From left to right: House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, Senate Assistant Minority Leader John Cooke, Speaker of the House KC Becker and Senate President Leroy Garcia debate Colorado's biggest issues during a legislative preview roundtable hosted by the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.

Colorado’s business community may have gotten a glimpse into the 2020 legislative session one day before it began — that is, if Tuesday’s Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce’s seventh annual business roundtable was any measure.

If a reliable gauge, state legislators will remain split over how to address some of Colorado’s major issues, like transportation, paid family leave and health care.

On stage in Denver Tuesday morning were Senate President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo; House Speaker KC Becker, D-Boulder; Senate Assistant Minority Leader John Cooke, R-Greeley; and House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, R-Castle Rock.

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The legislative leaders sat alongside Denver Business Journal’s Ed Sealover, who moderated the event. He zeroed in on transportation in his first question, which he prefaced with the fact that voters recently rejected two ballot initiatives in 2018, as well as Proposition CC in 2019, that together would have infused billions of dollars into Colorado’s roads and bridges.  

“Yet, … no voter has said, ‘Please don’t fix our transportation system.’ ” Sealover said. “So, where do we go now?”

To “new revenue,” Becker said, repeating the point at least thrice during her time to respond. Raising Colorado’s 22-cent gas tax could provide just that, she said, pointing to the more than 30 states that have raised their state gas taxes over the last seven years.

Becker said she is open to other funding means, too, but drawing every dollar from the general fund is not one of them.

“It’s not sustainable, consistent or reliable,” she said. “We have limited resources. We have to balance all the needs of the state.”

Cooke said he could back a tax, but it would need to fall on electric vehicles.

“They do more damage to the roads, but they pay less,” he said, noting that EVs are heavier than non-electric cars.

Cutting the $4,000 tax credit EV owners can claim and funneling those funds toward transportation needs could provide another pool of money, Cooke said. 

The quartet also wrestled with paid family leave, a measure that has failed at the Capitol five times before.

Republicans have “zero interest in bringing [the bill] back,” Cooke said. “It’s harmful for our business community.”

If given autonomy and incentives, businesses can “be a lot more competitive than some government bureaucracy,” Neville said. Moreover, another tax could hurt “employees who are already worried about the rising cost of living in every other aspect of life.”  

Garcia said he is open to conversations around the details of the paid family leave bill, but that “the notion that this shouldn’t progress just isn’t there.” In fact, he said, Democratic Sens. Angela Williams and Faith Winter are bringing forward a paid family leave bill this session, like it or not.

“I’m not tied to whether it’s a private insurance model or a social insurance model,” Becker chimed in. “I care most about what the benefits are and if those benefits are sustainable and acceptable to the business community, but also sufficient to meet the needs of workers.”

Another major issue continuing to divide legislators is health care — particularly who should pay for it.

A public option health insurance plan “scares the heck out of me,” Neville said. “It’s not just a small step toward single-payer [health care], it’s a giant leap.”

Simply put, Republicans are “not in favor of the government running health care,” Cooke said. He pointed to Obamacare, which he said has led to “skyrocketing” premiums and deductibles.

But policy behemoths like this could take years, Becker said, so Democrats’ focus for now is driving down health care costs and improving accessibility.  

Those efforts will include “working towards transparency,” Garcia said, adding that the health care industry is “very complex,” which makes it hard to “follow the money.”

One issue that drew bipartisan agreement on Tuesday, however, was ensuring the availability of workforce development and education.

A higher education degree might not be for everybody, the four agreed, and the needs of each student are unique.

“We need trades,” Cooke made clear, emphasizing the importance of electricians, construction workers and auto mechanics.  

Neville agreed with Garcia, who said partnerships with community colleges that prepare students for higher education and job placement are key.

“It’s all about empowering these individual students and their parents to make that decision,” Garcia said.

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