Soap Box

The shutdown aftermath
02/07/2019

To the editor,

I met a woman from Durango last week whose story said a lot about how the federal shutdown affected the people in District 59.

She was serving hors d’oeuvres at a party. A federal employee with a doctorate degree, she works to support her three boys and disabled husband. This gig, she hoped, would help keep her family together. She was grateful to find someone who would take a chance on hiring her for one day. Or six months. Not many did.

It had been a while since she had a paycheck and, like many others, she was using her savings to stay afloat by simply not shopping. The small businesses she used to frequent in town were hurting, but she needed to keep her purchases minimal. Her boys complained, though they were learning to do without.

She wasn’t alone – her friends from work faced the same dilemma. Even though they had good jobs and some savings, 35 days without pay was taking a toll. They spoke of depression and anxiety. Not knowing when the longest shutdown in history would be over made things worse.

Leaders in Washington re-opened the government Jan. 25, but just until Feb. 15, when it could get shut down again.

Federal employees should receive their well-earned back pay, but federal contractors and the small business owners will not. They all rely on each other. Ironically, because of the shutdown, federal numbers on the effect are not available; most data is anecdotal.

Colorado’s economy lost about $201 million during the shutdown, according to a report. More than 1,000 federal employees applied for unemployment assistance.

Some people told me their government paperwork for requisitions just stopped. The orders and printing necessary to make life after the shutdown flow smoothly won’t happen for a long time. They missed filings for grants and making important deadlines. They are sifting through a backlog of hundreds of emails and phone calls, hoping they don’t miss important messages. The IRS reported 5 million pieces of mail remained unopened; the refunds so many depend on will no doubt be delayed. And who knows for how long?

Gunnison County Commissioner Jonathan Houck said several hundred local employees were furloughed. The Gunnison Times reported an increase in the number of SNAP, or food stamp, recipients as people struggled to feed their families. Food banks in several towns reported serving more and more people every day.

Responsible businesses like Alpine Bank allocated $5 million to lend, interest free, to laid-off federal workers. They almost ran out.

Another federal government employee I spoke with works in forest management. The worst part of the long 35 days, she said, was being unsure of how our prized public lands were being treated without protection; many national parks were vandalized and trash piled up during the shutdown.

“I was watching my money start to disappear,” she said. “It was such a weird feeling that through no fault of your own, you were out of a job.”

That’s no way to treat a hardworking person – let alone the 53,000 federal employees who call Colorado home.

“And now,” she said, “all of a sudden people are using my job as a pawn on the board. And I didn’t even have it the worst. People I know were running out of insulin. I couldn’t even imagine what that would feel like.”

No one she works with, she said, has any faith that federal employees won’t be out of work again next week. Everyone in her office returned, but she doesn’t believe they can handle it again.

The governmental tug-of-war at the federal level had no winners, but plenty of losers: the people. The people who work every day to feed their families and pay their mortgages. The people who are protecting our public lands or, as National Guardsmen, protecting our country. The people who provide airport and border security. The people who live paycheck to paycheck.

“I can’t express how angry I am,” the forester said, “how sad I am.” It’s wrong “to be using employees’ livelihoods as chess pieces for political gain.”

The shutdown may be temporarily over, but the scars will remain for a long time.

– Rep. Barbara McLachlan, D-Durango

The Winter Birds
01/31/2019

At dawn I set out the seeds.
First to arrive are the juncos, purple finches
and chickadees. They scatter and skip
along the rail in excitement, nudging
each other off a particular feeding area.
They are followed by the nuthatches and flickers that
torpedo their way to the corn and sunflower seeds
and quickly depart to the junipers.
The mourning doves, in pairs, flutter down
and peck away, walking nobly along
the banister. Soon other passerines arrive: blackbirds,
grackles, starlings, magpies and pin?on jays.
They are the bullies of the bunch!
They greedily mop up what is left and quickly depart,
leaving not a seed in the snow!

– Burt Baldwin, Ignacio

Trump hypocrisy business as usual
01/31/2019

To the editor,

As this is written, the new Congress is questioning illegal employees that were just fired from Trump properties. One guy that worked for 14 years as an illegal Trump employee said on a newscast interview that during one of his shifts, Donald Trump gave him a $200 tip and told him to take his wife out to dinner. How nice to get one present but no severance pay or real appreciation once the cat is outta the bag, right?

This kind of Trump treatment is not an isolated case. Many years ago, I watched a congressional hearing on C-Span, where a white attorney was representing several women living in Mexico with armed guards while they worked 12-hour shifts at $10 a day ($10 is what Mexican workers still to this day make as minimum wage) and the garments had a famous American rapper getting $600 for each linen shirt. I followed up to see if anything changed for the underpaid women in Mexico and guess what? Nada.

I can only imagine that Trump will be treated a lot differently than the Hollywood set this time around. Hypocrisy is as alive as ever when the rich think they can get away with it.

Just another Trump-a-bumpa-rag-for 1-percenters in the good ole USA.

– Sally Florence, Durango

Addressing our rural interests
01/31/2019

To the editor,

One of the first things I learned when joining the legislature in 2017 was that the two committees I was most passionate to join, Education and Agriculture, met at the same time. Though I chose Education, I passed several bills through Agriculture and kept an eye on what members were doing.

Times have changed. Our leadership decided that enough of our legislators had experience in both areas, and separated the two.

And now I am a member of the House Rural Affairs and Agriculture Committee, joining three Western Slope representatives, including my colleague from the district next door, Rep. Marc Catlin, of Montrose. Our legislative charge is large and important.

We will, of course, be listening to testimony about agricultural concerns, including water, but we’re extending the scope to include rural broadband, job development, housing, wildlife, recreation, health care costs and forest management. We also have the legislative oversight responsibility for the Departments of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

These issues all affect District 59, so I will have an enhanced voice in matters of specific concern to my constituents.

We are just getting started, but from the bills I see on the horizon, these legislative issues will be addressed:

• We will continue protecting our Western Slope water, discussing the drought contingency plan and demand management proposals. We will seek ways to secure funding for the Colorado Water Plan and water storage, and investigate forest health watershed issues.

• After years of neglect and several years of wildfires, our forests are in danger, so we will be looking at bills addressing a healthy watershed, more mitigation and more resources.

Through the interim Wildfire Matters Review Committee, I am presenting a bill to incentivize homeowners on the Wildland-Urban Interface to create buffers, which should help bring down insurance costs and save firefighters’ lives.

• Our committee will discuss rural broadband speeds, easements, accessibility and infrastructure. Better connectivity will help small businesses and economic development. Job creation in rural Colorado is vitally important, and we want to ensure smaller communities have the economic stability they need.

• Health-care costs on the Western Slope are the highest in the nation, so we are looking at ways to lower them, making health care affordable and accessible to everyone. That will include discussions about uncompensated care in rural hospitals and the out-of-network issues that rural patients face.

• Hemp is a growing economic driver in the agricultural world, so several of us are running bills to help its continued success. We are potentially looking at developing markets, clarifying regulations and incentivizing growers. Sen. Don Coram, a hemp grower on the Senate Agriculture Committee, will be of great help in this area.

• The Young Farmers Coalition and other farming groups are crafting legislation to encourage the growth of agriculture in the state, specifically focusing on affordable land and equipment, sustainable markets and healthy food options. We know this will take a bipartisan, intensive effort, and we are ready for the work ahead.

• Another issue I will be addressing is affordable housing for seasonal workers on the Western Slope. Organizations like Colorado Ski Country USA and more have voiced their frustrations. But this issue doesn’t just concern seasonal workers; affordable housing needs to be addressed at a state-wide level.

Together, we will face many more issues, including maintaining public lands and assuring multiple uses, encouraging a robust tourism industry, sage grouse, examining setback issues for the oil and gas industry, revisiting Parks and Wildlife funding, and providing for rural schools.

We need to educate the rest of Colorado about the different needs of our rural communities and make sure we strive to meet them.

As the committee moves forward, I will continue to provide updates as to what bills are coming down the pipeline. Meanwhile, I am happy to finally be able to join a group that is deeply committed to addressing concerns regarding rural values, rural affairs and agriculture.

– Rep. Barbara McLachlan, D-Durango

Searching for straight answers
01/24/2019

To the editor,

Good infrastructure – roads, sidewalks, facilities – is an essential foundation of any great community. And every city has a responsibility to its community members to be transparent, accountable, strategic and forward thinking with its resources. As our City Council considers whether to put another tax measure on the April ballot, I would suggest the following information be provided, preferably in a public forum that is videotaped and shared on Durango’s website. By answering these questions, the Council will get greater buy-in from citizens.

1. How does Durango’s budget compare with other towns of our size? If our budget is higher, explain what additional services we provide that are not covered in other towns’ budgets.

2. Why does our budget not have sufficient funds for infrastructure maintenance? What big ticket items had to be prioritized for funding resulting in this situation?

3. What has been cut from the budget as a means of beginning to address infrastructure needs?

4. If an increase in sales tax is not proposed, or not approved, which City programs and services will be reduced or eliminated to address infrastructure needs?

5. What capital or other significant improvements need to be addressed in the next 10 years and how are we planning for those costs?

Finally, I’d like to recognize the City Council for its service. We all want Durango to be a great place to live, and I appreciate your willingness to engage with us in finding a solution to this budget challenge. Thank you.

– Barbara Noseworthy, Durango