Prepared remarks delivered at the CCI Annual Conference, May 31, 2023: The enduring importance of local and state cooperation
I appreciate the opportunity to join you today. In my remarks today, I’d like to discuss how my Department views the importance of collaboration with county governments. Without question, it’s central to how we think about supporting communities, advancing the rule of law, protecting our democracy, and promoting justice for all.
I. Learning From Those on the Ground
Let me begin by articulating a core value of mine—government must engage directly with the people of Colorado, specifically in their communities, and listen hard to the issues that affect them. It has stayed with me, for example, during a visit to a Colorado community when I was told that standards for child care facilities were applied in that community in a way that led the only licensed child care provider to close. Community members shared with me that the result of this decision was only unlicensed child care was available. We can do better than that. But that’s the type of information I would never have heard had I not left the Denver metropolitan area.
My commitment to showing up across the state includes both general town halls, check ins, and specific conversations on issues I encounter in my role. Let me offer two examples. First, as some of you know already, I am doing a statewide tour to hear from consumers, workers, and suppliers about their feedback and concerns about the proposed merger between Kroger and Albertsons. You can see the list of upcoming sessions at our website. Second, a top priority for my second term is teen mental health. To that end, my office is currently investigating TikTok and Instagram for their algorithms and how they impact our kids. You can learn more about that work on our website as well.
Over the weeks and months ahead, I will be going around the state to hear from young people, parents, school administrators, and teachers on what we should do about the impact of social media on teen mental health and about the state of teen mental health more broadly. Moreover, we recently recovered $32 million for Colorado from JUUL after resolving a lawsuit we filed against them for their part is fueling the teen vaping epidemic. To determine how we best use those recovery dollars, I plan to engage communities across our state on how best to use these funds to address teen public health and mental health.
I often hear some skepticism that state government outreach is just perfunctory and won’t have any impact on what state government does. I understand those concerns. In my case, such outreach directly influences and guides our work. Consider, for example, the concerns I heard in southern and southeastern Colorado about the lack of housing options and that, in particular, usable structures were dilapidated, but there was a lack of trained workers to rehabilitate such homes. I was asked whether we could help. The answer was yes—Colorado had obtained a $60 million settlement from big banks who engaged in shady practices related to home forfeitures during the Great Recession and those funds were required to address housing issues. But as I learned, unfortunately, not a dollar of those funds was invested south of Pueblo. So, with the leadership of Vanessa Devereaux, our head of community engagement, we developed the Colorado Partnership for Education and Rural Revitalization. This program, working with a number of community colleges, is meeting this challenge and training new workers to rehabilitate and build housing in Southern Colorado.
On showing up locally, let me share a final point—we need to hear from you and my staff and I are here for you. That work can take a variety of forms. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, Gunnison County faced some bullying tactics by the Texas Attorney General’s office, where that office threatened litigation against Gunnison County. In response, our team made it clear to Texas “don’t mess with Colorado.” And we stood with Gunnison County and their read of the law. As you have thorny legal issues, we encourage you to be in touch.
II. The Colorado Opioids Response Model
As many of you know well, a top priority for my first term was addressing the opioid crisis. For so many communities around the state, this crisis meant that we were not providing effective treatment, recovery, or prevention strategies, but were simply using our jails as de facto detox centers. Take, for example, Alamosa County Sheriff Robert Jackson who reported that 90% of inmates in the county jail struggled with addiction. And Sheriff Jackson told me there was no support available to help those in jail recover from their opioid use disorder.
The opioid crisis started in corporate boardrooms at companies like Purdue Pharma. Responding to such behavior, we took on Purdue, and those who worked with them, to hold them accountable and recover funds for Colorado to address this crisis. To date, we have secured over $720 million to address this crisis. Those funds will make a difference, with 19 regional collaboratives investing the lion’s share of the money to build the treatment, recovery, and preventative services we desperately need.
What many of you also know is that, once our office saw the settlement of these cases coming down the pike, we asked John Swartout, Gini Pingenot, and the CCI team to help us convene conversations with local leaders on the front lines. This led to a collaborative framework we jointly stood up to ensure that these funds would be spent wisely, responsibly, and transparently. Many of you know former Thornton Mayor Heidi Williams, who we were fortunate enough to bring on to spearhead this effort. Part of what made these conversations so successful is that we listened hard and worked together to advance our shared goals. It was important that our office had no ambition to control the funding at the state level—control for its own sake never leads to good public policy. Rather, we started from the shared premise that the resources needed to be invested at the regional and local levels.
The ultimate framework we developed to manage how we use the opioid settlement funds is truly a national model. In fact, in an evaluation of every state’s response to this opportunity, a group from John Hopkins School of Public Health found that Colorado developed the most effective model. That’s a tribute to our design of a region-centric plan. In some conversations on what regions made sense, I encouraged that certain communities of interest work together. In other conversations, I accepted the communities’ decision to stick with a smaller unit than seemed optimal. On one such decision, involving the San Luis Valley, I am proud to say I was proved totally wrong. Indeed, the Valley stands out as one of the most effective regional bodies in Colorado. And that body already received an infrastructure grant to build a treatment center in the Valley—for the first time in a very long time—addressing the pain point that Sheriff Jackson identified and shared with me six years ago.
As for the work ahead to respond to the opioid crisis, we have our work cut out for us. From a lack of effective interdiction at the border to the failures of social media platforms to address fentanyl distribution on their platforms, the opioid crisis is as deadly as ever. We must use every tool we have, including better interdiction and prosecution of drug cartels, enhanced prevention and awareness strategies, more treatment options for those struggling with addiction, improved recovery services, harm reduction efforts like widespread availability of Narcan, and more. Heidi and our opioid response team is doing a tremendous job supporting that work at the regional and local level. You can learn more by going to coag.gov/opioids, where you can access our database capturing how all of the dollars are spent as well as providing details about our work, including our annual conference coming up this August in Montrose. If you are interested in getting involved in this work, or learning more, please go to coag.gov/opioids.
III. Our Shared Challenges on Water
As I think both about our strength as collaborative problem solvers and our biggest challenge, I am thinking a lot about our water challenges. The reality is that we are in a drought that is not going away. This means we need to have some hard conversations and planning on how we use our water. And that means changes to our use. As we face up to those changes, we must make them the right way—thinking about what works for all of us. That means not pitting housing development against agriculture, and it means not pitting communities from one part of the state against another. That’s why I was so adamant that short-sighted schemes like taking water from the San Luis Valley and send it to the Front Range are wrong for Colorado.
I’m committed to working with all of you and all parts of our state on our water management challenges. In northeastern Colorado, for example, we are keeping a close eye on Nebraska and talk of building a canal in our state—I know this is an issue of huge concern to many of you, especially those in the Northeast, such as Logan County Commissioner Jerry Sonnenberg, who I’ve heard from directly on this matter. I remain skeptical about that proposal. If Nebraska moves ahead, we will continue to do all we can to protect our rights and ensure that they only get what is legally required and not a drop more.
We all see weekly the challenges with the Colorado River, so I won’t go into detail here, other than to underscore that we cannot be passive in the face of changing hydrology. There are legislative conversations ongoing, and I encourage everyone to pay attention and ask how we can best adapt. And similarly, the Rio Grande River Basin is facing challenges in managing its groundwater, with important steps being taken to develop collaborative solutions.
As we think about our water and the future, we see a model for effective collaboration between the state and regional bodies: a path of listening to and learning from one another. As Russ George, a legendary Coloradan explained to me, such conversations must include two questions—“what do you need?” and “what can you give up?” The Colorado Water Plan grounds such conversations with core commitments that include eschewing “buy and dry” strategies that undermine local economies and emphasizing innovative problem solving. You are fortunate to have many local leaders in this room who know this challenge well and have been tackling it for years, like Fort Collins Mayor Jeni Arndt, and who understand the stakes here and are committed to developing solutions.
IV. Innovative Problem Solving at Work
My vision of local and state relations involves the state providing resources, offering guidance, and providing support if needed. That also includes—never imposing top-down unfunded mandates. In closing out my remarks, let me discuss two other areas I’m focused on and where these principles will matter: (1) driving broadband deployment and adoption; and (2) recruitment of law enforcement officers.
Colorado now faces an opportunity that won’t come around again—to invest on the order of $800 million to ensure that every Coloradan has robust and reliable broadband. Today, there are local leaders in our state who cannot do a Zoom call from home. That’s just unacceptable. To participate in the 21st century economy, broadband access is an absolute necessity.
The model for spurring broadband deployment starts with a mapping exercise that I hope you are all aware of. The Governor’s Broadband Office has worked to enlist feedback on a map of where broadband exists, and where it does not. If you have not checked out this map, or shared it with your constituents, please do so. With this map as a starting place, our state is positioned to develop a plan for investing in local broadband projects as well as middle mile projects to build a level of reliable infrastructure that will overcome our digital divide and enable full and equal access to the information age. If you are not engaged in such conversations, I encourage you to focus on this opportunity. I can promise you it won’t come around again.
Law enforcement recruitment is a challenge you are all struggling with. For starters, we can all help develop and share the narrative about why officers serve. Our office developed a “Why I Serve” program and we pushed for state funds to support local law enforcement recruiting and retention. We also pushed for mental health funding for local police and sheriffs, as we know that the trauma experienced by law enforcement officers left untreated is one of the major reasons why so many officers die by suicide or leave the profession. We will continue to lean in on addressing this challenge as well as working with local communities on how to improve law enforcement training.
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Let me offer a few closing thoughts. I’m committed, along with everyone at the Attorney General’s Office, to building trusted relationships with local leaders and to work with you as partners. It’s so important to me that we do so by showing up and listening. That’s why, for example, I as the People’s Lawyer will never bring a lawsuit against a county or local government without talking to you first. I am big believer in collaborative problem solving with governmental partners and, we’re doing our best to walk that walk.
The final and related point is one that Wayne Williams and I have worked together one—our Ginsburg/Scalia Initiative that focuses on encouraging respectful engagement and addressing the rising levels of demonization in our society. The rule of law and our democratic republic depends on renewing civic ties and building the capacity to engage in respectful discourse. Too often, fueled by social media, we see too much hating and not enough listening. By creating opportunities for citizens to learn to listen more and shout less, Colorado can be a model of how we renew our democratic republic. I know and appreciate that you share our commitment to that important work.
Thank you for letting me join you today.