Addressing our rural interests

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