A lot of work can be done in 120 days. But will that work be impactful to every Coloradan? Or will some of us be excluded?
That’s the challenge facing state legislators, staff, and advocates as they reconvene the 74th General Assembly in Denver this month. Despite passing more than 400 bills over 120 days in the 2023 legislative session, many issues will undoubtedly go unaddressed — including several issues directly impacting working-class families in the Eagle Valley.
Now that the calendar has reset for another 120-day session, we look forward to taking up issues that matter most to Latinos.
Our laundry list is likely too long to complete in a single session, but over the past three years, we’ve built an inventory of policy priorities through our local organizing efforts as well as our annual public opinion research initiative, the Colorado Latino Policy Agenda. As the largest annual poll of Latino registered voters in the state, the CLPA summarizes the perspectives and needs of Latinos in Colorado and informs our work at the state legislature.
In short, our list of priorities covers all major policy categories, including the economy, housing, immigration, health, education and climate and environmental justice. The list quickly grows longer when we drill down to specifics: We need to increase wages, improve working conditions, and reduce abuses of workers. We also need to increase access to health care for uninsured and underinsured adults and children, improve the quality of education for students of color from preschool to college, and protect a student’s right to feel safe and celebrate their culture in public schools. Reducing mass murders with assault weapons, decreasing the number of hate crimes targeting Latinos and immigrants, increasing police accountability, and improving public safety for people of color are also high-priority issues.
But it comes as no surprise that affordable housing continues to top the priority list for working families in the central-mountain region in 2024. Gov. Jared Polis knows it, state legislators know it, and the workers struggling to make ends meet in the valley know it most of all.
While bills are passed almost every session to address “affordable housing,” Latinos have been clear that they have not seen the impact of such programs. Currently, more than a third of Latinos surveyed in Colorado say they “cannot afford” or “can barely afford” where they live. And nearly 80% agree with the statement that “politicians talk about creating more affordable housing, but I have not seen any real change in access to affordable housing where I live.”
“Addressing the rising cost of living” was cited as the top policy issue in our CLPA polling of 1,600 Latino voters last summer, who made it clear they do not feel policymakers have been aggressive enough in addressing the growing housing challenges. Almost nine out of 10 Latino voters want their city or town to be required to build more affordable housing near jobs, schools, and public services. More importantly, they want these programs to actually reach Latinos.
Last year, Gov. Polis pushed a complex land use bill that attempted to impose statewide guidelines to increase density, among other things. Although it failed to pass, many initiatives from last year’s land use bill are expected to return in 2024. In his Jan. 10 State of the State speech at the Capitol, Polis highlighted the policies he supports to address the state’s housing crisis, including making accessory dwelling units easier to build, creating new financing strategies for home buyers, easing local parking requirements, and ending occupancy limits. But just how these policies will help central-mountain Latinos is not clear. In theory, every policy should help everyone. Nevertheless, Latinos are not always seeing the benefits.
While we plan to support and improve on those proposals, we also expect to consider issues like eviction protection, local housing needs assessments, and mobile home park tenant rights in this legislative session as we work to establish affordability and housing security for working families regionwide.
In his State of the State address, Polis also spoke about a universal health care study with the potential to make health care more accessible to everyone in the state. While we’re eager to hear more about the study, we believe “universal” health care must include undocumented adults and children who are not covered by any sort of health insurance today. Unfortunately, neither the governor nor the legislature is prepared to tackle those issues this year.
Among our other priorities for the session, we have already seen more than six bills introduced that we support. One of them is by Rep. Elizabeth Velasco that would allow any public-school student in Colorado to wear or display religious or cultural symbols at a graduation ceremony, expanding on a bill from 2023 that did the same for Native American students.
The need for HB24-1070 was driven by Colorado students being denied their fundamental First Amendment right to express their cultural heritage in some schools as recently as last year, when Parachute student Naomi Peña sued her school district for attempting to prevent her from wearing a stole with the Mexican and American flag colors. We look forward to working with Rep. Velasco to pass this bill and other important measures through the remainder of the current legislative session.
If you are interested in following Voces Unidas’ policy work in Denver, visit our bill tracker at VocesUnidas.org.
Alex Sánchez is the founder and CEO of Voces Unidas de las Montañas and Voces Unidas Action Fund, non-profit organizations working in Summit, Lake, Eagle, Pitkin, and Garfield counties. His column appears monthly in The Vail Daily.