By Marianne Goodland
State Capitol Correspondent
On April 14, the General Assembly sent to the governor a bill that could establish a new state agency.
House Bill 1097 contains recommendations from a behavioral health task force, including setting up the behavioral health administration, initially to be housed within the Colorado Department of Human Services (CDHS).
Once the behavioral health administration is up and running, CDHS has until Nov. 1, 2024 to decide if it stays in CDHS or becomes a stand-alone agency. HB 1097 won unanimous support from the state Senate and a 52-8 vote in the House.
The bill’s sponsors are by Rep. Rod Pelton, R-Cheyenne Wells and Rep. Mary Young, D-Greeley.
Before you start asking why Pelton, who is no fan of big government, would sponsor a bill expanding state government, this reporter sat down to ask him that very question.
The bill is the first step to consolidating dozens of programs (and funding) scattered across multiple state agencies, Pelton said. That is not only inefficient, but it also leads to duplication of efforts, he explained.
The programs include those combatting substance abuse, providing behavioral health services and dealing with suicide prevention, among others.
“We have so many duplicative programs and no way of knowing” just where the duplication lies. “There are 75 different programs in 14 different agencies right now,” Pelton said. “This adds efficiency to bring it all into one place, and adds transparency, because all the money will flow through that agency” instead of a myriad of agencies. Duplicate programs can be streamlined, and in the end, it will cut back on administrative costs.
At first glance it may look like growth, Pelton said. But when you create those efficiencies and accountability in one agency, that will put more money into the programs that help people.
Behavioral health has been one of Pelton’s biggest passions as a lawmaker. He said it started out when he was a county commissioner and sat on the Eastern Colorado Services board in Sterling that helps those with intellectual and developmental disabilities. He gained a lot of knowledge from that service, and that fostered a passion for IDD.
But he does not stop there. Pelton is also committed to finding mental health resources for Eastern Plains residents. Rural Colorado has a bigger problem than the Front Range, he said. “We don’t have near enough providers; the turnover is atrocious.” A person comes in for a year, gains some experience and then is gone to the Front Range, he added.
But Pelton said rural Colorado has different pressures, too; ag people do not want their neighbors to see their pickup parked in front of a mental health facility. Self-employed ag people, oil and gas people, “are very proud and private people.” They may suffer from mental health issues until it is too late, he said.
“This isn’t partisan,” Pelton said. Everyone has this issue – Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated — and if he comes to the Capitol to be partisan, it does not help his district. This is one way to shine a spotlight on behavioral health, he said.
The House on April 15 wrapped up its work on the 2021-22 state budget, although it was a far more partisan affair than it was in the Senate, which adopted Senate Bill 205 on a 32-1 vote.
The only House Republican to vote in favor of the state budget was Minority Leader Hugh McKean of Loveland. The final vote was 41-23, along mainly party lines.
The House worked on 93 amendments during debate on April 14, adopting a variety of Senate amendments as well as a few of their own, including an amendment to put $500,000 in general fund dollars — that’s revenue from individual and corporate incomes taxes and state sales taxes — into the reintroduction of gray wolves west of the Continental Divide. While Proposition 114 passed last November largely with the support of Front Range voters, it left funding the initiative up to the General Assembly. That is estimated to cost $811,400 in the first two years of the program, beginning in 2021-22.
The budget now heads back to the Joint Budget Committee, which will resolve the differences between the House and Senate versions, beginning the week of April 26.
A bill to boost support for Colorado Proud, the state marketing effort that promotes Colorado agriculture, will get its first hearing this week in the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. Pelton is one of the House sponsors of Senate Bill 203, which is included in the Colorado Recovery Plan, a package of about three dozen bills that will spend $800 million in higher-than-expected revenues from the 2019 tax year.
Under SB 203, the Department of Ag will receive an additional $2.5 million for the existing program.
Finally, the bill setting up reparations for farmers and ranchers who were deprived of tax credits for conservation easements cleared a major hurdle this week. Senate Bill 33 won a unanimous vote from the Senate Finance Committee on April 14.
Between 2000 and 2013, about 4,000 easements were approved, but state tax credits were denied by the Department of Revenue for about 800 easements, which has caused financial heartache for those landowners. In 2014, lawmakers took the program out of the hands of the revenue department and placed it under a new Division of Conservation Easements within the Department of Regulatory Agencies.
The division has available about $45 million per year to award in tax credits, and that is where the funding for reparations will come from.
Under an amendment approved by the finance committee, $15 million per year for the next two years, and $10 million per year in the third year, will jump-start payments to those with tax credit claims.
That is far short of the total amount of reparations, which were estimated at $145 million in 2020. To cover the rest, any leftover tax credits in any given year would also go to reparations.
For example, if the division awards $15 million in tax credits, that would leave $30 million available. Under the amendment, $15 million would go to landowners during the first two years, leaving another $15 million for more reparations. The tax credits will be available until all claims have been satisfied, according to the amended bill, which now heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Sonnenberg said after the hearing he is looking forward to this issue being resolved; he has been working on it for most of his legislative career. The bill also gained a Democratic co-sponsor, which will help it through the Senate: Sen. Faith Winter, D-Westminster, who said during the April 14 committee hearing that “it’s appropriate to me to settle this once and for all.”
The scandal-plagued program has been unable to award all its available tax credits for the past six years, largely due to years of negative publicity surrounding the denied tax credits.
SB 33 is backed by the 2019 working group that came up with the reparations solution.