Throughout this legislative session, I have written about the need for additional funding for coal-impacted communities, especially in light of the billions of dollars that Colorado received in American Rescue Plan Act funds. Then, at the end of April, very late in the session, House Bill 22-1394 was introduced by Democrats, namely House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar and Representative Dylan Roberts. Rep. Roberts is currently running for a seat in the Colorado Senate. It is an election year and potentially a red-wave year so Democrats are flexing their political muscle to show support for coal workers in Colorado.
Many supporters of coal-impacted communities like this bill. Was it possible that finally someone at the legislature was listening and understanding the plight of coal-impacted communities? As you may recall, when the Governor Pols allocated $5 million in his budget for the Office of Economic Development and International Trade for coal-impacted communities, it faced push-back from some Democrats in the Joint Budget Committee (JBC). But now, Democrats are sponsoring a bill for an additional $15 million in funding to go to the Department of Labor and Employment. It’s a bit of a head-scratcher, though the need is real.
Why do coal-impacted communities need additional funding? According to testimony on the bill, it is estimated that local governments in coal-impacted communities will lose $60 million dollars in tax revenue annually. Do workers in the coal industry and their families need assistance and support? Absolutely. It is estimated that 2,000-3,000 jobs will be lost. That will have a great impact on our Colorado families and they deserve to be helped.
The testimony on the bill was interesting because of the somewhat unorthodox alliances. Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado, who have been long-time advocates of funding for coal-impacted communities, talked about the long-term need. $15 million is just a down-payment towards the future needs of these communities. Environmental groups spoke about the need to eliminate coal in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help address climate change.
The Executive Director of the AFL-CIO testified about the need to support union workers as they transition out of their coal jobs. One union representative testified that on average, a coal worker makes $90,000-$120,000, plus benefits. In Hayden, for example, the new business park businesses expect to pay between $70,000-$80,000. When questioned, the answer was that coal workers may have to relocate.
If we do not want coal communities to turn into ghost towns, then there must be investment in these communities. $15 million is a good start but it will not be enough in the long term. One witness stated that is not the duty of government to create jobs, but to give support and resources to the local communities. Yes, I agree. But let’s just not forget though that it was bad government policy that got us here.
Republicans pushed back on this bill because they did not see a long-term strategy and plan. However, many acknowledged that the majority of the coal-impacted communities are in rural areas and that it will take time for economic development activities to come to fruition. Diversifying a whole economy is a process and will take investment by the government that shut it down. The only “no” votes in the House and Senate were from a handful of Republicans.
In HB 1394, $10 million dollars will go to coal worker assistance and $5 million dollars will go to the Just Transition Cash Fund for economic development projects, such as infrastructure projects, like the new business park in Hayden. Expect the continued growth of government when new employees will be requested to handle the additional work.
Helping coal-impacted communities must be polling well. Senators Bennet and Hickenlooper announced in February that Colorado will be eligible for about $10 million from the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that, according to Bennet, will go to supporting coal-impacted communities, creating good-paying jobs and reducing methane emissions that help cause climate change. Colorado Democrats have stated over and over again this session how Colorado will be a leader in the nation on how to deal with communities facing coal mine shutdowns.
The question is whether there is a real desire by Democrats to help coal workers through the transition, caused by the Democrats’ political agenda in the first place, or is this just a way to solidify political support in an election year?
Rose Pugliese is a former Mesa County Commissioner and a regular contributor to Complete Colorado.
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