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Wildland firefighting is brutally tough on the body — up to 100 pounds of gear, long hikes through dense forests and 12-hour shifts laying fire lines and clearing brush in smoky conditions. It takes real training and endurance. The dozens of Colorado state prisoners who pitch in alongside wildland fire crews are rewarded a few bucks a day; minimum wage laws don’t apply to prison labor.
And once they get out of prison, they’re shut out of the firefighting labor force.
This week, two Democratic lawmakers from mountain areas — Sen. Kerry Donovan and Rep. Dylan Roberts — introduced a bill designed to create job opportunities for prison firefighters upon release. The bill would, among other things, require the state to develop a career mentorship program for the 75 or so men who are all nonviolent offenders who fight fires every year.
Wildland firefighting is unfortunately a booming industry thanks to climate change, Roberts said.
“I know we need more firefighting capacity, more people working in that field,” he said. “Anything we can do to help people post-incarceration to get a job, to back on their feet and to reduce recidivism — it’s a win-win, in my book.”
I spent a day with some prison firefighters a couple years ago, and many of them said the work taught them to believe in themselves as useful members of society who are deserving of opportunity.
“It’s a new awakening within yourself,” Joredan Quigley said in 2018. “All of us were doing something negative in the community. You lose yourself completely. The light within you shuts off. You come and do this and see the way the community sees you and you go from the person the community wanted in jail to the person the community wants to see.”
More than 200 other bills beside this one were introduced this week during the restart of the 2021 session, and hundreds more are on the way. Read on to learn about criminal justice legislation, more stories about the legislative restart, plus 2022 election news and a bit on penny-pinching in Denver’s budget.
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One million potentially fraudulent unemployment applications are clogging up the works at the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. The state is heavily reliant on fraud victims notifying them instead of the other way around. Aldo Svaldi explains.
Capitol Diary • By Saja Hindi
For the second time this year, the Colorado legislature is back in session and lawmakers have to work fast on hundreds of bills. As expected, there are bills related to COVID relief and other priorities, as well as changing the criminal justice system.
In Gov. Jared Polis’ State of the State on Wednesday, he talked about addressing inequities in a variety of areas.
“In the past two years, the legislature has taken tremendous bipartisan steps to correct inequities in criminal justice, including bail reform, sentencing reform, juvenile justice reform, and police reform,” he said. “But the ongoing effort to ensure opportunity and justice for all means much more.”
He referenced work on the school-to-prison pipeline, Coloradans who don’t get veterans’ benefits because they’re LGBTQ (which Alex Burness wrote about here last week) and ensuring state data isn’t used for a “broken and inhumane immigration system.” He also talked about inequities in other systems, like health care — vaccine distribution to underserved communities was one example — and education.
Already-filed bills look to reduce the prison population, expunge nonviolent convictions after three years and limit government agencies’ responses to protests. More, too, are expected to be filed.
“I really appreciate the governor’s framing of equality and justice as a framework for the entire State of the State,” Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat, said after the address. “We have to have that lens on everything that we do.”
She also pointed out that the issues are no longer being taken up only by members of the Black caucus or just in the Judiciary Committee.
“We have members on both sides of the aisle who are tackling criminal justice reform head on and I’m proud to see it,” she said.
More Colorado political news
- Eight numbers that sum up this week’s State of the State address.
- A Democratic lawmaker calls for censure of the GOP representative who attended the Jan. 6 rally. (Fun fact: The Dem also just announced he’s running for U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert’s seat.)
- Bills returning this legislative session after COVID pushed them to the side, including one on human composting.
- Colorado lawmakers are looking at ways to protect public health officials facing threats and harassment as they have become some of the public faces of this pandemic
Federal politics • By Justin Wingerter
Early 2022 Senate ads
The National Republican Senatorial Committee released its first Colorado ad of the 2022 cycle Wednesday, an early opening salvo against Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet.
The ad, 1 minute and 12 seconds long, doesn’t mention Bennet until the end, when it asks whether he stands with students “or with D.C. Democrats and the Teachers Unions?” (The first minute criticizes the Biden administration’s messaging on reopening schools.)
Bennet is a former Denver schools superintendent who was considered for U.S. education secretary in early 2009; President Barack Obama went with Illinois native Arne Duncan instead.
Bennet’s campaign pushed back, saying the senator is “working with local communities across Colorado on a rescue package that would ramp up testing and vaccinations, reduce child poverty by nearly 50%, support small businesses and secure $130 billion in funding to help students safely return to school.”
The campaign also took a minute to rip Senator Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for “still trying to block that relief effort” and “making bogus attack ads against Michael. This is cynical and shameless.”
Non-election year ads can be duds: Democrats spent millions in 2019 to run forgettable ads against then-Sen. Cory Gardner that indeed were forgotten after March 2020.
But Bennet has also taken some early flak from his left. Demand Justice debuted an ad last week criticizing him for recommending a “corporate law partner” be a federal judge in Colorado.
“Get this: a dark money group is attacking me for … supporting a qualified Hispanic woman for federal judge!?” Bennet’s campaign wrote in a fundraising email Tuesday. “This type of political attack is unbelievable and, quite frankly, shameless.”
More federal politics news:
- A leading Democratic candidate in the 3rd Congressional District doesn’t live there and doesn’t vote there.
- Colorado’s senators voted to convict former President Donald Trump on Saturday. The trial granted two Coloradans a national audience.
- This Fort Morgan Times wrote about a local Republican dinner, including a rare Gardner appearance.
- Boebert, foe of gun-free zones, will speak in one next week in Florida, according to a report from Creative Loafing: Tampa Bay.
Mile High Politics • By Conrad Swanson
National Western Center and Denver’s pocketbook
Denver officials delayed a substantial portion of their plans to expand the National Western Center Campus earlier this week because the city’s general fund can’t afford the hundreds of millions that it would need to pay.
It isn’t about saving money, Denver Chief Financial Officer Brendan Hanlon told The Post on Tuesday, it’s about avoiding future and burdensome costs.
That’s a nuanced difference but important, Hanlon said. In short, delaying the work on the Stock Show campus won’t mean the hundreds of vacant city jobs can now be filled or public safety workers can regain overtime hours. Nor will it save city employees from being furloughed.
The early-phase upgrades and expansions are still happening at the National Western Center campus, and city officials hope the council will approve a $274 million bond issuance to complete the work. But Phases 3 through 8 are on hold — things like a new 10,000-seat arena, an exposition hall and a public market estimated at a cool $528 million.
Hanlon said the city had planned to find private partners to design, build, finance, operate and maintain those new amenities, but the city has not budgeted for its part of those phases and Hanlon is expecting something like a $190 million tax shortfall this year.
Think of it this way: Denver is deciding not to buy a new car right now after already canceling its Netflix subscription and ordering less takeout to save money.
“You still need the car … we’re still going to buy the car,” Department of Finance spokeswoman Julie Smith said. “But then the pandemic hit and you don’t feel confident in your revenue stream to make that purchase right now.”
More Denver and suburban political news
- Denver’s Board of Ethics unanimously decided Wednesday that Mayor Michael Hancock’s decision to fly to Texas for Thanksgiving didn’t directly violate the city’s code of ethics, though they noted the move was disappointing.
- Hancock has asked Polis at least twice this month to let city officials prioritize vaccinating the homeless population but the governor won’t allow it.
- In the last five decades, the city council has designated about 7,000 properties as historic landmarks, but only 2% to 3% are nonwhite landmarks. City planners are working to diversify landmarks moving forward.
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