Sen. Larry Crowder: A stalwart for rural Colorado

Sen. Larry Crowder: A stalwart for rural Colorado

Colorado Center on Law and Policy is proud to bestow this year’s Champions of Economic Justice Awards on two people who have had a profound impact on the lives of low-income Coloradans: Sen. Larry Crowder, R-Alamosa, and Edwin Kahn, Esq.

Both of these accomplished individuals will be honored at CCLP’s 4th Annual Pathways from Poverty Breakfast, Oct. 6 from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m. at Embassy Suites Denver Downtown Convention Center. Be sure to register today!

A fifth-generation Coloradan, State Sen. Larry Crowder, R-Alamosa, is a veteran of the Vietnam War, having dropped out of college after the Tet Offensive and enlisted in the U.S. Army. After his service, he worked as a telephone lineman and postal worker in southern Colorado. He now runs his own business outside of Alamosa as a cattleman. He has also served on the Alamosa County Land Use Board, worked as a Veterans’ Service Officer in Rio Grande County, and acted as chair of the Alamosa Republican Party from 2004 to 2010. In 2012 he was elected to the State Senate, representing Colorado’s 35th Senate District.

In 2013, with Democrats in control of both chambers of the state legislature Sen. Crowder was the only Republican in the state legislature to vote for expanding Medicaid in Colorado. Notably, his vote wasn’t needed for the bill’s passage and his fellow party members unanimously opposed the legislation.

More recently in the 2017 legislative session, Sen. Crowder teamed up with State Rep. Dan Thurlow, R-Grand Junction, to bring forward legislation that would have fundamentally altered the third rail of Colorado politics: Colorado’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Right’s (TABOR) state revenue cap. The bill made it through the state House but was defeated by Sen. Crowder’s own party in the Senate State Affairs Committee. Opponents of the bill accused him of violating the state constitution, but Sen. Crowder doubled-down: “I’m offended by those who say I’m going against the constitution. In rural Colorado, they’d rather have a hospital to bring their kids to than a $45 [tax rebate check].”

Last summer, Sen. Crowder worked closely and diligently with staff from Colorado Center on Law and Policy and the Colorado Cross Disability Coalition to bring forward a package of bills in the 2017 legislative session to overhaul the Medicaid client correspondence system. These bills, signed into law by Gov. Hickenlooper, will make Medicaid correspondence more informative and understandable, and allow clients to more effectively contest a reduction or denial of services. Sen. Crowder’s attention to detail and persistence through the cumbersome political process was critical to bringing these bills over the finish line.

A Colorado maverick
As a policy analyst for CCLP, my issue portfolio has grown to include some rural-specific issues that intersect with Sen. Crowder’s. So I was honored when asked to develop a profile acquainting this maverick of Colorado politics with CCLP’s friends and followers. When I reached out to Sen. Crowder about his availability for a phone interview, he invited me to breakfast in Denver instead.

Over eggs and coffee, I kicked off the conversation by asking Sen. Crowder his thoughts on Senate Bill 267, the conglomerate of a bill that took months of negotiations to reclassify the hospital provider fee fund into an enterprise fund. CCLP advocated for years to reclassify the hospital provider fee fund into an enterprise because doing so would protect hundreds of millions of dollars from the TABOR revenue cap and thereby relieve pressure to reduce federal match dollars for Colorado’s Medicaid program. Sen. Crowder, whose district’s hospitals rely heavily upon federal match dollars, was also supportive of creating an enterprise, citing his district’s characteristics.

“You have to realize there’s a big difference between metro and rural [Colorado],” he said. “Health care in the metro area is big business. All we’re trying to do in rural Colorado is maintain and keep our doors open. It’s two different worlds completely.”

The bill has been credited by a number of rural lawmakers in Colorado for keeping many hospitals open in their districts, as well as injecting millions of dollars into transportation and classrooms. From Sen. Crowder‘s perspective, the bill was vital to keeping access to health care a reality for many of his constituents in his rural district, many of whom are covered by Medicaid.

Rural challenges
Encompassing 16 counties in the south-central and southeastern parts of the state, Senate District 35 is geographically the largest Senate district in the state. It stretches from the Rio Grande National Forest to the West, over Great Sand Dunes National Park and the Sangre De Cristo Mountain Range and continues East, and further South, to the Kansas and New Mexico borders. According to Sen. Crowder, it takes about five and a half hours to drive across it. Beyond the size and beauty of his district, I wanted to know what he felt made it unique.

“You have to look at the demographics of the district. I represent 16 counties, 15 of them are below the federal poverty level. Only one county out of 16 is sustainable. I am interested in economic development. I am not saying those words as a politician, like they all do.” Sen. Crowder is perhaps one of the best situated lawmakers to speak about economic development, having served as Chairman of the South Central Workforce Board.

He noted that the health care industry is vitally important for his district, but he also told me of the struggles just to keep jobs within his district, notably his first year in office when he successfully fought to keep three state prisons up and running.

“I do not believe in taking anything out of my area,” he said. “We should be talking about what to bring in, not take out.”

This comment sparked in my memory a recent series in The Denver Post about Colorado’s rural communities. Population decline, economic stagnation, resistance to change and a perceived sense of being forgotten by the Front Range were mentioned time and time again in interviews conducted by the Post.

“Nobody wants to change. Remember, there’re people that like their areas the way they are. I like my area the way it is,” Sen. Crowder told me, “but if we’re going to sustain and maintain that area we’re going to have to progress forward someway. Stagnation equates to decline, there’s no other explanation here.”

It’s clear, though, that he is optimistic about the prospect of sustaining and maintaining rural Colorado. He noticeably lit up with a smile when recounting the 2016 Pedal the Plains event, an annual festival intended to highlight Colorado’s rural and agricultural communities that took place in his district. He also envisions a day where equitable access to broadband—a big issue in Rural Colorado—will lead to a robust expansion of small businesses in his district all from one’s home.

Looking forward
Term-limited after 2020, Sen. Crowder mentioned no big plans to grandstand on any issues for his last three years in the legislature. On the contrary, he plans to continue working hard on the issues that impact his district, chiefly health care.

From his perch on the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, Crowder hopes to examine ways to lower the cost of prescription drugs and ensure that Colorado’s Medicaid program works in the best way possible. In fact, the whole purpose of his visit to Denver that day was to meet with folks on recent problems associated with Medicaid reimbursements to doctors.

Wrapping up, I asked the Senator his thoughts on the recent efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and substantially reduce funding for Medicaid.

“The federal government said on the [Medicaid] expansion that they would pick up the ticket and start tampering down their payments in 2018, well I took them at their word,” he said. “So if I vote for Medicaid expansion, and you come and pull the rug out from under me, it’s not going work for me.”

With that statement, I had to ask: Why vote to expand Medicaid in the face of unanimous opposition from your party?

“I just felt it was the right vote to do,” he said. “You can’t vote no just because someone else does, that’s always the problem in politics. It had without a doubt the votes to pass with the Democrats in the majority, but that’s not to say that I should not vote what I think is right. “

Colorado Center on Law and Policy staff believe that the issues associated with poverty should transcend party politics. Sen. Crowder has embodied that vision throughout his time as a State Senator and we are proud to honor him this year as a Champion of Economic Justice. Register today for what promises to be a great event!

Kristopher Grant

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