The following is a transcript of the CheckIn interview conducted by GovSight Vice President Miguel Pineda and Business Strategist Sofia Barnett with Colorado State Senator Dennis Hisey on the coronavirus response in his district — District 2 — as well as Colorado’s use of federal funding and recent civil unrest. The interview has been edited lightly for clarity.
Miguel Pineda: Alright guys, today on the show we have Colorado State Senator Dennis Hisey. Senator Hisey, thank you for coming on CheckIn by GovSight. We appreciate you taking the time.
Dennis Hisey: Glad to be here. Appreciate you asking.
MP: Of course. So the first question we have for you today, Senator, is 23% of your district is employed by retail services and entertainment. You've been vocal about the need for businesses in Colorado to reopen. So how do you balance your duty to advocate for those you represent while avoiding stepping on some of the toes of medical professionals?
DH: You know, my district is pretty rural. We have a lot of tourist-type activities that contribute to the numbers, so it's really important that we're open and have people driving up and down the streets and in our businesses. And Colorado has a public health office in every single county, so you have the opportunity to step on those toes, as you mentioned. So what we really try to do is get the public health officials engaged with the local elected leadership to figure out what makes sense for each county. That has been the key to success.
MP: For sure, yeah. Could you expand a little bit on some of the information that you've been getting from your constituents? Like, what are some of the reactions you've been hearing about the prolonged closures?
DH: Overwhelmingly, my constituency has been saying, “This is killing us. I don't know anybody with the coronavirus. We don't have it around here.” And while that's not quite true, it's in many ways somewhat true because most of my counties have 15, 20, 30 cases. In my whole district, which is a five-county district, we have had one death. So, there is a big difference in this state between the urban areas and the rural areas, but I have been taking a lot of flack for not being able to get the county open, not being able to get realtors to be able to show homes. Businesses want to be open.
MP: Right, right. Kind of going off of that. Do you think that the federal funds that are coming into Colorado are being used appropriately?
DH: They're not being distributed appropriately. I do hope that their end use is appropriate, and I believe that it could well be. But in Colorado, the legislature controls the purse strings, and the governor has said that publicly in a press conference, and then three weeks later, 30 days later, just scooped the $1.7 billion that came to Colorado that we had some discretion over. And he scooped that up and said, “No, this is mine to distribute the way I want it.” And the way he wanted it is not really what I see as fair for the state of Colorado.
MP: Right. So that that kind of leads beautifully into my next question. Last Tuesday, you submitted a joint resolution that would terminate Governor Polis’ disaster emergency declaration. You touched on this a little bit, but what specifically has Governor Polis done wrong in your eyes?
DH: He is from the urban area. We have the Boulder, or the Denver Metro, area, which has over half the population in a fairly confined space, and that's been his home for years and years. He forgets that there is a rural area and what is good for the cities is not necessarily what's good for rural Colorado. That's really been my biggest complaint. He doesn't see a difference and thinks that a blanket policy is best, the best way to govern, and then it really is not necessary to clamp down that hard on rural areas where COVID-19 has just not that big of a problem. They're careful, they have their social distancing by natural sources.
Sofia Barnett: Absolutely. Can you also talk a little bit about the federal response in those urban cities? How is that compared to the rural response that you're getting? Why does it look so different? And what do we need to be kind of thinking of when we're when we're looking at these different areas?
DH: The federal dollars that came to Colorado straight from Congress, they identified five large counties, and they got a certain amount without it ever touching the state. It went directly to the counties, and that's fine. And then, the balance that came to the, to the state, up to ... it was actually 45% that was expected to go to the 59 rural counties. And that was the money that we had many meetings on, budget meetings expected to be able to start distributing that. And then the governor came in and said, “No, I'm going to do that.” And instead of 45% of what was left going to those more rural counties, we ended up with more like 22% going to those counties, so they were short-changed from the get-go on money that they can spend on the COVID responses. They had already been spending to keep their numbers low. So the federal money in my view, was not distributed properly here in Colorado, but that was a Colorado problem, not a federal government problem. But the rest of the money is distributed to public health agencies and those types of places. It's appropriate. I just hope that the accountability is there to make sure it gets used the way it was intended.
SB: Yeah, thanks for explaining that. Would you also mind talking a little bit about where that money's going? So when you're sitting in these budget meetings, what kind of things are you thinking about appropriating out to, what do you need to consider as you're doing that?
DH: Health departments in particular, we're really stressed there. As I mentioned, there's one in every county, and it's by state statute that that health department exists, and they got out early, and they started working hard to get proper measures in place, and many times they were just enforcing the Governor's executive orders. So they received, or will be receiving, reimbursement for those additional dollars. Some of that money is also going to businesses that have been severely impacted. We have businesses that were shut down. Now they're allowed to be partially open, but they can't pay the bills being partially open. So they still haven't reopened. Some large restaurants, tourist attractions, some of those types of things. So the money tends to, I think, go towards the right people, but it's too slow, too late.
MP: Right, right. Well, kind of going off of that, are there any new initiatives that you're working for your district, whether that's COVID-related or not?
DH: You know, having a rural district, and I came from a background in county government, transportation has always been in big demand. That's huge in rural Colorado. With our winters and their freeze thaw cycles, it takes a little more to keep our roads in good shape than it does in a more southern climate. So transportation is always an issue out here. So I've been working on that pretty seriously. I also happen to have about half of the Department of Correction beds in my district — half for the whole state are in my district. So anything that has to do with the Department of Corrections, I'm very involved in, including the Governor's order that law offenders that maybe are almost eligible for parole, let's go ahead and get those out of our prisons to reduce the COVID stress there. And I — the new energy economy, that's something that's fascinated me for years. But it's something that affects rural Colorado significantly. So I've, I've had my fingers in that pot for some time now.
MP: Yeah, for sure, of course. Now, just going briefly back to the Department of Corrections, have you seen any sort of issues with COVID? In those prisons? Have you seen any sort of infection rate? Are you guys kind of planning for that in any way?
DH: We have one prison, one of our largest, and it's not in my district, it's up in the northeast part of the state. They've had pretty serious outbreaks up there. That's been a real issue. Because once you have an outbreak and your corrections officers are exposed, do you really want them going home to their spouses and family? You know, so it gets real complicated real quick. But yes, that prison has been a real problem here for a few months. Down in my part of the state, we have had a few people test positive, but nothing that we haven't been able to kind of control with isolation.
SB: Well, we hope that everyone that does get COVID is better soon. So we want to shift focus a little bit now and talk about the protests. So they've been happening for days outside of the State Capitol. Have you seen similar movements occurring in your district? And what are you doing in response to the protests, especially in your capacity to represent the interests of citizens?
DH: In my district, there are really very few protests. Occasionally, you'll have a few folks get together with some signs, and they'll be standing on a street corner or in a public place by a courthouse lawn or even a park, but the protesters are all peaceful and quiet. I support their right to be there. So our district itself once again is rural and is not the same as urban areas. So people just look at life a little differently, and they're protesting, but we're not having any vandalism or those types of issues.
SB: Well, that's good to hear. What about Colorado’s response as a state to the protests? For example, Colorado State Police just said that 300 of the curfew violations in Denver were going to be dropped, and all further curfew violations would be dropped. What are you thinking about these kinds of responses, especially when it's so close to where you work?
DH: You know, that would have been the Denver police that decided to drop those, probably in consultation with the mayor. But you know, I really don't have a problem with that. I have mixed feelings. The curfew was very useful in getting the vandalism under control. That has pretty much stopped in the Denver area, it was pretty ugly there for several nights. You'd have peaceful protesters showing up at noon, and then there seemed to be kind of a shift change. And that was the word that was used by state patrol when they briefed us that the more radical ones started showing up, you know, 5, 6, 7 o'clock at night and then they'd be there until the well into the night hours, and that's when your vandalism occurred. So the curfew was really useful in getting that shut down, but I'm not interested in giving people criminal records because of a curfew violation.
MP: Right. Yeah, of course. Well, you know, we always like to ask, we ask everybody who comes on, how did you first get interested in politics and government? And what is some advice that you would give to somebody who's trying to go into either one of those fields?
DH: I grew up in rural Oregon actually, and so I understood the county better than I understood city type issues. And as a young man out there, I said, “Well, I'm going to be a county commissioner,” and of course, thought it would happen in a different state, in a different county, but I ended up moving to Colorado, and the dream never died. And finally, I took the leap and it took a couple of tries, but I became a county commissioner, which I served in that role for 12 years and was still having fun. So I took a look at what was available and the State Senate was coming up in a few years. So I launched a campaign there. My advice to many people that have asked has been, if you're at all interested in it, and you think it might be something you would like, you should definitely do it. But prepare first. Now that was a lesson I learned in the first campaign that didn't go so well, as I didn't do my homework, but I was prepared when the next campaign came.
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