What Happened: The 2019 Colorado Legislative Session

Last November, Colorado voters made it clear: They want their state to move in a decisive direction to close gaps and make sure every Coloradan feels the prosperity only some currently are experiencing. The 2019 Colorado legislative session resolved many issues that had languished for years with a split legislature at the Capitol. Economic mobility was front and center, as the conversation focused on ensuring opportunity for Colorado families, making Colorado competitive for future generations, and helping everyone attain the Colorado way of life.

Colorado’s real economic success has not been felt broadly enough. Too many families across the state are struggling to afford the basic needs as wages have not risen commensurate with costs in Colorado. While this session did not provide all of the answers and did not go far enough, the legislature made significant progress in helping relieve the burden facing many Coloradans. As we outlined in our Guide to Economic Mobility in Colorado, there are five main areas policymakers can work in to ensure that more Colorado families and future generations rise up the wealth ladder: education, health, building assets, housing, and work policies.

Below we explore some of the policies in each of these areas the legislature worked on, and how each can help Colorado families attain economic success.

Education: Learning to Live & Work

Colorado has been lagging in education funding for some time now. Going into this budget year, Colorado owed more than $650 million to K-12 education, known as the budget stabilization factor.

Our state, like many others across the nation, is also in a fight against time to ensure that we are educating and training future generations for the work of tomorrow, so they aren’t left behind by a changing work landscape. Colorado also needs to continue to make strides in fully incorporating an intentional two-generation approach to programs, so full families are seeing their needs met.

Below are some issues the 2019 Colorado legislative session focused on these areas.

The Colorado legislature passed legislation to ensure that children across the state have full access to full-day kindergarten. Quality kindergarten is expensive no matter who you are or how much you earn, and it’s especially unaffordable for low- and middle-income families. Although costly, quality early childhood education is a key component of an effective two-generation strategy that serves the needs of both parents and children.

Free, full-day kindergarten will prepare children for academic and social success while allowing their parents to work and advance economically. Estimates indicate the individual and societal return on investment of early childhood programs is high. Research suggests the benefits of educating children early reach well into their adulthood and affect future generations.

Educating Colorado’s children is a social and moral imperative. Not only does research suggest a high return on investments in K-12 education, it also demonstrates persistent gaps in educational outcomes between white students and students of color, and between affluent students and their low-income peers. Colorado’s constitutional mandate to fully and equitably fund K-12 education hasn’t been trued up for about 10 years, and although this year’s dedication of $77 million to K-12 represents an attempt to bridge that fiscal gap, we must continue to work hard to keep our promises to Colorado’s kids.

Bills passed specifically for higher education could drastically shorten students’ time to degree completion at public institutions and move into the workforce more quickly. One piece of legislation expands programs that help students earn postsecondary credit while still in high school and another offers additional support to college students who need remediation. Such programs are particularly crucial for students who have commitments outside of school (like family or work) and those who have time-limited funding (like Pell grants or other publicly funded tuition assistance).

Workforce legislation included bills aimed at increasing access to job training in high-demand fields with good wages. These bills expanded such opportunities and made program data about training opportunities more transparent. These policies could help Coloradans navigate the evolving ecosystem of job training and quickly complete training that leads to good jobs.

Student parents make up a growing proportion of college students and over 60 percent of Colorado children under the age of six live in a home where all primary caregivers work. Because seeking education and work is more feasible when parents have access to high-quality, affordable child care, passed legislation and funding to defray the cost of care, incentivize early childhood educators earn higher credentials, and provide block grants for child care assistance and quality programs all represent a step in the right direction.

Health: Care & Costs in Colorado

The high cost of health insurance and care continues to hurt Colorado families, especially those in mountain and rural areas. Unsurprisingly, the cost of health care consistently tops Coloradans’ lists of concerns. But more than simply ensuring every Coloradan has access to affordable and quality health care, we must also make sure we’re investing in the front-line workers essential to providing needed care. Policymakers addressed these needs during the 2019 Colorado legislative session by:

Though one of healthiest states in the country, too many Coloradans struggle to afford the basic elements of health care — from filling prescriptions to visiting a doctor. In the next few years, the passage of Proposal for Affordable Health Care Option could help the thousands of Coloradans facing these problems. By asking the Department of Health Care Policy and Financing and Division of Insurance to develop a new health insurance option using existing state infrastructure, this bill opens a path toward the creation of an alternative, state-based, competitive health insurance option that works for Coloradans.

In our evolving economic environment, portable benefits (which aren’t tied to an employer) are an essential component to economic mobility. This is certainly true of health insurance. Yet, despite the need for affordable non-employer based health coverage options, average premiums on the private market have increased by over 80 percent cumulatively over the past four years. To address this problem, HB19-1168 allows the state to get a waiver from the federal government to create a reinsurance program with the specified goal of decreasing premiums throughout the state — especially in targeted high-cost areas. Importantly, reinsurance is a tested strategy and has already reduced health insurance costs in several states.

Home care workers — members of our direct care workforce that provide essential front-line care for older adults and people with disabilities — have physically, emotionally, and mentally challenging jobs. As our state continues to age and more people need a bit of extra help to live in the communities of their choice, these workers’ services are in growing demand. Yet, despite the importance and challenge of their positions, the median wage for these workers in 2018 was only $11.68.

SB19-238, however, brings Colorado one step closer to recognizing the immense value these workers add to our communities by, among other things, increasing Medicaid reimbursement rates for their services and setting the minimum wage for home care workers at $12.41/hour. Though work remains to better support our caring workforce, this bill’s passage is an important step forward.

Building Assets: Cultivating Wealth

An important aspect of economic mobility is building financial assets to be able to weather temporary setbacks. It’s also crucial to setting up future generations for firm financial footing. Helping Coloradans deal with debt, saving for retirement, and protecting consumers from predatory economic actors are all pieces of the puzzle that will help set Coloradans up for future economic success. Fortunately, the 2019 Colorado legislative session saw lawmakers step forward and commit to a suite of policy ideas on this topic.

In Colorado alone, student loan debt has reached over $26 billion, effectively strapping many — especially borrowers of color — with unreasonable amounts of debt that get in the way of important milestones crucial to economic mobility. Part of the problem is the predatory nature of student loan servicers, which often take advantage of the minimal amount of oversight at the federal level.

Bills like Colorado’s SB19-002 provide much-needed regulation over student loan servicers by ensuring borrowers are appropriately informed of all their options, get fair and quality treatment, and sets up an ombudsman to help borrowers address issues with their servicer. The Regulate Student Loan Servicers Act is a step in the direction to help borrowers decrease their debt burdens, funnel that money toward their financial security instead, and help the overall Colorado economy.

Colorado, like most other states, has a retirement crisis. For various reasons, mostly due to wages and other economic factors, people are not saving for retirement. We know that people who have money automatically deducted from their paycheck to a retirement savings account are 15 times more likely to save for retirement. Fortunately, Colorado successfully passed the Secure Savings Plan Board to study the feasibility of a low-cost, portable, automatic retirement plan for private workers across the state.

Other states have moved forward with a plan, and with this 2019 Colorado legislative session step, Colorado is preparing to follow suit. This is a particularly important step for younger workers and workers of color who are less likely to have retirement plans and encounter other systemic barriers that hinder their economic mobility in other ways.

A huge part of ensuring equitable access to economic mobility is installing firewalls to prevent bad actors from taking advantage of consumers. The Consumer Protection Act is designed to tighten up existing standards in the Colorado Consumer Protection Act, as well as increasing the penalties for those who violate them. These types of umbrella measures work as another important layer to help consumers hold on to their wealth.

Housing: Promoting Affordability & Stability

The quality, cost, and location of housing can often determine the long-term economic prospects for families. Quality affordable housing provides the foundation for larger economic development, affording families the ability to build assets and focus on job or educational success. It also has been shown to decrease health problems and lead to the two-generational successes.

The 2019 Colorado legislative session was one filled with many different proposals for addressing housing affordability and stability in our state, ranging from the removal of the state restriction against rent control to new protections for tenants. While the measure to allow local communities establish rent control did not pass, there were several important steps Colorado took this session.

Barriers for many individuals accessing rental units have been reduced. Applicants for rental housing now have more protections against excessive application fees and background checks. Landlords are no longer able charge a rental application fee unless they use the entire amount of the fee to cover the landlord’s costs in processing the rental application.

Furthermore, if a landlord does background checks, they can only look at the last seven years of credit history and last five years of criminal history (except crimes related to methamphetamine, sex offenses, or homicides.)

For individuals and families dealing with conditions that make their housing situation uninhabitable, they have new legal protections and mechanisms for addressing their conditions. Tenants can move to a temporary location, deduct necessary repairs from rent, and terminate their lease if conditions are not rectified in a timely manner. Additionally, tenants are protected against retaliation by a landlord for raising concerns around their uninhabitable conditions.

It has become both hard to find the land and financing needed to build affordable housing in many parts of Colorado. State-owned land will now be a potential opportunity for affordable housing, as most state agencies and institutions of higher education will need to provide an inventory of vacant buildings and undeveloped land to the Office of the State Architect within the Department of Personnel and Administration. These properties will be evaluated for their affordable housing potential.

In addition, the amount of state affordable housing tax credits the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority (CHFA) may allocate will be increased from $5 million to $10 million each year. This will result in a total of $150 million in additional tax credits that can be allocated by CHFA over the next five years. These tax credits are a vital source of affordable housing financing, allowing developers to build mixed-income housing across the state.

Work: Adapting How Colorado Works

Over the last few decades, many Coloradans have seen work pay less, particularly compared to the overall costs of living. While this isn’t unique to our state, it’s something that seemed to be at the top of mind for many legislators during this session.

There were a few pieces of legislation that aimed directly at this issue and tried to decrease the gap between income and costs for many Colorado families. Some of these bills were quite targeted, but are still important steps in the right direction to help make work pay.

Ensuring all workers are paid equally for the same work is an essential part of equitable economic mobility. A bill to help foster a culture where that is commonplace finally passed the legislature this year. The Equal Pay for Equal Work Act will prohibit employers from asking prospective employees about salary history — a known way for employers to suppress wages — and ensure more transparency for available promotions and pay.

The statistics make clear why this issue is important. Women make 84 cents for every dollar a man makes. For women of color, that number is substantially lower. With women becoming more important to the economic success of families — the median Colorado family made 40 percent of its total income in 2016 from the female parent, compared to 35 percent in 2000 — it’s imperative women are paid what they are worth to advance families’ economic opportunity.

A bill to establish paid family and medical leave drew a lot of discussion and angst this session. The Bell, along with many other organizations, continues to work to get the legislature to pass a bill to allow Colorado workers to pay into a social insurance fund for paid family and medical leave. And while many lobbyists convened on the Capitol against giving workers the opportunity to take paid time to care for a newborn or a sick loved one, the legislature was able to pass a bill that will hopefully allow Coloradans to take paid family and medical leave in 2023.

First, the state will an implementation plan informing the best way to design a program, and then the legislature will have to pass a plan next year. Families need to be able to take paid leave for their family and we will be working with the legislature to make that a true reality in 2020.

We have detailed over the years how costs across the state are rising — especially when it comes to essentials like health insurance and housing — and wages have not gone up commensurate with those goods. In 2016, Coloradans overwhelmingly approved a gradual increase in the minimum wage to $12 per hour, which has helped countless Colorado families so far.

The problem is for many places, especially on the Front Range, $12 per hour is still too low as a living wage. But there has been a prohibition on local governments raising the minimum wage higher than the statewide number. That makes little sense in a state where the cost of living varies so widely. Fortunately, the legislature passed a bill to allow localities to raise their minimum wage, gradually, so that all workers across Colorado can have access to a living wage.

As anyone who has gotten this far can tell, the 2019 Colorado legislative session was a busy one as policymakers aimed to improve economic mobility throughout Colorado. This significantly less-than-comprehensive list will measurably help Colorado families and the state’s economy. It’s time to celebrate the legislature’s accomplishments, while knowing that we still have a lot of work left to do for Colorado.

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