The House on Wednesday advanced a $15 million stimulus measure to put funding behind Colorado’s plan to support workers and communities reliant on jobs in coal mines and factories over the objections of some Republicans, who argued the funding should be higher and that underlying policy to move away from coal-generated energy was wrong.
The funding in House Bill 1290 from House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo, and Rep. Perry Will, R-New Castle, would represent the first real money pumped into the Office of Just Transitions. That office came about through 2019 legislation that called for the creation of a transition plan to assist communities and workers whose coal-related industries and jobs "are subject to significant economic transition."
But House Bill 1314, sponsored by then-Speaker of the House KC Becker, D-Boulder, said that plan would be funded with gifts, grants and donations. That was in a year when the state was flush with funds. Programs funded with gifts, grants and donations generally see little if any money.
The bill from Esgar and Will would put $8 million toward goals developed by an advisory committee made up of lawmakers, public officials, representatives of coal communities, labor unions and utilities that drafted the state’s Just Transition Action Plan.
The bill sends the other $7 million to the Department of Labor and Employment for a workforce assistance program designed to directly help coal workers with apprenticeship programs, financial planning, tuition reimbursement, job search assistance and on-the-job training, among other things.
Both bill sponsors acknowledged the total sum in the bill represented only a drop in the bucket in terms of the overall need.
“We know that this bill, the $15 million we have in this bill from state stimulus funds is not nearly enough to solve the issue that we have in front of us when it comes to just transition,” Esgar said. “But what this bill promises in the next two to three years is to really empower communities, to tell us what they need and help them move forward with a plan so when and if these closures happen, they are ready to move forward and not waiting for it to happen to then react.”
Will, meanwhile, stressed the need he saw in his communities.
“In some of my district, 40% to 80% of the tax revenues derive from these coal mines and these power plants, so it's a hard pill to swallow,” he said. “I think we have a moral commitment to assist these workers and mine workers in these communities.”
Some of Will’s GOP colleagues agreed with his sentiment but called for more funding.
“This particular bill does not do enough,” said Rep. Richard Holtorf, R-Akron. “You add a zero onto this fiscal note and I will tell you Rep. Will, you are getting just transition in your communities. But this is not just.”
Esgar countered that the bill maxed out what the impacted communities said they could spend over the next two to three years, the time period in which the one-time stimulus funding has to be spent.
“If we handed them a check tomorrow for $100 million, they would not be able to spend that in two to three years to make the real transition happen,” she said. “This is not the end of the conversation, this is the beginning of funding starting to move because we have the opportunity with these one-time dollars we weren't expecting back into the general fund.”
The bill advanced past debate and is now eligible for a final vote in the House. It still needs to work through the legislative process in the Senate.