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Speaker Julie McCluskie: A breakthrough session for the Western Slope

May 18, 2024

This story was originally published in The Mountain Mail, which can be found here.

What a year it has been under the gold dome. Lawmakers secured bipartisan victories on the issues we care about on the Western Slope. I was proud to lead the way on bipartisan legislation that will protect our water, increase funding for rural schools and boost rural economies. By working together the “Western Slope Way,” we delivered real results for high country communities.

This year, we made Colorado more affordable by cutting taxes and saving people money on housing. We reduced property taxes, increased the senior homestead exemption and made it portable, created tax credits for families with children and extended income tax relief for senior housing costs. We also passed my bill to allow local governments to help convert short-term rental units to long-term rental or workforce housing to create more options people can afford.  

One of my proudest accomplishments in my entire time serving in the legislature is the new school finance formula I sponsored and that we passed this year. Colorado’s school finance formula has not changed since the early 1990s. For far too long, rural schools in Colorado have not received the funding they have needed, and a generation of students in our communities has not seen the resources in their classrooms that they deserve.

The new formula we passed will increase funding for districts that serve more children in poverty and provide an additional $230 million to rural schools. Park County schools will see an increase of over 20 percent when the new formula is fully implemented. Salida will see a nearly 17 percent increase; Lake will see an increase of over 14 percent; Summit, Buena Vista and Platte Canyon will see 12 percent increases; and East and West Grand will see 28 and 17 percent increases respectively.

School districts in our communities will finally see the equitable funding we have long needed, and I was proud to work with the school finance task force, school leaders and lawmakers in both parties to secure this bipartisan victory for the Western Slope, our students and our future.

We also focused deeply on water issues. For Western Slope communities, the health of our waters is deeply tied to our way of life. From outdoor recreation and agriculture to tourism and high country industries, protecting our water is essential for our communities to thrive.

Last year, the Supreme Court’s decision in the Sackett case left nearly 1 million acres of streams, wetlands and rivers in Colorado unprotected. I worked with Sen. Dylan Roberts, Rep. Karen McCormick, water advocates and industry partners to pass bipartisan legislation that will create certainty for communities by establishing state-level protections for our water. This new law will require permits for certain dredge and fill activities that pollute our waters while fully exempting agriculture and ranching.

The legislature also passed bipartisan legislation I sponsored based on recommendations from the Colorado River Drought Task Force to enhance our water supply and protect Colorado water user interests, and we referred a measure to voters to invest an additional $7 million per year into the state water plan instead of returning that money to casinos.

I’m proud of the steps we took at the legislature to bridge the rural-urban divide, protect our Colorado way of life and invest in rural economies. We extended tax incentives for businesses to hire workers in rural communities, invested in rural behavioral health care access and rural hospitals and fixed longstanding issues with conservation easement tax credits to continue these critical protections and justly compensate landowners.

Finally, I sponsored legislation that created new tax credits to spur business development and new jobs in rail-connected communities with formerly coal-based economies. This will help keep up investment in the rail line that connects Northwest Colorado and Denver. Another bill I sponsored that we passed establishes a funding stream for a potential passenger Northwest Rail route to link Craig and Hayden to Steamboat and eventually Winter Park and Denver along those tracks.

I’m proud of the bipartisan results we delivered for Colorado and Western Slope communities. The laws we passed this year will save people money, increase funding for our schools, protect our water, support our agriculture industry and boost our rural economies. We focused on the issues that matter for Coloradans, and we did our work the “Western Slope Way” by coming together, listening to the people of our districts and putting Coloradans first.

Julie McCluskie represents House District 13, which includes Summit, Grand, Jackson, Park, Chaffee and Lake counties, and serves as speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives.

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