Former Obama field organizer and state legislative policy analyst Dylan Roberts wasn’t planning to jump back into politics after he got his law degree from the University of Colorado and landed a job as a deputy district attorney in Eagle County. Then Trump happened.
“I was going to take a break from politics for a while,” the 28-year-old Roberts told Colorado Politics. “I was going to focus on my law career. And then, to be honest, last November happened, and Donald Trump got elected [president] and I saw that my party, the Democrats, took some serious losses across the ballot and across the country, and it clicked with me that I needed to get back involved. It’s important.”
Roberts, recently named by a Democratic vacancy committee to replace state Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush – who stepped down to challenge U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton next year – will be sworn in next week. The former legislative policy analyst for Democratic state Rep, Mike Foote is following a similar path as a DA/legislator, taking a leave of absence during the upcoming session.
“I still have my full day job. I need to pay the bills and pay the rent,” said Roberts, alluding to his next big reason for seeking the state house seat. “The state of Colorado and our legislature really needs the next generation to be involved in solving some of the problems that our state is going to be facing over the next few years.
“I’m somebody who’s from the next generation of our state who’s facing some of the same problems that people in Eagle and Routt [the two counties that comprise House District 26] are facing every month trying to pay rent and find a good-paying job and wanting to make life work here in the mountains. It’s very difficult to do so.”
The severe lack of affordable housing for young professionals in mountain counties is a crisis, Roberts says – even more acute than the housing shortage on the Front Range. Recently dubbed a “storm of scarcity” by the Denver Post, the lack of affordable housing is cited in business surveys as the number one reason companies can’t find enough employees in the high country.
“The disparity that we’re seeing in Eagle and Routt counties is only going to get worse if we don’t start really talking about why it’s so hard for people like myself, frankly, to try and make a living here off of a middle-class salary,” Roberts said, lamenting a lack of state focus on the issue.
“Affordable housing is an issue that is local, but the state has not been a good partner on it with local governments and local authorities, and there are some bills that could be brought up and passed to help alleviate some of the extreme cost barriers to living up here,” Roberts added.
Specifically, Roberts points to the failure last session of HB-1309, a bill that would have added a one-cent per page fee on filings with county treasurers or clerk and recorder’s offices to create a funding source to help spur affordable housing projects.
Public-private partnerships could tap that fund to assist developers who need a capital boost in order to make affordable housing projects viable in places where land costs are prohibitively high, Roberts says.
“HB-1309 got introduced really late in the legislative session and it, of course, didn’t have enough time to go through the process and get passed, but the fact that that issue isn’t getting talked about on day 1 of the session is a major reason I decided to run,” Roberts said.
Then there’s the insane cost of health insurance on the individual market in mountain counties, Roberts said, referring to monthly premiums that are some of the highest in the nation for the self-employed and small-business owners.
“It’s a tough issue, but it’s an issue that needs some fresh perspective,” Roberts said. “I’ve been paying attention to this because I used to buy on the individual market before I started at the DA’s office, and it’s talked about a lot, but nothing happens.”
One possible fix is a bill Mitsch Bush ran unsuccessfully last session that would have provided subsidies for up to 500 percent of the federal poverty level so impacted families could qualify for Affordable Care Act tax breaks that are currently capped at 400 percent.
In mountain areas where the cost of living is so high, families often make more but still can’t swing a mortgage and exorbitant insurance premiums that sometimes approach housing costs. They often choose to simply forego coverage and absorb ACA penalties.
“It’s a mess and it certainly doesn’t help to have the federal government inviting chaos into the industry, but that bill that Diane sponsored is something I strongly support and something I think should be brought up again,” Roberts said. “It had some pretty broad support down in Denver, but again, it’s the Senate numbers [with a GOP majority] that are killing these things.”
Roberts also said geographic neutrality in setting up insurance zones would help – possibly lumping mountain resort counties in with Grand Junction or Pueblo or just eliminating the zones altogether. Those ideas need to be better explored in the upcoming session, he added.
Then there’s transportation. Roberts grew up in Routt County, home to Steamboat Springs, and the fastest way to get there from Denver is to start out on Interstate 70 and then hang a right on U.S. Highway 40. Now he lives in Eagle, county seat of Eagle County, which is bisected by the infamously snarled I-70 corridor.
Roberts wants to revisit the so-called “grand bargain” struck by transportation committee heads Mitsch Bush and Republican Sen. Randy Baumgardner to place a sales tax question for highway funding on the statewide ballot. The bill was killed by fiscally conservative Senate Republicans.
“There’s talk about getting that revamped and trying to get that through again because it did have Republican sponsorship in the Senate, but it went to a committee that killed it, so I’d want to join those efforts to keep that idea alive,” Roberts said. “That’s the most direct way we can get the money we need – between $9 and $10 billion in funding needs for tier one projects.”
And then there’s the state gas tax that hasn’t been increased since the early 1990s.
“Even really conservative states have raised their gas tax in recent years,” Roberts said. “It’s crazy to think we haven’t adjusted our gas tax since the 90s, so I know that’s something that’s thought about every session and something I would support and work on.”