State Rep. Julie McCluskie and state Sen. Bob Rankin came together for a town hall Monday, July 12, in Frisco to reflect on the recent legislative session.
Gathered upstairs at Highside Brewing on Main Street, the state legislators spoke with a small group of residents ready with questions.
The duo addressed a variety of topics, including public education, the state budget, unemployment, housing, health care and wildfire mitigation.
While McCluskie, a Democrat from Dillon, and Rankin, a Republican from Carbondale, sit on opposite sides of the aisle, the pair was insistent that the bipartisan work they do to support the Western Slope is always a top priority, often referring to themselves as a team. McCluskie said 90% of the legislation passed this year was bipartisan.
“We do more things together than we do apart,” Rankin said.
In all, Rankin said the state Legislature created 623 bills in 120 days of work, 520 of which were passed into law.
McCluskie said lots of the legislation was created in response to the pandemic, including driving dollars to initiatives like food pantries, family resources centers and housing assistance.
The pair sit on the Joint Budget Committee and reflected on their overall work with the state budget last year and the difficulties of cutting funds from programs they care about, such as public education. While the Legislature initially cut around $3.5 billion from the budget last year, they were able to restore $2.6 billion of those cuts after state income tax collections came in better than anticipated, McCluskie said.
Rankin added that the state received an additional $5 billion in one-time federal stimulus, so officials created interim committees on mental health, housing and economic recovery to put the money to good use.
On the education front, an early question from the audience focused on critical race theory in public schools.
McCluskie said the state’s primary role with education is ensuring that funds are distributed “adequately and equitably” across the state’s 178 districts rather than being involved with curriculum.
Rankin echoed McCluskie, emphasizing that the words “local control” are in the state constitution. He said while the state board of education — which his wife, Joyce, sits on — sets standards for curriculum, it is ultimately up to local communities and their boards to decide what is best for their districts. He added that while critical race theory is not an aspect of those standards, equity is, and it is clearly defined.
“Even though there’s a definition (for equity) from (the Department of Education), people still have different definitions, and we have to be talking about the same thing at the same meeting, otherwise we’re going in two different directions,” Joyce Rankin said at the event.
McCluskie and Bob Rankin went on to tout their successes in education funding.
McCluskie mentioned her work on the school finance bill, a project she said is close to her heart. She was part of a team that modified the K-12 funding formula so more money would go to kids in poverty and English language learners. While the formula gets small tweaks every year, she said this was the biggest change it has seen since 1994.
“We know those groups of kids need more resources in our schools, and after years of talking about it, I’m really proud that we were able to get that done,” McCluskie said.
She also gave Rankin a shoutout for his work last year on a bill that will raise local mill levies to 1990 levels, which will bring in an additional $300 million for schools over the next few years. This year, it brought an additional $91 million for public education.
“Big picture point of view, adequately funding schools is … a bipartisan issue,” Rankin said.
Affordable housing also came up in conversation, a topic McCluskie said she’s heard about in every part of her district. In Summit County, she said one-third of housing is used for short-term rentals.
McCluskie mentioned a bill she supported this year that will provide $48 million in grants to local governments in an attempt to kick-start affordable housing initiatives. She said any town or city can apply for the funds.
“The idea with these dollars is to try and get projects already in the pipeline developed in the next 12 to 18 months,” McCluskie said. “The hope is that we can alleviate some of our workforce crisis that we’re all dealing with right now.”
Rankin said he’s most proud of his work on wildfire issues this year, including mitigation, suppression and restoration efforts. The state was able to purchase a Firehawk helicopter, which can fly at 140 miles an hour and hold 1,000 gallons of water and 12 firefighters.
In his time working with Summit County, Rankin said he’s come to view the area as a trendsetter on important issues. In particular, he said Summit County has been above average with its firefighting and health care initiatives.
“I’ve really grown to love the place,” Rankin said.
McCluskie said she is most proud of her work on the state budget, the school finance bill and the peace officer mental health grant bill, which was singed by the governor last month in Summit County.
“I’m always excited to hear from constituents and learn about their priorities and hear — particularly now post pandemic and post economic crisis — what more we should be doing at the state to better serve the working families and people of Colorado,” McCluskie said.