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This week, ahead of the 2023 Colorado legislative session which begins on Monday, Jan. 9, Ark Valley Voice participated in a Western Slope media gathering with House Speaker-elect Julie McCluskie, who represents House District 13, which includes Chaffee, Summit, Lake Grant, and Park counties; an area that is designated rural or rural-resort land.

With the opening session on Monday beginning 120 days of lawmaking, where our state elected officials are expected to introduce, modify and pass bills that address our state’s most pressing issues, this was an opportunity to listen to the incoming speaker’s vision for the session, as well as ask questions.

State Rep. Julie McCluskie (D-Dist. 61) encourages crowd at Salida rally against Supreme Court decision on June 26, 2022. Daniel Flanders photo

“Some of the decisions we made last session have brought Colorado forward into a strong place,” she began. “We’re seeing unemployment rates nearly as low as before the pandemic. We’re seeing job growth … I anticipate keeping our eye on the prize — which is to drive a thriving economy and create living wage jobs.”

Asked about the lead policy topic for the 2022 agenda, McCluskie replied promptly. “Water will be the centerpiece of our policy agenda for this year, for years, and the decade ahead. I believe Colorado  can be a leader as we convene stakeholders from all backgrounds to address the challenge.” She listed the voices that need to be heard as agriculture, recreation, local governments, business and both Front Range and mountain users.

“We know we have deep hard conversations ahead with all the members of the Colorado River Compact, We have to drive the right policies, practices, and programs.”

She added that wildfire and climate change are topics that have to be faced. “We have focused on the impacts of climate change and drought and now more than ever realize the impacts of wildfire; whether in the high country or on the Front Range are real. We’ll continue to prioritize forest health and wildfire prevention.”

McCluskie, who comes from Summit County said there is work to do. “We have work to do. We know affordability is still a challenge. Particularly in our high country resort areas, it’s affordable housing, access to high-quality health care, and child care.”

As a former educator in the Summit School District, McCluskie noted the state’s rollout of early childhood programs across the state as something she strongly supports. “Education is a priority of mine. I’m proud that universal preschool has been at the forefront. We’ve made historic investments in our public schools, including the budget stabilization measure. We know our public schools are hurting and need to do more.”

Asked about legislative attention for affordable housing in the mountains, McCluskie brought up HB 1271. “In Gunnison, we have a $1.8 million grant for housing infrastructure. There’s a Summit County Workforce Housing grant. We’ve seen $18 million in incentive grants and $5 million in planning grants.”

She added, “Local solutions to housing are the pathway to moving forward faster. The affordable housing shortage is a problem EVERYWHERE …. we want to support new ideas; things like tax credits for first-time homebuyers, evaluating the landlord-tenant relationships. .. solutions could come in many forms.”

The topic of diversity made McCluskie smile. “Well, 52 of the 100 legislators in Denver are women – we are the second state in the nation to have a woman-led majority in the legislature. It prioritizes women’s issues. The top three leadership positions are held by women … and together we are better representing the diversity across the state. Those voices bring different lived experiences as the basis for lasting policy. Our job is to listen to the voices and make sure they are at the table.”

McCluskie was asked about road and bridge funding, her position on future oil and gas drilling, and what she thinks about SB 181 passed in 2028. She laughed and said  “that’s a four-hour conversation,” then added, “It changed the course of development in the state…. it has taken us four years to modify how we operate to focus on health and safety. Since Dems took the majority in 2019 we’re building a strong path to get to those renewables.

Asked by AVV Managing Editor Jan Wondra whether she has looked into the environmental or safety impacts of potential rail transport of waxy crude oil out of the Uintah Basin in Utah on rail lines across Colorado and over the Tennessee Pass along the Arkansas River, McCluskie responded saying, “I’ve just gotten information about that rail line project. In our beautiful area — water is our lifeblood.”

“Certainly we have to protect our pristine areas of the state, protecting waterways, and we have talked about the need for greater investment in protecting our streams,” she went on. “Think of the example in Steamboat [this past summer]– the rising temperatures are drying up the waterways and fish can’t survive. We are recognizing the waterways not just for their beauty but as part of our economic infrastructure.” She went on to compliment Chaffee County, saying she knows the leadership in Chaffee County and across the state recognize the outdoors as our greatest asset.