By Kathryn White
Advocates for older adults are back at the Colorado Capitol this month, working with lawmakers to navigate budget constraints and address the critical needs of a growing number of Coloradans.
Following a tumultuous 2023, when a record eight lawmakers stepped down prior to their terms ending, both lawmakers and champions from advocacy organizations will need to bring as much level-headedness as they can muster to this new round of work.
Westword’s Dec. 13 article “Colorado Legislators Decry ‘Toxic’ Workplace as Resignation Numbers Reach New Highs” described a state Legislature where the term “toxic” became common and where remarks were made accusing Black legislators of “playing the race card” and transgender people of “lying to themselves.”
The year wrapped up with a November special session that found legislators yelling at and over one another in heated exchanges about the Israel-Hamas war.
Alongside the turmoil, advocates for older adults have held steady, participating in year-round collaborations and strengthening relationships to lean on around priority issues. They hit the ground running when the Colorado General Assembly convened Jan. 10.
Public policy experts we spoke with from AARP, Colorado Center for Aging (CCA) and the Alzheimer’s Association of Colorado all agree that the state’s 16 Area Councils on Aging (AAAs) should receive the increased funding they will seek.
AAAs provide community-based services to help older Coloradans remain in their homes and in their communities, offering basic information and referral services to case management, transportation, home-delivered meals, senior centers and legal help.
AAAs have not seen a base funding increase since 2019, so will ask for $5 million more in state general fund support, in response to a demand for services from Colorado’s older adults that has grown significantly in recent years. They’d also like to see annual funding tied to something allowing it to increase with inflation over time.
Rich Mauro, director of legislative affairs for the Denver Regional Council of Governments and co-chair of CCA’s advocacy committee, said that, in addition to state funding for senior services, affordable housing is likely to dominate CCA’s attention in 2024.
After the failure of Gov. Jared Polis’ omnibus land use/affordable housing bill, SB 23-213, Mauro said, “There has been a lot of discussion among the governor, legislators, local governments and other stakeholders about what to do next. Thankfully, those discussions started earlier, have occurred more often and have been more inclusive than last session. Also, we expect several bills, instead of one big one.”
“The main interest for aging advocacy groups, last year and again this year,” Mauro continued, “is to make sure any relevant legislation is ‘age friendly.’ That means we will be advocating for an expanded definition of accessibility, stronger requirements for the use of universal design in new home construction and existing home modifications, and making sure the housing needs of older adults are considered.”
Mauro also expects to follow bills on the expansion of access to food and nutrition services, dementia training for nursing home administrators, advanced directives, how to handle violence against healthcare workers in hospitals and freestanding ERs, and portability of the senior property tax exemption.
Karen Moldovan, associate state director of advocacy with AARP Colorado, said that AARP paid special attention to the special session in the fall and will continue to monitor the work of the property tax commission, “particularly with a lens to strategies to assist aging Coloradans who may have challenges with spikes in property tax rates.”
Moldovan said that while Proposition HH contained elements some voters didn’t approve of, there is general support from AARP members for the portability of the senior property tax homestead exemption.
Previous legislative attempts at portability would have allowed a qualifying older adult to continue to claim the exemption without meeting the 10-year ownership and occupancy requirement, so long as they had continuously owned residential real property since qualifying for the exemption.
Moldovan, like Mauro and CCA, will follow bills aimed at tackling Colorado’s affordable housing crisis.
“We’re interested in the work around accessory dwelling units (ADUs),” Moldovan said. “They’re not going to solve all of our housing needs in the state of Colorado, but they are something we think can be important for families, especially families that have caregiving responsibilities that relate to aging Coloradans.”
Moldovan has seen promising drafts where “we might be able to see financing opportunities, to help folks construct ADUs or to help local governments meet some of the criteria needed for ADUs. The approach I’ve seen is to incentivize local governments to ensure ADUs are both affordable and accessible.”
Coral Cosway, public policy director at Alzheimer’s Association of Colorado, said they’ll pursue legislation requiring nursing home administrators to have a minimal amount of dementia training and will also support a bill that requires state-regulated insurance plans to cover biomarker testing, such as blood testing and genetic profiling, which are important for the diagnosis and treatment of Alzheimer’s and related dementias.
There are two bills to protect healthcare workers from violence expected to reach lawmakers this session. One would require certain healthcare facilities to take a specific list of actions to protect employees from workplace violence. The other would create new crimes for certain threatening and interfering behaviors.
Cosway said that her organization, and several others, oppose the latter bill in its current form.
“For patients and visitors of these facilities who are not in control of their behavior 100% of the time,” Cosway said, “like those living with dementia, these new crimes and enhanced penalties could mean more of them will be swept up in the criminal justice system.”
Lawmakers have 120 days to conduct this year’s business. They’ll adjourn May 8.
To search, by keyword or lawmaker, bills under consideration, visit leg.colorado.gov/bills.
Kathryn White has lived in North Denver since the early 1990s and launched The Gray Zone in 2020. She became editor of The Denver North Star in October 2023. She’s taught fitness classes at Highland Senior Recreation Center, volunteered with the Alzheimer’s Association and has worked at a retirement community in the neighborhood.