The transition of presidential power from Donald Trump to Joe Biden in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday will happen thousands of miles away from Colorado, in front of pandemic-thinned crowds and extraordinary security, which puts all sorts of distance between the event and everyday life.
While no Coloradans made it into Biden’s top Cabinet spots, there are plenty of things that are expected to shift in the state and affect lives under the Democrat — some sooner than later, especially when it comes to COVID-19 and climate policies.
Here’s a quick glance at the top sectors — immigration, education, health care, environment and energy — that Coloradans anticipate will undergo significant changes, one way or another, under the Biden administration.
Biden plans to introduce comprehensive immigration reform as a means of following through on a campaign promise to provide a legal path to citizenship for all immigrants.
More than 10.5 million people were living in the country illegally in 2017, according to the Pew Research Center. Biden is expected to release a proposal Wednesday that calls for providing an eight-year process for them to become naturalized citizens — and an even shorter path for some, including Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients, according to the Washington Post.
Tens of thousands of Coloradans were previously accepted into DACA, the Obama-era program that shielded people from deportation and provided work authorizations to those who came to the country illegally as children, passed a background check and paid fees.
Like other immigration policies, DACA suffered a series of setbacks under the Trump administration that kept new people from applying and forced applicants to live court case to court case, awaiting news on their futures.
Biden’s plans also include rescinding many of the previous administration’s harsh immigration restrictions and mass deportation policies. Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition spokesman Alex Ogle said Trump-era immigration rules and refugee policies have torn families apart, hindered the naturalization process for millions and “trampled on our basic American values for immigration.”
“We’re asking for an indefinite moratorium on all deportations until immigration reform legislation is passed by (Biden) in Congress that will create a new system that is far more humane than the system we have,” Ogle said.
On Wednesday, Biden is also expected to reverse Trump’s ban on travel from majority-Muslim countries.
The Biden administration’s first priority, apart from better controlling the pandemic, likely will be to roll back some of the changes made under Trump, said Adam Fox, deputy director of the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative. The Biden team likely will look to reinstate protections against discrimination for transgender people, stop approving states’ requests to set work requirements for Medicaid and limit the sale of short-term health insurance plans that don’t cover preexisting conditions, he said.
It’s possible the administration could support legislation creating a “public option” for buying health insurance at the federal level, but they might prefer to let states experiment first, Fox said. Biden also might endorse smaller changes, like expanding tax credits to make it cheaper to buy insurance through the marketplace, he said.
“I think bigger, sweeping changes, given the very thin margin in the Senate, are further down the road,” he said.
As for the pandemic, Biden has promised to ramp up COVID-19 vaccine distribution, saying his goal is 100 million vaccinations in his first 100 days (so by the end of April). It’s an ambitious goal for a vaccine rollout that has been slow to get started.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis has already had conversations with the Biden administration about plans to make more vaccine supply available — though those have already hit a snag after the Washington Post reported last week there is no national vaccine stockpile.
Biden’s plan also includes encouraging states to allow more people to be vaccinated, including people 65 and older instead of just health care workers, first responders and those 70 and older. He also wants to use the Defense Production Act to increase manufacturing of vaccines and supplies.
Given incoming first lady Jill Biden’s background as a teacher, it’s unsurprising the new administration has made many wide-sweeping commitments to improve public education. But first on the docket is providing schools with money to bolster COVID-19 safety protocols.
Joe Biden has pledged to reopen “the majority of K-8 schools” within his first 100 days in office, and his “American Rescue Plan,” unveiled Jan. 14, allocates $130 billion to help. Schools could invest the money into a myriad of solutions that support in-person learning, such as modifying classrooms to accommodate social distancing, improving building ventilation, increasing transportation capabilities and supplying personal protection equipment.
Schools could also use it to hire more staff. During the fall, many of Colorado’s largest districts had to revert to online learning when too many teachers were quarantined because of possible COVID-19 exposures. Some districts suspended bus transportation because of similar staffing issues. School nursing teams, shouldering the bulk of contact tracing duties, were stretched thin and “at a tipping point,” as one interim superintendent put it.
Even before the pandemic, the state faced a shortage of nurses, bus drivers, substitute and full-time teachers, among other critical school-based positions. Amie Baca-Oehlert, president of the Colorado Education Association, is hopeful Biden’s promised resources will help close the gap.
“We saw this fall how those shortages impacted our ability to have in-person learning. We do know many people have fallen on hard times and are out of work right now,” Baca-Oehlert said. “I’m hopeful the combination of those two things will drive people into those jobs.”
As for the rest of Biden’s education platform, Baca-Oehlert called it “lofty,” but “important.” The new administration’s priorities include recruiting more teachers of color, investing in vocational training and dual-enrollment programs, expanding universal preschool, doubling the number of mental health professionals in schools, increasing funding for schools serving low-income students, and tamping down on school violence through gun reform.
The shift from Trump to Biden is raising hopes of Coloradans — from marginalized communities who for decades have endured industrial pollution to legions of outdoors-oriented newcomers — that federal officials will prioritize environmental policy to address climate warming and restore degraded air, land and water.
Colorado elected leaders, too, anticipate a 180-degree shift in federal priorities under Biden, who has positioned climate change at the core of his presidency. It’ll support state-level innovation and create new jobs, officials in the state’s energy and health departments have said.
Environmental advocacy groups in the state also think Biden will change the way federal agencies manage public land concentrated in the western states.
“We won’t see more of the giveaways to the oil and gas industry that we saw under the Trump administration … such as the Alaskan Arctic National Wildlife Refuge lease sale,” said Aaron Weiss, deputy director of the Denver-based Center for Western Priorities.
Environmental groups widely were anticipating continued judicial rollbacks of Trump administration changes that weakened environmental regulations, which could lead to increased efforts to protect wildlife habitat using the Endangered Species Act, Clean Water Act and National Environmental Policy Act.
But Biden officials will have to grapple with rising impatience among grassroots groups demanding tangible results.
“We expect him to deliver on his promises,” said Ean Tafoya, GreenLatinos’ Colorado field advocate. “We’re expecting to see tangible action taken with the first 100 days to live up to the promises for climate and environmental justice.”
Oil and gas
The future of energy development on public lands in Colorado and across the West hangs in the balance as Biden takes office.
During the campaign, the Democrat made clear that he supports banning new permits on federally managed land and waters for oil, gas and coal out of concerns about climate change and threats to air and water quality. Vice President Kamala Harris and Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico, Biden’s nominee to head the Interior Department, which manages public lands, also support halting new permits.
It’s a marked change from the Trump administration, which prioritized U.S. “energy dominance”and rolled back or streamlined rules and policies seen as a burden on energy development. That included the Obama-era clampdown on methane emissions from oil and gas sites and management plans for the greater sage grouse, whose habitat overlaps much of the region’s oil and gas fields.
“It could not be more night and day in terms of stated policies and personnel choices. We’re moving from an administration that was hellbent on giving away and leasing and developing as much public lands as they possibly could,” said Michael Saul, a Colorado-based senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.
Saul said the Interior Department has broad authority to do what Biden has pledged and its policies should withstand legal challenges if they’re “exercised carefully and responsibly with reasoned justification and science and involving the public.”
The Bureau of Land Management, which is part of the Interior Department, manages drilling and mining on public lands. Roughly 36% of Colorado is federally managed lands, and energy development occurs on both private and public lands in Colorado — the seventh-biggest energy producer in the U.S.
The Western Leaders Network, made up of more 450 local and tribal elected officials, asked the new administration in a letter Tuesday to “freeze new fossil fuel leasing” on public lands.
But Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, an industry group, said the president doesn’t have the authority to forbid new permitting on federal lands. She added her organization will sue if the Biden administration tries.
“The impact in the West to livelihoods and to energy production is just too great for us to sit by,” Sgamma said.
A recent analysis by the American Petroleum Institute found a ban would cost Colorado 18,000 jobs by 2022 and $108 million in state revenue, said Lynn Granger, executive director of the API’s Colorado branch.
“Ultimately, the decision on a federal leasing ban is a choice between American-made energy and foreign energy, and similarly, a choice between American jobs and foreign jobs,” Granger said in an email.
Denver Post reporters Bruce Finley, Elizabeth Hernandez, Saja Hindi, Judith Kohler, Tiney Ricciardi, Jessica Seaman and Meg Wingerter contributed to this story.