A Colorado Plan for Economic Action
Progress for all is the guiding principle of my run for office. Every Colorado family should benefit from our growing economy, not just those at the top. We must address income inequality, strengthen the middle class, and invest in a clean energy economy to ensure a vibrant future for our citizens, our state, and our democracy.
My key economic priorities include:
- Creating Strong Communities
- Promoting Economic Justice and Fair Workplaces
- Ensuring Just Transitions for Workers in Evolving Industries
As a legislator, I will propose and support solutions to address the opportunities and inequities in our economy. I will provide trustworthy leadership to make a real difference in people’s lives, while ensuring the health of our environment.
Working People Are In Crisis
Stockholders in America have had much to celebrate, but many working Coloradans have not shared in their prosperity. Despite positive wage growth, record low unemployment, outstanding productivity gains, and a surging stock market, working-class Coloradans are in crisis.
Incomes for all but the wealthiest have been stagnant for decades and have fallen behind GDP growth, while the top 1% have seen their earnings sail far above it. It’s stunning to realize that if the federal minimum wage in 1968 had kept up with inflation and productivity, it would now be $22 an hour. Currently, it sits at $7.25. Colorado’s minimum wage is $12. The typical American household has less in savings than before the 2008 financial crisis. These and other negative circumstances exist despite 15 years of GDP expansion.
For many full-time workers, wages are simply inadequate to be self-sustaining. A variety of respected, major indices (the United Way’s ALICE threshold, MIT’s living wage calculator, the Self-Sufficiency Standard, and EPI’s Family Budget Calculator) have concluded that the costs of basic living needs — housing, food, health care, transportation, child care, technology, and taxes “frequently outpace low-wage earnings.” This applies even in families with more than one earner.
Income inequality is causing or exacerbating some of our biggest problems: homelessness, a crisis in mental health care, addiction, incarceration, and climate change. People at the top haven’t been affected, and people at the bottom are busy trying to survive. Right now there is no powerful middle demanding change.
These and other factors all play a role in the predicaments working people are experiencing:
- Sluggish or nonexistent wage growth.
- A precipitous rise in housing costs.
- Significant and persistent increases in health care costs.
- Decreases in medical insurance benefits.
- Skyrocketing tuition costs keeping low income people out of higher education and exacerbating the problem.
- The opioid epidemic.
- Child care costs are unaffordable for many, and affordable quality care is not widely available.
- Gaps in Internet access and technology access.
- Incarceration and criminal justice policies that criminalize poverty, exacerbate poverty, and trap people in a cycle that is difficult to break.
The state of Colorado has many levers to fundamentally change the market conditions that created this situation. Our policies, investments in education, institutions, support of union membership, and environmental policies can all play a role.
My plan suggests structural changes to turn the tide, for the betterment and health of our democracy and all Coloradans.
Redefining How Economic Health Is Measured
Although GDP and unemployment data traditionally have been the go-to indicators for policymakers, there is widespread agreement that these measurements do not fully reflect economic reality for most Americans. As a legislator, I will view our economy through a much more comprehensive lens, and consider the bigger picture of Coloradans’ quality of life based on broader indicators such as:
- The quantity and quality of jobs in our economy, considering pay rates, benefits, paid time off, job security, workplace safety, pay equity, and other key measurements.
- Costs and accessibility of essential human needs: housing, health care, transportation, child care, etc.
- The availability and success of our education and job training institutions.
- The savings rate.
- The home ownership rate.
- The gap between executive pay and median pay.
- The gender pay gap.
- The health of our air, water and public lands, all of which have profound impacts on well-being.
The goals spelled out in this plan are focused on recalibrating our economy to better disperse its benefits across the economic spectrum. To arrive at viable solutions, we must fully understand the challenges we’re facing. Indicators that reflect everyone’s reality — not just that of the wealthiest — will provide the clearest perspective to move forward successfully.
CREATING STRONG COMMUNITIES
I believe Colorado should transition to a single-payer health care system and disconnect health care from employment status.
In 2019, the Colorado Assembly passed legislation to help workers and business owners influence what a public health insurance option should be. This is a step in the right direction.
For workers, intertwining health care with compensation puts a drag on wages. It also limits workers’ choices, stifling their ability to change jobs because they are worried about losing their insurance.
Most businesses in Colorado struggle to cover the costs of health insurance for employees, and are declining to do so at an increasing rate. Today, less than half of Colorado workers have health insurance through their employers, despite a booming economy and employment levels at record highs.
Health care is a basic human right and access should not be based on job status. I believe a single-payer system would enliven entrepreneurship in our state by shifting the health care responsibility from businesses to society at large. I will advocate for affordable health care for all Coloradans.
I believe Colorado should stimulate more affordable housing, encourage home ownership, and protect the rights of renters.
In Colorado, housing costs command a high percentage of people’s incomes and has become unaffordable for many. Between 2010 and 2016, housing availability for those making less than half the median income decreased by 75%.
Substantial construction during and beyond that period has begun to help, but we are nowhere near housing parity. In the 2019 session, Colorado committed more money to affordable housing, but we need to go further to promote less expensive and more secure housing, as well as more home ownership opportunities.
Home ownership is critical to sustaining our middle class because it enables the creation of generational wealth. In addition to tangible financial benefits, home ownership brings substantial social benefits for families, communities, and our state. I will support initiatives that help more people purchase and own a home successfully.
Additionally, I believe renters in our state need better protections and I will stand with them to secure their rights. I will support initiatives to ensure landlords can not decline to rent to those with housing vouchers. I support current legislation under consideration by the Assembly to ensure eviction records are accurate, so that tenants are not turned down because of a prior threat of eviction. I will support requirements to ensure adequate notice is given to tenants of an intent to evict, and that evictions are not punitive against complaints of unsafe conditions. Finally, I believe the city of Boulder’s successful SmartRegs program, which requires all licensed rental housing to meet energy efficiency standards, could be replicated state wide.
I will work to promote education excellence in Colorado.
As a state, we must ensure we are making considerable, smart investments in our education system at every level, so that all learners — regardless of color, economic status, or locality — are prepared to work and thrive.
As a legislator, I will focus on funding educational initiatives in our K-12 system to close the achievement gap between wealthy and non-wealthy students, as well as students of color. Right now, family income is the best predictor of student success and that needs to change.
To attract great teachers, I believe our K-12 educators need better pay and benefits. They need the ability to organize and bargain collectively or collaboratively for better compensation. They should have more say in how student achievement is evaluated. We need to move away from measuring school success based on short-term test scores. Using test scores to evaluate teachers punishes those teaching low income and second language learners. These are some of the toughest teaching jobs. Instead, we should be encouraging and supporting these teachers.
I support Governor Polis’s initiative to fund pre-school education for four-year-olds in the state.
Additionally at the K-12 level, I would like to see non-traditional and students with special education requirements offered more options to learn and participate. I will support expanding funding for hands-on learning, vocational skills training, and outdoor learning to give our students greater exposure to real work and experiences.
Finally, we need reforms in the charter school laws. I believe charter schools should be reserved for students whose needs can not be met by public schools. An example of this is Justice High in Boulder.
For higher learning, high tuition costs in Colorado are a huge issue and hurting the young people in our state. I will support more affordable community college tuition, greater apprenticeship opportunities, tuition assistance, and more affordable four-year degree options for low-income students.
Colorado voters passed Amendment 23 in 2000, mandating that school funding increase each year according to the rate of inflation. But TABOR and the Gallagher Amendment limit and cut taxes, rendering Amendment 23’s mandate impossible. Lawmakers created “the negative factor” to deal with this dichotomy — an accounting trick that creates what is essentially an IOU for the money schools should receive but lawmakers can’t fund. That IOU stands at around $675 million, and represents an appalling failure to our students and voters alike.
Clearly, promoting education excellence is one of Colorado’s greatest challenges and opportunities. As a legislator, I will pursue these and other strategies to increase the quantity and quality of our state’s investments in education.
I will work to increase options for cheaper, cleaner and more efficient mobility of our workforce and recreational users.
Colorado has made strides in creating and promoting alternative transit, and our citizens have responded positively to innovation. But right now the bulk of Colorado’s transportation budget is devoted to widening highways, and I strongly believe state funding for alternative transportation should be more robust.
Coloradans have shown a broad willingness to transition their work and recreation commutes from driving cars to riding public transit, bicycling and walking. According to COPIRG, because of greater alternative transit options, “Colorado saw the sixth largest drop in driving of any state in the country since 2005. The average Coloradan is driving 1,172 miles less than in 2005.”
Beyond the obvious environmental benefits, alternative transit offers benefits to workers and helps shore up the middle class. Better transit options can create more worker flexibility and overall well being, giving people access to good jobs and lower- stress commutes.
In 2018, the state of Colorado freed up $250 million annually for cities and counties to invest in safe sidewalks, bike infrastructure and new buses. The state is considering high-speed rail as a solution to interstate gridlock along I-70 and I-25. I will support these and other innovative measures to give workers and families more transit options that simultaneously offer critical environmental benefits.
There is some good news in rural and mountain communities. They are implementing bus service at higher rates than other states. Mountain communities are providing bus service for employees who often commute long distances to work. Rural parts of the state are seeing increased routes with Bustang service. These services are helping and should be rolled out to more communities.
But more needs to be done. The congestion on I-70 is literally choking communities in Clear Creek County. Planning for high speed rail or an elevated rail line has dragged for decades. It is time to find the funding to build transit on the I-70 corridor. It is the gateway to our recreation economy and we have ignored the problem for too long. In the meantime Snowstang service from Denver to the ski areas is starting this year and could be a good tool to get cars off the road.
We already have rail infrastructure for transporting coal. Those lines could be repurposed for tourism and new clean industries moving into rural parts of the state. Further, I believe we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and move people in sustainable ways by electrifying our transportation sector. My proposals for EV expansion are outlined in my Climate Plan.
I will support substantial reforms to ensure our criminal justice system is equitable, wise, and financially sound.
Colorado’s justice system is in a moral and fiscal crisis. Right now, about 35,000 people in Colorado are locked up. Incarceration in our state costs nearly a billion dollars a year. In its 2018 report Blueprint for Smart Justice Colorado, the ACLU found:
- The Colorado prison population increased by 661% between 1980 and 2016 and is projected to increase by 38% more by 2024.
- The top offense for prison admission in 2016 was drug possession. Drug offenses alone accounted for 1 in every 7 admissions.
- Thousands of people are being held in jail without being tried or convicted. I will work to eliminate cash bail. Anyone not a threat to society should not be jailed awaiting trial due to bail money.
- Colorado ranked 9th in the country for the rate of black people imprisoned and 4th in the country for the rate of Latinx people imprisoned in 2014.
- There was a 579% increase in general fund spending on corrections between 1985 and 2016.
- These failures are wholly unacceptable, especially in light of Colorado’s 50 percent recidivism rate, which is 10 points higher than the national average rate of 40 percent.
Additionally, there is clear evidence that we are punishing people for being poor with high fees they can not pay. In some cases, our justice system creates insurmountable debt for even low-level offenders. The inclusion of for-profit businesses in our system (prisons, probation services, drug testing) has been costly in both human and financial terms. I will seek to remove all profit makers from our criminal justice system, and restore fairness to our system of fines and fees.
Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser and Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty have my strong support for their reform agendas. Among other important reforms, they understand that we must seek smart alternatives to incarceration for those suffering from substance abuse and mental illness.
I will stand for treating substance abuse and mental illness as public health issues — not criminal justice issues. Make no mistake, the economic costs of not doing so go far beyond the direct funds spent by the government: The immeasurable cost to victims of recidivist crime; the homelessness and safety net costs caused by a hobbled class of indebted offenders; the human cost of having a loved one with mental illness incarcerated for being sick, and no means to protect them.
I will work to help offenders re-enter society successfully, so they are less likely to reoffend. I am encouraged that Colorado joined other states in “banning the box.” Now companies with 11 or more employees are not allowed to ask job applicants about their criminal history during the initial job application. This gives offenders a chance to find employment, a critical step in getting their lives back on track.
I will support reliable and affordable Internet access and telecommunications parity for our rural communities, and more equitable technology access for all Colorado students.
Rural communities, families and businesses need access to reliable, fast Internet service to fully participate in our economy. Through a program of state grants and partnerships with telecoms and tech providers, Colorado is working toward 100% Internet access. There are still about 85,000 rural households, or 14% of Colorado households, with slow or no access. I will support continued robust funding of grants programs through the Colorado Broadband Office to bring those rural households reliable Internet access rapidly.
Unfortunately, Internet access alone does not solve the digital divide that technology creates. We must recognize that this is a critical reason why we are seeing greater divides between the rich and poor in all realms — particularly in education. The fact is, Internet access does not equal Internet service, which at $50 — $100 per metro Denver household is often too costly for lower income citizens.
Stop the Outsourcing of Critical State Services
I will work to stop the outsourcing of critical services, and reassume their management by the state.
I am strongly opposed to the outsourcing of public services to private, for-profit business. In several circumstances, we have seen this strategy be an unmitigated failure for taxpayers, customers, and workers alike:
- Prisons. The outsourcing of prison services in Colorado has failed workers, prisoners and taxpayers. I will support all efforts to have the state of Colorado reassume management of incarceration, and eliminate the profit motive that undermines us all.
- Mental Health. Much of the Medicaid money that comes into our state for mental health services is administered by private insurers. This is proving to be a disaster. In 2019 some insurers announced a 20% reduction in reimbursements for mental health providers. At a time when providers are in short supply and mental illness is rising, this is the exact opposite of what we should be doing. Real patients in desperate need of services are being denied access while investor’s are reaping the benefits. The arrangement has failed taxpayers on every conceivable level. I will introduce legislation to create a public mental health system that creates community mental health districts, streamlines funding and allows communities to provide wrap around services on a capitated basis. We also must encourage communities to implement jail diversion, mental health courts, co-responder models and other programs that keep patients with mental illness out of the judicial system.
- For Profit Schools. In Colorado, as in the rest of the country, many (though not all) for-profit schools have taken advantage of students, increasing their debt while delivering low educational and job readiness value. Many of these schools adopt predatory practices that target poor communities of color and non-traditional learners. In Colorado, our workforce retraining needs are increasing, especially in the clean energy sector. Historically, for-profit schools have taken advantage of the need for rapid retraining caused by workforce shifts. In Colorado, we must continue to shore up our non-profit universities, community colleges, and high schools to help prepare people for work.
- Transportation. Taxpayers should benefit from toll lanes, not private companies. Revenues should be put back into transit.
I will work to improve retirement security for all Coloradans.
Ensuring Coloradans are able to age and retire with dignity is a lifelong process that the state can support. Some ideas from the Center for American Progress that I support:
- Enacting the Secure Savings Plan that is being studied now so that employees of small companies can have access to savings through a payroll deduction.
- Increasing financial literacy at an early age, so young people understand the value of savings.
- Promoting home ownership for wealth creation and savings.
I will support greater financial literacy programming by the state to empower Coloradans to decrease personal debt and increase savings.
Working people are disadvantaged by a banking and finance system that is unfairly expensive. Banking fees in particular can be overly punitive and problematic. For example, a $50 bank fee incurred over a $5 overdraft is unreasonable. Fees like this can cause people to get eternally behind. We must provide access to banking for low income families. Banks must be incentivized to offer no fee accounts and to waive fees for these accounts while also providing financial literacy education.
Home Health Care
I believe now is the time to dramatically strengthen Colorado’s home health care workforce.
According to the Colorado Health Institute, 13.8% of Coloradans are 65 or older and by 2050, this number will grow to 20%. Our older adults will need care, especially toward the end of life.
We must incentivize more people to go into home health care and the state can help by providing paid training, tuition reimbursement, and tax incentives, while ensuring these jobs provide a fair wage. In the interest of all concerned — workers, families, and adults receiving care — home health care workers must have the ability to collectively bargain. Insurance companies will primarily reimburse their services, and it is critical that workers have the protections they need to work safely and earn a fair wage.
The state has an important role to play in home health care for another reason: Historically, women have provided home health care to family members unpaid. Women are now firmly and equally contributing members of our greater workforce, who generate tax revenue and contribute greatly to our overall economy. This is a fairly recent construct, and it coincides with a rapidly aging population. I believe we must support the ascendance of women to higher work roles by ensuring paid, quality care for children and aging adults.
PROMOTING ECONOMIC JUSTICE AND FAIR WORKPLACES
The state has an important role to play in protecting and ensuring workers’ rights. I will propose and/or support the following:
We must take measures to ensure Coloradans’ wages enable people to be self sustaining.
Colorado’s minimum wage is $12 per hour. Cost of living indexes continue to increase in Colorado, where housing has become particularly difficult for low wage workers to afford. Although Colorado’s economy is strong, wages have largely stagnated in the last decade. In 2019, the Colorado Assembly passed the Local Wage Option that allows local communities to set an appropriate minimum wage, unencumbered by state or federal law, allowing residents to support themselves and have spending power to stimulate their local economies. (For example, Denver’s minimum wage will increase to almost $16 per hour in 2022.) This bill was signed into law in May.
For other communities within our state, $12 remains insufficient. I will advocate for improvements to this legislation, which was watered down from the original concept. I will support raising Colorado’s minimum wage to $15 per hour.
Paid Family and Medical Leave
I will work to ensure paid family and medical leave for all Coloradans.
Work requirements that prevent people from taking care of their families at critical junctures generate negative impacts and eventually diminish business productivity. Mandating across-the-board family and medical leave — as virtually every civilized nation already does — is a critical economic improvement for Colorado that will bring positive impacts to people at every level of society.
To prevent workers from being taken advantage of, we must properly classify their status.
Federal law stipulates that workers are employees when they earn a specific wage or salary, work under an implied or written contract, and perform work that is under the control of the employer. In the “gig economy,” many businesses have skirted the law by deeming people as part-time or contract laborers with no benefits, limited job protections, and compromised workplace safety.
The gig economy is proving to have harmed workers, and often serves as a means to deny benefits, employment growth, and workplace safety. As a legislator, I would support codifying worker status to disincentivize businesses from evading the law and taking advantage of workers. Additionally, I will support legislation to limit or eliminate unpaid internships, which are patently unfair because people who can’t afford to work for free are excluded.
Balanced Executive Pay
The state should encourage balance between executive pay and median pay.
In the Colorado economy, executive pay and the median pay for working people is unbalanced. For example, in 2018 the CEO of VF Corp, which includes brands like The North Face and SmartWool, was compensated at a rate of 1,767 times that of its median worker’s pay. The CEO of Crocs, Inc. made 634 times its median employee’s pay.
I believe the state has an opportunity to monitor this gap, and act to narrow it through tax policy and other types of incentives. The goal is to promote more equity by encouraging better corporate governance, and more equitable and balanced pay.
Colorado should expand greater child care support to lower and middle income families.
Child care costs can be onerous for Colorado’s lower and middle income families, with pressure especially high on single parents and families with two working adults, the majority of families in the state.
Prohibitive child care costs can limit a worker’s choices and opportunities. Child care costs, ranging from approximately $8,800-$12,000 per year per child, come at a phase of life when family income levels are usually below peak levels. These challenges are compounded by the fact that many workplaces limit extended or paid family leave. I will support expanding greater child care support to Colorado’s lower and middle income families, possibly through incentives and requirements that businesses of a certain size provide child care to their employees.
Colorado must ensure workplace protections for LGBTQ persons.
I am a strong ally of LGBTQ persons and will legislate accordingly. LGBTQ discrimination has no place in any part of our society. There is still much work to be done with regard to LGBTQ rights. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people reported much higher rates of being bullied, fired, or denied a job, promotion, or lease compared with heterosexual people. I will support legislation that supports and affirms the rights of LGBTQ persons.
We must strengthen regulations that protect workers and the environment.
In my 25 years of owning and running a manufacturing business, I did not find Colorado regulations unduly onerous. Regulations that protect worker health and safety are important. If one person had died or become disabled while working for us, it would have made our entire enterprise not worth the price.
Regulations around overtime, work hours, and wage theft protect employees. In many cases regulations like these help level the playing field, ensuring that all companies are playing by the same rules. Large companies forcing employees to work part time to avoid providing health insurance, paying inadequate wages and landing their workers on government assistance is a form of corporate welfare, and smaller business owners end up footing this cost.
ENSURING JUST TRANSITIONS FOR WORKERS IN EVOLVING INDUSTRIES
Colorado’s energy sector is rapidly evolving to clean technologies, and changes in the health care industry are likewise emerging. To ensure just transitions for these and other workers, I will propose and/or support the following:
Energy Sector Jobs
Energy transition is happening; we must ensure it is just.
Colorado is on the cusp of building an entirely new economy based on clean energy. There is a dire need for progressive policies that will allow us to smartly transition from our long-standing fossil fuel economy to the clean energy future — policies that protect the health and economic well being of working people.
Many Colorado communities have been damaged by the boom-and-bust cycles of the oil extraction industry. Companies that have profited while leaving economic and environmental devastation in their wake must be held to account.
Our response to the climate emergency can not come at an outsized cost for workers. The environmental and labor movements have come together in the last several years to form the BlueGreen Alliance. Their plan, Solidarity for Climate Action, outlines how we can achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 while ensuring a just transition for working families and communities.
The plan includes actions to make massive and immediate investments in clean clean, renewable technology, and energy efficiency across all sectors. Additionally, the plan focuses on growing and strengthening unions, guaranteeing pensions for workers
transitioning to the clean energy economy, training for workers from low-income households and underrepresented groups, and ensuring that workplaces are safe from toxic pollution and harmful chemicals.
This is the way forward. I will advance and support legislation that creates thriving communities and strong economies that provide environmentally sustainable and well paying jobs.
We must ensure the benefits of automation are shared equitably.
When automation is brought to bear, the productivity increases and savings that result should be shared between the company that automates and the workers who remain. Employees who are displaced should be compensated in such a way that they can fully recover (e.g., $1000/month for five years).
This idea is also applicable in large industry transitions, such as the energy sector, where workers should not lose ground as we shift jobs away from fossil fuels toward clean energy technology.
Workers in transition need support to develop their skills for greater automation and retraining in clean energy industries. Industry should pay or share the cost of retraining. We also can incentivize companies to provide more tuition reimbursement and other ongoing training and learning opportunities.
I agree with experts who suggest expanding the earned income tax credit, and enacting wage insurance programs to help workers who are forced into lower paying jobs due to automation and industry transitions. At the same time, enacting critical policies (family and medical leave, single-payer health care, and child care assistance), can shore up the security of workers in transition.
Addressing climate change is critical to the health of Colorado’s economy.
We must take urgent action to address climate change and its impacts on our economy. Because of climate change, Colorado faces a warmer future, with effects including shorter winters, increased air pollution, and devastating fires, floods, and droughts. Climate change threatens our fragile water supply. Our iconic outdoor recreation and tourism economies are vulnerable to ecological changes from arming. We need ambitious change to achieve critical climate goals.
I am taking steps to achieve Colorado’s climate goals and building coalitions with climate leaders to drive sound environmental policy for our state. My Climate Plan outlines key actions I plan to take.
Since the 2008 financial crisis, the very wealthy have made incredible financial gains in this country. But our policy choices around jobs, compensation, housing, health care, and criminal justice have rigged the system against those at the bottom of the economic ladder.
But there is hope.
Today’s policies are not set in stone.
Coloradans can come together to create foundational change.
I am determined to be a positive force for progress and bold action.
by Judy Amabile with Robin Noble Gribbon
Judy Amabile is a candidate for Colorado House District 13 in 2020.
Robin Noble Gribbon is a freelance writer and editor.
Special thanks to the experts and economic justice advocates who provided thoughtful input to this plan.
Paid for by Elect Judy Amabile | www.judyamabile.com
© 2020 Judy Amabile