Jared Polis’ environmental justice plans are in limbo at the Colorado Capitol. Here’s why.

by Brian Eason at coloradosun.com 

Gov. Jared Polis’ plans to bolster pollution enforcement in disadvantaged communities are in limbo after the Joint Budget Committee earlier this month voted down the administration’s request for eight new employees.

In rejecting the $900,000 request for the 2024-25 budget year, which starts July 1, the JBC sided with a recommendation from its staff that raised questions about the Department of Public Health and Environment’s commitment to meeting its own goals.

At first glance, the preliminary vote fit a recent pattern of Democratic lawmakers pushing the administration further to the left on environmental justice issues than it’s willing to go.

But The Colorado Sun found that the lawmakers in charge of writing the state budget were acting in part on bad information.

In a report to the committee, a JBC staff analyst mistakenly concluded that the department planned to conduct just 115 inspections of facilities that produce pollutants in disproportionately impacted communities — less than 7% of 1,750 inspections total. That led budget writers to urge the administration to make such communities a priority with the staff it already has. State law defines disproportionately impacted communities as those that have historically suffered the most harm from environmental hazards, including low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.

But the department told The Sun it actually devotes a much higher share of inspections to such communities. In prior years, the state has conducted anywhere from 25% to over 50% of inspections in such areas, depending on the type of pollution. The department has committed to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to meet annual benchmarks going forward.

The mix-up apparently came from a misreading of the department’s request. The new employees would conduct an additional 115 inspections in the target communities —on top of the hundreds the department already does.

JBC staff acknowledged the mistake in an email, telling The Sun they plan to return to the committee later this month to clear up the record during what are known as budget comebacks — the final sprint of decisions before the 2024-25 spending plan is finalized.

Sen. Jeff Bridges, D-Greenwood Village, said he’s likely to support the request the second time around.

“There is a long history in our country of pollutants most affecting the people who have the least,” Bridges told The Sun in an interview. “Ensuring that that is not happening in Colorado is a core responsibility of the department.”

Rep. Shannon Bird, the JBC’s chair, told The Sun that the staff recommendation influenced her decision, as well. But the Westminster Democrat is not sure she’ll change her vote during budget comebacks. She’s worried the March revenue forecasts could leave lawmakers with less money to spend out of the general fund than they expect.

“It’s making me really nervous,” Bird said. “We still have some major decisions left to make.”