When Gov. John Hickenlooper boasts about Colorado’s strong economy, rural lawmakers say that only applies to the I-25 corridor — not to rural communities where jobs have been slashed.
Republicans have long used the argument that urban lawmakers don’t have rural communities’ best interests in mind. The GOP has also played partisan politics, shooting down Democratic bills they say would bring jobs to small towns.
Take Sen. Kerry Donovan, a Democrat from Vail. She’s one year and one step closer to finding enough votes for an emergency grant program to help rural counties recover after an employer closes its doors.
She’s optimistic, even though this is her third attempt passing a rural economic grant program.
A similar measure was the first bill she sponsored last year. That measure died in the Senate’s State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee. The defeat drew cries from Democrats that the bill was killed for political reasons, and even amid claims from Republicans that Democrats were waging war on rural Colorado.
Donovan’s second attempt, which started in the House and had bipartisan sponsorship, also died on a party-line vote in a Senate committee during the last week of the 2015 session.
The 2016 version would take $2 million in interest from the state’s unclaimed property tax trust fund. The grants would go to counties with populations of 50,000 or fewer. That’s all but 12 Front Range counties plus Donovan’s homebase, Eagle County. Grants would also be available to municipalities with 20,000 or fewer in population, so long as those cities are not adjacent to other cities with 20,000 or more.
According to Diane Criswell of Colorado Municipal League, that’s about 240 of the state’s 271 cities.
Job losses hit rural communities harder than urban areas, Donovan told the Senate Local Government Committee Tuesday. Someone who loses a job in a city need not look far to find more work. But someone out of work in the country may have to look for a job in another town, county or even state.
Job losses have a domino effect in small towns. They can hurt everything from hospitals and other health care providers to schools and Main Street businesses, she said.
“People have dedicated their lives to small towns. They deserve a fair shot at preserving those communities in the face of economic emergency,” Donovan said.
Even in sending the bill to a friendlier committee this year, it wasn’t a done deal for Donovan. Sen. Beth Martinez Humenik, a Thornton Republican, pointed out several times in a Tuesday Local Government Committee hearing that even if the grant is successful in retraining unemployed workers, it wouldn’t do much to help communities that have no other employers.
Would the bill provide a good return on investment, she asked.
Donovan cited Delta County, which has had major job cuts from mine closures. There, an apple juice producer received a grant to buy dairy equipment from a closing business in another county. The juice company repurposed the equipment, brought it to Delta County, and was able to expand operations, including employing workers who lost their dairy jobs.
“All they needed was a little help,” Donovan told the committee, which voted in favor of the bill, sending it on to the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Said Donovan: In rural areas, if Colorado can keep 10 or 15 jobs in a town, that’s 10 or 15 families who can stay in that community.