WASHINGTON, D.C. — Widening Interstate 25, fixing the entrance into Fort Carson at Gate 19 and the chances for another round of Base Realignment and Closure, as well as opportunities for job creation through cybersecurity topped the list of concerns when members of the Colorado congressional delegation met with the Colorado Springs Impact group during the annual trip sponsored by the Regional Business Alliance.
U.S. Sens. Cory Gardner and Michael Bennet, as well as U.S. Congressmen Doug Lamborn, Scott Tipton and Mike Coffman discussed the current political environment and heard from the community members during a three-and-a-half hour session on the final day of the business organization’s annual trip.
Gardner discussed the lead role Colorado Springs is assuming in the cybersecurity industry, noting that he had a meeting later in the day with leaders from Israel to discuss that nation’s innovative approach to cyber policy.
“It’s exciting to see what’s taking place,” he said. “The government needs to move more aggressively to address cyber threats. And Colorado Springs has the opportunity to take a role in that and to get it done right.”
He said widening I-25 from Monument to Castle Rock was a priority, as is widening the interstate from Denver to Fort Collins.
“Transportation is a problem,” he said. “It looks like the 1960s, and with the growth we’ve seen — and that yet to come — we need to work on it. We’ve managed to pass a long-term highway bill that Colorado will see $400 million for roads.”
Gardner suggested that additional money to address congestion on the interstate between Colorado Springs and Denver could come from allowing companies to move offshore money back to the United States with a lower tax penalty than the 36 percent currently levied.
“We could invest that money in infrastructure,” he said. “There’s hundreds of billions to invest.”
And he discussed efforts to maintain U.S. Northern Command’s presence in Colorado Springs. Sen. John McCain of Arizona had suggested combining the two major combat commands and moving Northern Command from El Paso County.
“We’ve talked to leaders at the Pentagon and no one is asking for this,” he said. “It makes no sense, and it won’t save money. It’s a huge black hole for spending. We managed to stop John McCain in his tracks.”
Gardner also spoke of his work with Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia to create a Cyber Caucus. The overall goal of the caucus is to move cybersecurity into its own standing committee. Currently, cybersecurity is addressed via seven of the 12 standing committees with no single committee providing over-arching policy, he said.
Currently in his fifth term in office, Lamborn represents the Fifth Congressional District, which includes Colorado Springs.
He said he was willing to work toward expanding I-25, but noted it had to be a joint federal, state and local funding effort. He said he’d included a measure to remove the Preble’s meadow jumping mouse from the endangered species list, which could ease the way toward expanding the interstate more quickly. He also said the city and state could put pressure on the Environmental Protection Agency to move more quickly with a needed study that could take as long as two years to complete.
“Some things can be changed,” he said. “There’s a process, but they can speed up parts of it.”
Lamborn said he and Mayor John Suthers were gathering a coalition of local, state and federal experts in Colorado Springs to discuss the project and to “sharpen its focus and to sharpen priorities.”
The congressman also addressed the Pentagon’s switch to a different insurance provider for TriCare. He said leaders have met with HealthNet to address concerns that the transition from United Healthcare be as smooth as possible for military and families in Colorado Springs.
“We’ve told them they have to have their ducks in a row,” he said. “They have to have their house in order. They seem slow getting off the ground, but we’ve let them know they have to do the right thing.”
Lamborn said there could be federal grants available from both transportation and Department of Defense.
“A two-ane road going into Fort Carson is obsolete,” he said. “I’m frustrated by the change [to no longer allow earmarks] because it can’t be addressed as it should. We can’t send money to specific projects any longer. I understand it was abused, but now we just have to assign priority to projects.”
He also said that Congress wanted to add $18 billion back to the defense budget, but the White House won’t agree without a corresponding $18 million provided to social programs that took a hit during sequestration.
“It’s dismaying,” he said. “And it turns out that Ashton Carter is more of a politician than he is a defense secretary. It shows we can’t have long-term remedies as long as Obama is in office. We need to get rid of sequestration, but we also need to have fiscal discipline. And defense is the first priority under the Constitution.”
Bennet, the only Democrat to meet with the Colorado Springs business group, is finishing his first full term in office. Bennet was appointed in 2009 and elected to the position in 2010. Before entering the political arena, he was superintendent of the Denver Public School system and served as chief-of-staff to then-Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper.
While Bennet’s comments to the group were off the record, he offered these statements after the Wednesday event.
On defense installations:
“We continue to work with the El Paso communities and with the delegation to highlight to the Pentagon the value of Colorado’s military installations and the assets Colorado provides to the armed services and to our national security,” he said. “Together, this year, we successfully made the case for NORAD-NORTHCOM’s critical homeland defense mission.
“We also welcomed the Pentagon’s decision to house the new Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center (JICSpOC) at Schriever Air Force Base and will continue to advocate for the resources the center needs to continue and grow its important work in Colorado Springs,” Bennet said. “This summer I visited and was briefed on the JICSpOC’s mission. The men and women at Schriever are strengthening our space capabilities by unifying efforts across the Department of Defense, the intelligence vommunity, and commercial partners in the face of an evolving threat environment, particularly with respect to countries like Russia and China.
“Looking forward, the community’s continued advocacy will be critical, especially with respect to any potential BRAC round.”
“I heard the concerns about transportation during this session, as well as during roundtables with manufacturing leaders in Colorado Springs,” he said. “We will work with CDOT [Colorado Department of Transportation] and the Colorado Springs community to accelerate the I-25 project between Douglas and El Paso counties, knowing that successful candidates for federal funding are typically those that include a state, local, and private sector share of the cost of construction.”
The congressman from the Third District, which runs south of Colorado Springs and includes Pueblo and Alamosa, said the two counties had a shared interest and many of the same concerns.
In his district, the economic recovery has been slow to take hold.
“We have a tale of two economies,” he said. “One is in the urban areas and the resort areas, which are doing fine. But in the rural parts of the state, that’s not the case. We’re affected by the Affordable Care Act and we have senior citizens who can’t access health care because no doctor will take Medicare. It’s easy to be the opposition party, but we want to be the proposition party. We want to be solution-oriented.”
One of those solutions is known as the Choice Act, legislation before Congress that removes some of the regulatory burden of Dodd-Frank from community banks and credit unions.
“We took too big to fail and ended up inhibiting small banks and local business,” he said. “Capitalism doesn’t work without capital.”
He called the Choice Act the “perfect piece of legislation. It has things to hate, things to love. But it takes common sense and uses it for banks and credit unions.”
Coffman’s largest concern was a new round of Base Realignment and Closures, and said that Buckley Air Force Base in his district could be harmed because it was not approved for the new F-35 fighter planes when the Air Force phases out the F-16.
He also said he worried about Fort Carson.
“Encroachment is an issue,” he said. “It’s an issue in Aurora and it’s an issue at Fort Carson. The Army didn’t walk away from Pinon Canyon because it decided it didn’t need more training space. It walked away because it knew it was a fight it couldn’t win. And the way they fight today — thanks to technology — they can train with fewer soldiers over larger ground. They need to train that way.”
The health care received at the Department of Veterans Affairs is another big concern, he said. His office is investigating the death of a former Marine who committed suicide after being given medicine by a physician’s assistant without approval or oversight from a doctor.
“We need to make the program where they can choose what doctor to go to, instead of going to the VA,” he said. “We don’t send our wounded warriors to the VA, and that should tell you something.”