A Seat at the Table: Pueblo lawmakers say their leadership positions are making a difference for often-forgot Southern Colorado.

Colorado Senate President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, talks with a fellow legislator at the State Capitol. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

For years, a narrative has existed that the southern region of the state often takes a backseat in policy discussions under Colorado’s gold dome, but with two of Pueblo’s state lawmakers sitting in key leadership positions this year, there’s, at the very least, a renewed sense of optimism shining through a session that has been embroiled in partisan politics.

Pueblo State Representative Daneya Esgar is the first Southern Colorado legislator to sit on the Joint Budget Committee since Abel Tapia, who left the seat in 2010. The committee is an important one, tasked with reviewing and preparing the state budget each year.

Esgar said she made it clear to leadership that her region of the state has been an absent voice on the joint budget committee for nearly a decade. “I definitely used that (argument),” she said.

When Tapia vacated the seat, he told reporters he worried about the status of the Colorado State Fair and how future budgets could impact state workers in Pueblo. Among education and health care, those issues have been ever-present for Esgar too, she said. Specifically, the number of people in Pueblo who have state jobs and how any changes might impact them and the local economy. Two major hubs for state employees are the Pueblo Regional Center with 169 employees and the Colorado Mental Health Institute with 1,084 workers, according to state numbers.

Gov. Jared Polis asked for a 3-percent across-the-board raise for all state employees in his budget, something Esgar said would be significant for Pueblo. The budget, called the long bill, will start making its way through the legislature in April.

The fact of the matter, Esgar said, is that Pueblo faces many different issues than municipalities along the Front Range, and with the governor, speaker of the House and House majority leaders representing Boulder and Denver, it became ever apparent that the JBC was in need of an alternative narrative on what’s happening outside the Denver metroplex.

Esgar said she sees herself as a sort of stop-gap for an exclusive focus on Denver.

Weekly meetings with leadership — “a seat at the table” as Esgar puts it — has become an important key to legislating. That’s echoed by Senate President Leroy Garcia, almost exactly.

“This role allows you to have a seat at the table and get something done,” he told PULP, detailing the weekly meetings he has with Polis and House leadership.

That “something” comes in a variety of ways. He points to the expansion of the medical assisted treatment bill, which is a tool for addressing the opioid epidemic, that was the first bill Senate Democrats introduced in January. Typically, the first bill of the session is one is symbolic of the majority party’s agenda for the next three months. It passed the Senate unanimously.

Garcia said he also wants to see something done to utilize the Colorado State Penitentiary II facility in Cañon City. Exactly what repurposing the defunct prison would look like is unknown, but Garcia would like to see it employed for mental health treatment, and this year might be the year with Polis on board to fund that re-opening in some way.

“Repurposing these facilities could accommodate residential mental health treatment in Denver, which currently has less of a shortage of behavioral health workers compared to its current location in Cañon City. A transformation of CSPII, originally built for solitary confinement, would be a meaningful way to help address the reentry of incarcerated individuals into society,” Garcia said. “I see this as a double win for our region. First, we are creatively utilizing this vacant facility that has no current use in our community. At the same time, we avoid negatively impacting our community’s workforce.”

Garcia also has ideas about utilities, as Pueblo continues to battle high rates from Black Hills Energy. “We should put all options on the table,” he said. “If they (Black Hills) want to be a good community partner and neighbor, I’d argue that’s long overdue.”

As of this publishing, Garcia hadn’t introduced a bill.

Those plans are easily overshadowed with the drama that has followed a trifecta of Democratic control at the state Capitol.

Garcia was slapped with a lawsuit from Republicans mid-session over ordering five computers to read a 2,000-page bill, requested by GOP senators who said a bill to turnover oil and gas control to local government was happening too fast and with not enough conversation. They used that request to buy some time to study oil and gas.

Garcia also faced the “red flag” bill which, if signed into law, would allow law enforcement to temporarily take a person’s guns if the person is believed to be a threat to themselves or others. Garcia’s seat was formally the target of a recall election over gun-related legislation, leaving many wondering how the party leader would come down on the issue.

He was the only Senate Democrat to vote against it. It’s so far unclear what conversations went on behind closed doors regarding that vote.

While the highly-partisan debates have rallied voters on both sides of the aisle, they tend to seem far from typical campaign promises: improving Pueblo’s economy and creating jobs — which Garcia’s campaign website is his top priority.

Esgar said the partisanship that’s led to lawsuits and late nights in the chamber does detract from their main goal of representing southern Colorado, even as it comes with the territory of being in leadership.

But while those conversations are being had, she said Pueblo and Southern Colorado are more of a factor and consideration than they’ve ever been before. Garcia said he could point to a handful of instances during his last term, where he also served in leadership, where those conversations led to action: state fair funding, a Colorado Bureau of Investigation in Pueblo West, a new department of a transportation facility in Pueblo and funding for Fort Lyons.

Last year, former Cañon City lawmaker Kevin Grantham led Senate Republicans, who then had the majority.