This fall, Southeast Colorado Springs voters will be asked to pick who will represent them in Denver via the House District 17 seat. We contacted Democratic incumbent Tony Exum and Republican challenger Robert Blancken to get their takes on topics ranging from legislative priorities to COVID relief for counties. Here is what they had to say. Answers have been edited slightly for style and clarity.
— Heidi Beedle
Tony Exum (Democrat)
Tony Exum has lived in Southeast Colorado Springs for more than 60 years. After serving more than 35 years as a firefighter with the Colorado Springs Fire Department, rising to the rank of battalion chief, Exum retired in 2010. He then won election in 2012 to serve in the Colorado House of Representatives as the representative from District 17, covering Southeast Colorado Springs. Exum won election again in 2016 and 2018; he currently sits on the House Education Committee and serves as vice chair of the Transportation and Local Government Committee.
Robert Blancken is a fourth generation Coloradan who has called House District 17 home for the past 35 years. He grew up in the Denver Metro area, attending public schools in Jefferson County, which is now in the city of Lakewood. A graduate of Red Rocks Community College, he was certified by the Colorado Department of Health in water/wastewater, and spent 36 years in the utility field. Blancken retired from Colorado Springs Utilities after 25 years of service, and has been the co-owner of small businesses and enterprises over the past 45 years.
He is an active member of the Republican Party and a staunch supporter of the U.S. Constitution, Bill of Rights, Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) and free markets. A lifelong member of the National Rifle Association and longtime member of the American Water Workers Association, his main hobbies and interests include American and world history, political science and sociology, and he is an avid shooter and firearm collector.
Q: What are your top three legislative priorities, if elected?
Exum: Supporting public education, protecting the environment and helping low-income families, people of color and the elderly live better lives. I’m on the House’s Education Committee because supporting public education is a high priority of mine: Making sure our schools are well funded; our breakfast and lunch services are healthy, affordable and filling; and our school buildings are well-maintained, safe and secure. Just as importantly, I run legislation protecting Colorado’s beautiful environment from exploitation and destruction, giving local governments more power to regulate oil and gas drilling within their jurisdictions and prohibiting the use during training of certain toxic PFAS firefighting foams.
Blancken: A. Mental health: Ease of access and affordability, outreach to citizens in the most need of help, and ensuring our veterans receive the services they are entitled to.
B. Transportation: Working to ensure improvements to our state highways in El Paso County. The state highway commission funding has failed to fund based on our population. One improvement I would advocate for is to connect the Stratmoor Hills area with more direct access to I-25.
C. Education: Parental choice in the education of their children utilizing open vouchers, and expansion of vocational education and training.
Q: What do you see as the most pressing issue facing residents in HD 17, and how will you address it if elected?
Exum: One thing I’ve learned from being a state legislator is that different people have different urgent needs. Some people are unemployed and need immediate assistance, which is why I’ve supported bills to expand unemployment benefits. Some people are experiencing homelessness, which is why I’ve supported bills to increase the availability of affordable housing. Other people are being poisoned by contaminated waters, which is why I’ve run bills to ban toxic PFAS firefighting foams. There isn’t just one pressing issue facing people in HD 17, there are several, and they all need immediate attention — which is what I hope to continue doing as your elected state representative.
Blancken: House District 17 is one of the most diverse and economically challenged House Districts in El Paso County and Colorado. The issues facing our citizens are being able to be productive and prosper, our children receiving a good education and our citizens feeling safe and secure in their neighborhoods.
A good legislator will work on legislation that will ease the ability for business to operate even in the most challenging times, such as during COVID-19. Shutting down businesses and throwing people on into employment lines is not the answer. It is a Band-Aid. Creating government jobs and saying you created jobs is an insult to everyone in the community who is unemployed. Giving government workers a raise when people are unemployed is another irresponsible action. We need less government and more opportunity and investment into creativity and diversity. We are a proud and capable community, and we need opportunities to show people what we have.
Q: What will you do as state representative to help residents of HD 17 struggling with unemployment and housing uncertainty due to the COVID-19 crisis?
Exum: To help combat the many disasters caused by the pandemic, we lawmakers passed more than a dozen pieces of legislation: providing $270 million in grants and loans to small businesses; channeling tens of millions of dollars in direct housing assistance, utilities support and mental health assistance; ensuring access to paid sick leave for Colorado workers; and expanding unemployment benefits, helping hardworking Coloradoans make ends meet. This suite of COVID-19 relief bills also included my bill, HB20-1410, which provided $20 million in direct rental and mortgage assistance to Coloradans experiencing a financial need, including $350,000 for legal aid for renters at risk of eviction.
Blancken: The state of Colorado has received vast amounts of money under the CARES Act and our governor, under the state of emergency, has determined which counties receive this money. Legislators this past session had little or no input in determining how this funding was spent. Executive orders issued and state of emergency measures should be and must be approved by our legislators. The governor is picking and choosing which communities to punish and reward. This has to stop.
Q: What will you do as a state representative to support Colorado school districts that are facing massive budget constraints due to COVID-19?
Exum: For decades in Colorado, school districts were funded mostly by local property taxes, with some money coming from the state. But for years now, school districts have been funded mostly by the state, with some money coming from local property taxes. These funding ratios have reversed, and that’s been bad for public school funding. The state simply cannot afford to be the primary payer for all public education in Colorado. We need to find ways to better balance these funding dynamics — and fixing TABOR and Gallagher are two very obvious and effective ways to begin improving the funding situation for public education.
Blancken: This past March, public schools and most charter schools closed their doors to education because of COVID-19. Relying on virtual-learning technology to complete the school year, many students were left behind in their education due to the lack of technology. Many use their phones or go to the library. Well, the library was closed, and one cannot do an education curriculum on a phone.
The El Paso County health and environment department, along with our school administrators and teachers, are making decisions on how education will be conducted this year. Many parents are not prepared to educate their children from home. Now is the time to have an open voucher system in place so that parents can decide the choice in education of their children.
Q: What is your position on TABOR and Gallagher Amendment
Exum: The best thing the state legislature can do for public education is to address the continuous problems with funding. We must explore all options for sustainably increasing education funding. This includes reforming TABOR and the Gallagher Amendment, in order to ensure our public education system has the resources it needs for our educators and our students to be successful. TABOR prevents us from properly funding public education, which is why I strongly support modifying TABOR. Also, I supported, voted for and co-sponsored SCR20-001, which put the Gallagher repeal measure on the November ballot for voters to decide.
Blancken: The Taxpayer Bill of Rights must be defended and supported: It allows for the citizen to determine if taxes will be increased and if surplus will be retained or refunded.
As with the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, legislators have actively tried to rewrite the Gallagher Amendment. The Gallagher Amendment maintains a statewide ratio of assessed value of taxable real property and has remained unchanged since 1985. Escalating commercial taxation will force many small businesses to relocate or close their doors and people to be laid off — no jobs. I support legislative action to correct this unfair share of taxation and keep people working.