I remember testifying before a legislative committee, along with several county commissioners from northwest Colorado, when the Office of Just Transition (OJT) was being formed to support coal communities as state government policies forced them to transition away from coal. The response from some legislators was something along the lines of those terrifying words, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”
Many of the people who live in coal communities grew up there and worked in coal-related jobs. These were good-paying jobs that supported families and the community at large. Their children went to school and participated in activities and they bought houses and paid taxes. Moffat County, for example, according to former County Commissioner Ray Beck in a recent Associated Press article, had an assessed value of $430 million dollars in 2020, 62% coming from energy-related businesses, which are the top taxpayers in the county. Most of these taxpayers are related to the coal industry. How will they replace those jobs and the property tax revenue to provide government services?
In a July, 2022 letter to President Biden, Governor Polis urges the federal government, as “the only partner” who can not only give technical assistance to those who have lost their jobs, including retraining and relocation assistance, but he also states that the federal government can help backfill local communities in their budget shortfalls. Colorado received $3.82 billion dollars of federal tax dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), yet the Governor only allocated $5 million in his budget request for the OJT. So, Polis asked the federal government for money to help these communities so they will not turn into “ghost towns” but when billions of dollars come to the state, he cannot muster more than $5 million?
Apparently, giving these struggling communities any additional funding raises some eyebrows. The legislature’s Joint Budget Committee (JBC) has had many discussions about funding for the OJT this session. In a JBC meeting on the Governor’s budget request, Senator Chris Hansen, a Denver Democrat, questioned the need for these additional funds since they had already allocated $15 million for the OJT budget. So just what is the price is for destroying communities and families in Colorado?
But Senator Hansen seems to have suddenly changed his tune. In a recent JBC meeting Senator Hansen voiced his ongoing commitment to workers and their families in coal communities, going so far as co-sponsor a supplemental bill with Republican Senator Bob Rankin to give immediate funding to the OJT. He boasted about how proactive Colorado has been in relation to addressing the needs of coal communities and how proud he is to be part of this work. Senator Hansen stated that he would like to look at non-General Fund options for future funding. That’s a start. The real question is why more isn’t being done with the ARPA dollars to help coal communities.
In the supplemental bill, $150,000 is slated to go the Colorado School of Mines so they can study alternative uses of coal. Representative Kim Ransom discussed this portion of the bill at length. She questioned if this was a good use of the money or would it be better spent on helping coal workers? Good questions. Senator Rankin stated that finding alternative uses for coal would be beneficial to coal communities and supported the use of this money for research.
The rest of the JBC supplemental bill was focused on moving $7 million of the existing $15 million to the cash fund for more immediate spending needs. It was unclear from the hearing just what those needs are, but both Senators Rankin and Hansen supported moving the money.
As long as those funds are available to coal communities, then at least the promises to support the displaced workers and their families remain.
Rose Pugliese is a former Mesa County Commissioner and a regular contributor to Complete Colorado.
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