owners, so they have a fair shot at saving their ranches and their credits.
The Gazette: Anything else for next week?
Looper: For next week, let’s see. Oh, yeah, next week, I do, I have my wounded warriors parks bill coming up…I’ve been working with the Division of Wildlife for about three years on wounded warrior bills…Sen. King (R-Colorado Springs) was gracious enough to start it in the Senate for me, since I maxed out on my five bills in the House in December. So Sen. King, since he has Fort Carson in his district, has been just a champion for our service members. That will be coming up next week. And what I hope to do over the next year or couple of years is give the Division of Wildlife the authority to waive fees for every type of recreational opportunity that’s out there for our wounded warriors, and then try to open it up a little bit more for all of our veterans and their caretakers. Hopefully, at the end of my term up here in the House, we’ll have close to eight programs in the Division of Wildlife that are available to our service members without them having to pay for it.