When the 74th Colorado General Assembly convened on Jan. 9, it made history with the largest-ever class of female legislators. Fifty-one of the 100 seats in Colorado’s Senate and House are held by women — 44 of whom are Democrats and seven Republicans. Nevada is the only other state to hold a female legislator majority.
One of those women is House District 57 Rep. Elizabeth Velasco (D-Glenwood Springs) who, last November, defeated Rep. Perry Will in his re-election bid. Velasco won with 53.6% of the vote to Will’s 46.4%. She became the first Latina to represent the recently-redrawn district encompassing Garfield and Pitkin counties and a portion of Eagle County.
However, Will had barely stepped out of the Statehouse when he was enlisted to fill the seat vacated by Sen. Bob Rankin’s (R-Carbondale) resignation announced on Dec. 1. The Republican State Senate District 5 Vacancy Committee named Will as Rankin’s successor. On Jan. 12, Will was sworn in to represent Senate District 5, which encompasses Pitkin, Gunnison and Hinsdale counties and parts of Eagle, Garfield, Montrose and Delta counties.
Velasco caught up with Will during a joint session the day after his swearing-in ceremony. She said of her former election opponent, “I congratulated him and said, ‘I look forward to working together.’”
In attendance for her swearing-in were Velasco’s husband, parents and “a small group of leaders from the mountains came to celebrate with us.” As the first Latina to represent the Western Slope in 40 years, Velasco said, “It was definitely very emotional.” She added that having House Speaker Julie McCluskie (D-Dillon), also from the Western Slope, in House leadership is “totally amazing.”
Velasco serves on the three House committees: the Agriculture, Water and Natural Resources; Appropriations; and Energy and Environment Committees.
Her first piece of legislation, co-sponsored with Sen. Julie Gonzales (D-Denver), is a consumer-protection bill titled “Language Access In Insurance Documents” (HB23-1004), which would “require insurance providers to offer professionally-translated documents in any language that they advertise in,” she explained.
When asked what came as a surprise to the freshman legislator, Velasco shared, “We won on a Tuesday [Nov. 8] and on Thursday [Nov. 10] I was already in Denver with the new leadership, starting the work, and we haven’t stopped since. We definitely hit the ground running.”
Her introduction to bustling legislative life has been swift, Velasco said. “The process of reaching out to your colleagues and getting to know all the stakeholders and the staff, we got a lot of training and orientations to learn about the process. I think that we’re learning by doing.”
Currently, Velasco said legislators are in SMART (State Measurement for Accountable, Responsive, and Transparent Government) Act hearings, which are updates on how the bills passed last year are being implemented.
Last week, the Colorado Sun news outlet based in Denver hosted an online legislative session preview, which included a handful of legislators discussing their legislative priorities this session.
In the House, Democrats hold 46 of the 65 seats. McCluskie, the first woman speaker from the Western Slope, said of one of our region’s most significant concerns: “Water will be the centerpiece of our policy conversations this year.”
Among those priorities for McCluskie is addressing wildfire mitigation and prevention, which includes problems faced by Coloradans in obtaining homeowners’ insurance from private insurers due to the state’s growing wildfire risks. Some homeowners find their insurer is not renewing their coverage or cannot find insurance at a competitive market rate. In some cases, if they live in a wildfire-prone area, no coverage is available to them at all. McCluskie and Rep. Judy Amabile (D-Boulder) are working on a bill to create a home insurer of last resort program, limited to those who had been denied coverage by private insurers.
Thirty-two states and the District of Columbia offer state-run or state-created insurers of last resort programs. These nonprofit programs, some established in the 1960s in the coastal regions of Florida and Louisiana, provide Americans with coverage remedies when private insurer solutions prove inadequate. “The Commissioner of Insurance [Michael Conway] has encouraged people to take the time and shop. It’s been a challenge in our mountain communities. I have talked to so many HOAs (homeowners associations) about being sure that they are looking at every possible product. But I think there is a need for that type of insurance product available for everyone in these situations,” McCluskie explained.
The Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, signed into law by President Biden in November 2021, in part, awarded funds to various wildfire mitigation plans, including community wildfire protection plans. Along with available state-level funding, Velasco is seeking input from Colorado’s Department of Natural Resources and Department of Public Safety to see what’s needed and what can be done to access funding.
“I’m also looking forward to chatting with our local fire departments. There’s a coalition of a fire group with multiple counties with Eagle, Pitkin, Garfield and Gunnison that are already working together, so I would love to chat with them and see what they need and if I can facilitate access to those funds for rural communities,” she shared. She is also working on a bill to require public evacuation warnings to be broadcast in Spanish and English.
Velasco said she wants to hear from constituents. You can contact her by sending an email to email@example.com
Rep. Elizabeth Velasco’s family, including her father, Alfredo Velasco, brother, Alfredo Jonas Velasco, and mother, Genoveva Lopez de Velasco, joined Elizabeth on Jan. 9 as she took the oath of office. Courtesy photo