coal power plant

The coal-fired Craig Station power plant near Craig on Sept. 19, 2018.

A state House panel on Thursday 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 as the state's energy economy transitions toward cleaner generation sources.

The funding in House Bill 21-1290 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 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 19-1314, 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.

That’s where the bill from Esgar and Will comes in.

“We created a very good plan for coal-impacted communities and workers but from the beginning, I knew the biggest question out there was: how was it going to be funded, or would this be another plan that sat on the shelf and never got funded?” said Ray Beck, a Republican Moffat County commissioner and vice chair of the advisory committee that drafted the state’s Just Transition Action Plan. “House Bill 1290 answered that question, at least for the first few years.”

The transition panel – made up of lawmakers, public officials, representatives of coal communities, labor unions and utilities – submitted the plan to Gov. Jared Polis in December. According to Office of Just Transition director Wade Buchanan, the key to the plan “is that it builds on the assets in those communities and the community collectively is behind it.”

“We heard over and over again when we visited these communities and also in our advisory committee that the best economic development strategies, the only ones that actually are going to work are the ones that come from the community on up and not from the state down,” Buchanan told the House Business Affairs and Labor Committee during the nearly three-hour hearing on the bill.

To that end, the bill from Esgar and Will would put $8 million toward goals of the action plan. On that pot of money, Buchanan said he was “very excited about the opportunity to have some resources finally to jumpstart that process.”

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.

"These coal-impacted communities we've been talking about, they didn't ask for coal to go away. No, that was policy from this gold dome,” Will said. “In House Bill 1314, at that time, it was committed to helping support these communities and HB 1290 does exactly that. That's what we're here doing, this bill does that.”

Despite that strong backing from Will and support from each of the more than two dozen witnesses, many of whom hailed from communities that will see or are seeing the devastating financial impacts of the transition away from coal, several GOP members of the committee expressed reservations about not only the bill but the transition plan as a whole.

Rep. Terri Carver, R-Colorado Springs, said she had concerns with the plan and hope the state was “not just throwing money at” the concept of a just transition.

“It needs to be viable,” she said. “It needs to be realistic, or we will have more ghost towns and more failed transition programs with the burden being born by our fellow citizens.”

Rep. Mike Lynch, R-Wellington, also quizzed Beck and Beth Melton, a Democratic Routt County commissioner and fellow advisory committee member, on how coal communities could replace the loss of jobs and tax revenue once mines and power plants shut down.

“Please understand that we're not going to find one industry to replace the Tri-State power plant,” Beck said. “It's going to take a number of industries or organizations or businesses to get it to the point where we can offset the loss of revenue that we're going to see from the loss of coal and the power plant.”

Beck and Melton went on to detail the plans in both their jurisdictions, with Melton stressing the importance of realizing regional differences in approaches to moving on from coal jobs.

“Every community has different values, different assets and what we really need to do is support the locally driven plan to diversify the economy and generate good-paying jobs,” she said.

Lynch and Carver eventually came on board, joining the panel’s eight Democrats in support of the bill. The committee’s three other GOP members — Reps. Kevin Van Winkle of Highlands Ranch and Dave Williams and Shane Sandridge, both of Colorado Springs — voted against it.

The bill, the 13th stimulus measure to advance this week, heads to the House Appropriations Committee.

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