GRAND JUNCTION — U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet and U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton talked Saturday about issues close to Western Colorado’s hearts and wallets.
They told the spring meeting of the Club 20 Western Slope coalition what they’re doing in Washington to improve energy development, the high cost of healthcare, the slowness of rural broadband internet service and the preservation of forests.
Bennet, a Democrat from Denver, told the crowd of about 200 that he’s also worried about Washington spending. The federal budget deficit is expected reach $1.5 trillion this year, the product of tax cuts and continued spending by the Trump administration.
Bennet noted, as others have, that it’s the largest deficit, as a percentage of gross domestic product, that did not occur in a time of recession or war. President Obama’s budget hit a $1.5 trillion gap during the height of the recession.
“Having a deficit like that when we’re at full employment instead of using this as an opportunity to prepare for the possibility that we may have conflicts somewhere around the world, like the Korean peninsula or the Middle East, not using it to pay down our deficits and invest in our infrastructure, I think is shameful,” Bennet said.
Bennet is among a bipartisan group of House and Senate members tasked with addressing the way Congress spends money.
“I don’t have a high degree of hope for success there, but I’ll keep you posted,” he told Club 20.
Tipton, a Republican from Cortez who followed Bennet’s speech, spoke of the strong national economy, instead of the deficit. But while most of the nation is prospering, that prosperity has not reached all of Colorado, he said, citing Pueblo and the San Luis Valley.
“We need to make sure we’re lifting all boats,” Tipton said, referencing Ronald Reagan’s famous quote about how tax cuts are a “rising tide” that lifts the economy and all those in it.
Bennet fielded a question from a Club 20 member from Pitkin County who said her community adjacent to federal lands is a tinderbox for wildfire. Bennet responded that the national forests are in “horrible shape” after years of Congress under-funding the agencies that tend to them.
“The last decade has seen nothing but decay in our forests,” he said.
Bennet and Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma, introduced legislation last year to end a practice called fire borrowing, where the government takes money meant to protect forest health to plow it into fighting fires, which only creates larger fires later on because of overgrowth and sickly trees.
“They spend their budgets fighting fires instead of managing forests properly,” he told the Club 20 crowd.
He said that in each town hall meeting he holds in rural Colorado, broadband is a chief concern, so that businesses can prosper online there.
Colorado lawmakers have passed major legislation to speed the reach of broadband across rural parts of the state this session.
Pitkin County Commissioner Rachel Richards told Bennet local governments are concerned about the Federal Communications Commission reversing net neutrality in December, which could force schools and local governments to pay more for the speeds they need.
She asked Bennet to hold hearings across the state on net neutrality to help people understand the threat and reach of the Trump administration’s move away from the Obama-era policy.
Democrats are one Republican vote away from sending a resolution to the FCC to ask the governing board to reinstitute net neutrality, Bennet said.
“That one Republican will become an American hero the moment they sign on to that,” he said.
Tipton spoke mostly about responsible energy development, calling it critical to Western Colorado.
He touted his Planning for American Energy Act, a bill that would instruct the departments on the Interior and Agriculture to develop four-year energy production plans to include wind, solar, hydropower, geothermal, oil, natural gas, coal, oil shale and minerals.
Tipton also is co-sponsoring a bill to develop renewable energy on public lands, with the money going back into conservation, “literally creating more opportunities for American energy security — that’s where some of our jobs can be.”
Bennet spoke of the high cost of healthcare in rural Colorado, a story told across America, he said.
“Our healthcare system is a mess, and it’s really a mess in rural Colorado,” he said. “We need to find a bipartisan solution as prices continue to rise and protections are now where we’re getting less benefits despite the increases in cost that we’re all seeing with higher deductibles.
“Whatever one thought of the Affordable Care Act, there were protections there that are being eaten away.”