Rurals take a beating

Why are three Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee afraid to let the people of Colorado decide whether they want a half-cent sales-tax hike to fund better roads?

It’s an infuriating development. House Bill 1242 had the votes to pass the full Senate. It was a bipartisan measure representing a hard-fought compromise between Republican Senate President Kevin Grantham and Democratic House Speaker Crisanta Duran that would have let voters have a voice in the debate about transportation funding.

But it didn’t have the votes to get out of committee Tuesday, despite hours of testimony from a diverse set of supporters, including Club 20’s director, Christian Reece, who noted that Mesa County and Boulder County were united on the issue.

Reece pinpointed the fears and frustrations of rural communities: If the state doesn’t come up with a solution on transportation funding soon, the richer and more heavily populated Front Range communities will pass local measures to fund their needs, leaving rural communities out in the cold.

But her plea fell on deaf ears. As the Sentinel’s Charles Ashby noted, a few of the groups who supported the referendum bill noted that three people — Front Range Sens. Owen Hill, Tim Neville and Jack Tate — spoke for millions of Coloradans, denying them a right to speak for themselves.

But with the session quickly winding down, lawmakers must move on to other potential solutions. Attention now turns to Senate Bill 267, another bill with rural impact. It would leverage state-owned buildings to fund transportation bonds and take the state’s hospital provider fee out from under the revenue caps in the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.

The bill, which has bipartisan origins, has teetered on the brink of dissolution, with some lawmakers accusing others of interfering, stonewalling and refusing to negotiate in good faith.

But, as Ashby reported last week, both sides know that without that bill, money that is paid to hospitals across the state to reimburse them for medical costs for patients who have no or limited insurance — as the provider fee is designed to do —would dramatically be reduced, threatening some rural hospitals with closure.

As the budget now stands, it would cut $264 million from the hospital provider fee, which is really a $528 million reduction when matching federal funds are factored in. If the current budget isn’t amended by reclassifying the hospital provider fee, the fate of several small hospitals is in jeopardy.

SB267 would allocate $300 million to road projects in counties with populations of 50,000 or less, direct $400 million to rural and small school districts and send millions more to rural hospitals.

As convoluted as SB267 is, it’s the only thing going that attempts to cover budget shortfalls. We don’t relish using state buildings to secure a $1.35 million bond, but the alternative is letting harm come to rural schools and hospitals.

“History will judge this legislative session with acclaim or with embarrassment based on whether or not they finish the job of saving Colorado hospitals — by coming to consensus on a deal that passes SB 17-267,” said Steven Sumer, president and CEO of the Colorado Hospital Association.

Time is running out. It’s time to put partisanship aside and find a way to move the hospital provider fee out from under TABOR.


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