Afternoon headlines, February 27, 2017

A high-stakes race against the clock is underway in Douglas County that could have ramifications nationwide on whether school districts can spend tax dollars on religious schools.

Proponents of school vouchers in Douglas County have spent 16 months waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court to decide if it will consider their appeal of a case.

The longer the appeal sits in limbo, the greater the possibility that upcoming elections in November could deliver the one seat needed to create an anti-voucher majority. That majority could pull the plug on the suit.

The case dates back to 2011 when Douglas County’s seven-member school board, then made up entirely of conservative education reformers, approved a voucher program that would have allowed any Douglas County student to attend any school, including private or religious schools in or outside the county.

The program never went into effect because a group of Douglas County parents and residents, known as Taxpayers for Public Education, filed a lawsuit to block its implementation. The case wound its way up to the Colorado Supreme Court, which in June 2015 ruled the voucher program unconstitutional based on a law saying that tax dollars cannot be used for religious purposes, including religious-based schools. The Supreme Court was expected to decide last February whether to hear the case, but with the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, has not yet made that decision.

Pro- and anti-voucher camps are closely watching to see if the Court, which soon may have its ninth member in Colorado native Neil Gorsuch, will agree to accept the case.

In the meantime, the Colorado Independent reports, both camps are also marshaling money and candidates for the November school board election.

“Public education across the country is at stake, both in Douglas County and around the nation,” said former Lt Gov. Gail Schoettler, a Democrat who has served on the Douglas County Board of Education.

When High Country Medical opened in downtown Craig, Colorado in 2006, few in the town realized what a crucial role the clinic would play in the town’s now deadly opioid epidemic.

Texas-born doctor Joel Miller, who had always wanted to practice rural health, began his practice with an interest in helping those suffering from chronic pain. But pain medication is highly addictive, and for many residents, legitimate prescriptions for drugs like Oxycontin led to dependencies so strong that abuse and harder drugs soon followed.

The problem has lurked out of view for years, but recently spilled into the open, threatening to overwhelm doctors, teachers and police. Since 2014, law enforcement of Moffat County, where Craig is located, has documented nearly 230 incidents where narcotics were confiscated. In 2016, they arrested 96 people, three times as many as in 2010, according to the Colorado Division of Criminal Justice.
Like other coal towns, Craig, Colorado has seen a sharp downturn in its mining-based economy in recent years. And that economic struggle has only worsened the epidemic, as it has for countless areas across the country. Physician Miller is currently in prison, where he is serving time for unlawful distribution of a controlled substance without a legitimate medical purpose and for providing false information on his medical license to the FDA. But the addiction epidemic has already taken root.

In 2009, four out of 10 Colorado adults admitted to misusing prescription painkillers. Worse, as the prevalence of opiates and heroin rises, the area’s modest law enforcement is plagued with declining budgets. Law enforcement and community members in Craig are trying to fight back against the addiction crisis with trained drug dogs and addiction treatment efforts, but it’s a widespread problem that continues to persist.

High Country News reporter Paige Blankenbuehler has written a telling narrative of the crisis in Craig, republished today by The Colorado Independent.

An overflow crowd packed Denver’s Byers Middle School Friday for a “with-or-without-you” town hall in which constituents aired their grievances to a cardboard cutout of Republican Sen. Cory Gardner.

Gardner declined the invite to appear at the town hall while home on recess last week.

The result was a spirited mix of earnest input and snarky political theater. The crowd, which filled the gym and an overflow room, held signs and participated in chants of “do your job” throughout the night.

Participants took the smiling Gardner facsimile to task on issues including health care, immigration, climate change, refugees, environmental protection, the Dakota Access Pipeline, transgender rights and foreign policy.

Lafayette Mayor Christine Berg then gave the receptive audience advice on how to make political change in Colorado, offering tips from calling elected officials with specific grievances to running for local office yourself.

As fear has risen over what Republicans in Congress plan to do to replace the Affordable Care Act, Gardner, like other Colorado representatives in Congress, has turned toward invite-only meetings or teleconferences with constituents.

See the video stream of the town hall at




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