ALAMOSA — Matthew Martinez, newly elected Colorado state representative for the San Luis Valley and District 62, has only been in office for five days, but he has hit the ground running.
Despite a schedule that sounds not unlike a 10-cities-in-5-days tour that just happens to take place beneath the gold dome of the State Capital, the former Marine and director of Adams State University’s Prison College Program has already introduced one bicameral piece of legislation with four more bills on the way.
“It’s been a little hectic,” he says, “but it’s good. It’s really good.”
Rep. Martinez’s first piece of legislation is “simple and straightforward.” Titled “Department of Corrections Earned Time for College Program Completion”, H.B.23-1037 will pertain mainly to Adams State University and the Pell Program for incarcerated students.
If passed, the bill will apply to non-violent offenders only who will earn one year off their sentence in prison for a degree earned from a regionally accredited college or university. The bill also allows non-violent offenders to earn six months off their sentence for every certificate earned.
“There’s no upfront cost to the state, and that cost savings (from less time spent in prison) will be returned to the four colleges in the program — Adams State, Trinidad State College, CSU Pueblo and Pueblo Community College,” he said.
The rest of the savings will go to the Department of Corrections so they can continue to offer educational opportunities for incarcerated students, he says.
“But here’s the big thing. Pell grants – funded by the federal government, not the state - are coming back for incarcerated students in July 2023, so they’ll actually have money to do this,” Martinez added.
Part of the motivation for Martinez in writing the bill was getting some money into higher education institutions for doing what they’re already doing without increasing taxes. The bill, if passed, will also expand colleges’ student populations by educating students they wouldn’t normally have access to.
“It doesn’t’ just reduce the state budget, it re-allots that money to rural higher education institutions,” he said.
Martinez cites his favorite statistic.
“If an incarcerated student earns a master’s degree while in prison, the recidivism rate is 0%,” he said. “They become connected to education. They become productive members of society. They don’t re-offend. That’s a real statistic. It’s amazing.”
H.B.23-1037 was co-sponsored and introduced into the senate by Sen. Julie Gonzales (D).
Martinez’s next bill addresses the implementation of Gov. Jared Polis’ Green Energy Initiative that requires all city and county buildings to meet the 2016 building code by 2024. His legislation is asking for a 2- to 4-year extension for every city and county in the San Luis Valley, challenged by a state initiative that was required but unfunded.
“The cities and counties in the Valley are really struggling with that,” he says.
Martinez is also working on a bi-partisan bill with Representative Anthony Hartsook (R-Dist. 44), who is also a veteran like himself. Currently, Martinez says, the VA is limiting veterans to three mental health visits a year unless they are in a crisis situation.
“After those three visits, by policy, they cut them off,” he said.
Martinez says the policy was passed several years ago but was not implemented until this year.
Under Martinez’s and Hartsook’s legislation, veterans would be allowed to go to the behavioral health center, group or counsellor of their choice, and the state would reimburse those providers for up to ten visits a year.
“We want Colorado to take care of their vets,” Martinez said.
Martinez is also partnering with Rep. Barbara McLachlin of Durango (D), Chair of the Education Committee, on legislation that will allow for colleges and institutions to allow sabbaticals to staff members, such as program directors and above to attend additional training, conferences or to earn additional certificates for their position that will improve the students’ educational experience.
“It doesn’t force the colleges and institutions to do that. It allows them the freedom to implement that policy, if they can,” Martinez said.
In response to a request for re-classification from Saguache County, Martinez has one more piece of legislation that he’s writing with Sen. Cleave Simpson. He declined to discuss it further until he and Simpson are deeper into the process.
“I’ve been a little busy,” he says and laughs.
Martinez has clearly been “a little busy.” When asked how he’s feeling, he says, “I’m still in awe of everything. I took it all in when I stepped on the floor for the first time on Monday for the swearing in ceremony. And I thought to myself, this is such a big honor to be able to represent everyone from the district. I thought, somebody from my background, raised by a single mother. We lived with my grandparents in their house until I was 13 years old. And now, being able to represent all the people in the district, I hope it gives hope and inspiration to others that have been in my situation that they can do this, too. I really want to be a good voice and a strong advocate for the district and to really bring our stories (to elected officials in Denver) and let everyone know what we’re about in the Valley.”