Rod Pelton, Jerry Sonnenberg
Pelton, Sonnenberg ready to get to work
The 2019 Colorado General Assembly is now underway, with a new House representative for northeastern Colorado and the area senator relearning to work as a member of the minority party in the state Senate.
Former Cheyenne County Commissioner Rod Pelton took the oath of office Jan. 4 along with 64 other members of the House. Pelton, of Cheyenne Wells, recently spoke to this reporter about his priorities for the 2019 session.
“As a county commissioner, I’ve been a loud voice for eastern Colorado,” Pelton said.
“My main charge is to [be] the strong voice for rural Colorado,” Pelton explained, adding that he intends to follow in the footsteps of great northeastern lawmakers, such as former state Sens. Greg Brophy and Mark Hillman, current Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg and former Rep. Jon Becker, his immediate predecessor.
Pelton believes his experience as a county commissioner, including working with commissioners from other counties, will help in dealing with lawmakers in the House. “Ninety-five percent of the stuff we do is not partisan,” Pelton said. “My main charge [is] to sit down and talk with moderate Democrats who will listen and tell them what it takes to make a living out here.”
Pelton has been assigned to the committee on rural affairs, formerly known as the House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee. He’s also on the committees on public health and appropriations.
Rural Colorado needs to be recognized, Pelton told this reporter, on issues such as human services and transportation. Human services in northeastern Colorado, in particular, face challenges not seen in larger counties, Pelton said.
Some of that has to do with how money is spent on those services. “If we don’t spend it all, we lose it” — not a good incentive for being frugal. “We want to be frugal but not jeopardize funds in the future.”
One of the concerns that has recently surfaced is over funding cuts to crisis centers from the state Department of Human Services, and Pelton and other lawmakers believe those dollars are being redirected to administrative purposes.
One of his first bills will be to deal with that issue; if a request for proposals directly or indirectly affects county services, the county can protest. Pelton believes it addresses concerns over transparency in bidding processes by the department.
Another bill that will be part of his first five (lawmakers are limited to five bills, although few follow it) is on laboratory meat. Pelton said that if proteins are developed in a lab, it should not be labeled as meat. “If it isn’t derived from an animal, it cannot be labeled as meat,” Pelton said.
A third bill, and one that has been tried in the past, would cut costs for counties that must publish notices such as expenses and salaries in newspapers. Colorado Counties Inc., the statewide organization for county commissioners, has been pushing for several years to allow counties to publish that information online rather than in newspapers.
The measure has been opposed in the past by the Colorado Press Association as well as some local northeastern Colorado newspapers, Pelton said. Counties are the only entities still required to publish in newspapers rather than online, and he hopes to be successful with making that change.
The first couple of weeks since the election have had Pelton at the Capitol, participating in freshman orientation. He likened it to being “baptized by fire,” a common sentiment among first-time lawmakers. And being a small-town guy — in a county with 1,800 square miles and 1,850 residents — will make living in Denver during the session a bit of a challenge, Pelton said.
One advantage Pelton has is the experience and know-how of Sonnenberg, his Senate counterpart. “But he won’t need much,” said Sonnenberg, who helped convince Pelton to run.
Sonnenberg’s 2019 will be very different than 2018, when he served as president pro tem of the Senate, the right hand to the Senate president.
When Republicans lost control of the Senate in November, Sonnenberg was shut out of leadership positions. However, Minority Leader Chris Holbert put him to work on four committees, more than any other member of his caucus.
Sonnenberg will be the ranking member (most senior) on the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. He also will continue to serve on appropriations; on the State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee; and on the Capital Development Committee.
Sonnenberg is the only continuing member on the six-member Capital Development Committee, which makes decisions on funding for maintenance and construction of state facilities. “I’m the only guy who understands and has the historical knowledge of what we’ve talked about the last several years and how to deal with controlled maintenance.” Educating members will be one of his bigger challenges, he said.
Sonnenberg is an old hand at being in the minority from his days in the House. “It won’t change much,” he said. “I’ve always been one to work across the aisle,” and he will continue to do that in 2019.
Among his legislative agenda for 2019: the agricultural port of entry bill he sponsored in 2018.
Under current law, a truck hauling manure to a site a mile away has to drive to the Fort Morgan port of entry to be weighed, which could be 5 miles or more away. Sonnenberg’s bill would allow the state patrol to use its mobile scales to weigh the trucks, saving the trucker the time it takes to drive to the port of entry, which adds costs.
The state patrol already has mobile scales, Sonnenberg said. “Time is money for these truckers,” and the problem becomes acute during harvest.
Sonnenberg has reached out to Gov.-elect Jared Polis to see where they can work together. His appointments will tell us a lot, Sonnenberg said. He’s hoping Polis will maintain someone like John Stulp on water issues, although Polis had indicated he might not have a water czar as Hickenlooper had.
Sonnenberg also plans to work on education funding in 2019 and intends to resurrect an idea he had in 2010, to use GOCO dollars for education. Great Outdoors Colorado, which provides grants for parks and other outdoor facilities, receives its funding solely from the Colorado Lottery. “I think we have enough outhouses and soccer fields, and we need to put more money in the classroom, and this is a way to put it in front of the voters,” Sonnenberg explained.
When Sonnenberg ran the bill in 2010, the state teachers’ union opposed it, he said, because $100 million was not enough. “My bill will give the Legislature the option to use the money for education or open space. Maybe education should be a higher priority when the state is short for money,” he added.
Sonnenberg will also keep an eye on conservation easements (he chaired a hearing on the issue on Dec. 19). “That’s a program that’s off its rocker,” he said.
He’s also planning to run a bill that would rein in some of the rulemaking done by state agencies. Some of the rules have put extra burden on small businesses, he explained. “We have become lazy in the Legislature and given authority to the executive branch. Now they’re abusing it,” and it’s time to pull it back, he said. The bill would say that a state agency could have rulemaking authority when it’s specified in a bill, not “whenever an agency thinks it needs a rule.”
Sonnenberg says he will champion opposition to any attempts by Democrats to impose more setbacks on oil and gas activity. Voters rejected a ballot measure in November that would have increased the setback distance from new oil and gas drilling from 500 feet to 2,500 feet.
In early December, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, in conjunction with environmental groups and the oil and gas industry, did make changes that said setback distances were between the drilling site, for example, and a school’s property line. Previously, the setback distance was to the building itself; now it will include school playgrounds and sports fields, as well as those areas around day care centers.
Does he see areas for compromise with Polis? The new governor likes to solve a problem without everyone being mad, Sonnenberg said. “I think we can find common ground, in the ag sector or on rural issues. Let’s sit down and see what we can figure out.”