State’s fiscal forecast is up; movement on expanding train transit and rural energy; House passes Jessica’s Law

March fiscal forecast: Too much green in Colorado?

Legislative staff economists released the great March forecast today — the well-researched weather report to the state budget, that document upon which the dreams of all lawmakers hang. Here, for your reading pleasure, is the 90-page report.

Long story short, the legislature has a big old wish-list of bills hanging out in appropriations just waiting to see if there’s enough money in state coffers to implement them. The forecast looks pretty optimistic, saying that the legislature will have about $1 billion more to spend this coming fiscal year than last.

A point of special interest in the report is its forecast that pot-tax money won’t exceed the $67 million in taxes voters approved last fall. Some economists say it will, suggesting a strong possibility that — under the taxpayer’s bill of rights (TABOR) — the state will have to issue a refund or ask voter for permission to keep the excess revenue. Whatever the final total in pot tax revenues turns out to be, economists agree that it’s though to predict the regular use of something that was illegal until this year.

The forecast shows that the Colorado Water Conservation Board Construction Fund can expect a $30 million boost at the end of this fiscal year and the State Education Fund an added $170.6 million.

With revenues up, Legislative Legal Services posits that voters might be looking at a $54.7 million refund in the 2015-2016 fiscal year due to TABOR. As hilariously noted by the Associated Press’s Kristen Wyatt, even Republican lawmakers are growing tired of TABOR:

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Western slope senators move rural energy legislation 

Senators Gail Schwartz of Snowmass and Ellen Roberts of Durango had a good run this morning as the Senate gave initial approval to their two bills to encourage the development of green rural energy.

HB 1030 would streamline (pun intended) the permitting process for what’s know as “micro hydro” — small-scale hydroelectric installations powered by naturally running water that produce enough energy for a home or small community.

Roberts noted that the bill came out of an interim committee which looked into the state’s water resources and added that the legislation would be particularly good for Colorado’s small rural mountain communities where water is, in fact, rushing downhill.

The duo’s second measure, HB 1222, made it easier for communities and small developers to get tax-exempt bonds to finance clean energy, which the measure also expands to include geothermal technologies.

It used to be that someone looking to invest in green energy would have to spend at least $1 million to be eligible for the state bonds and they would need to pay back those bonds over 10 years. Schwartz and Roberts propose changing the program so that anyone investing at least $500,000 is eligible and will have 15 years to pay back the bond. 

Both sponsors assured their colleagues that opening the bond program to more people and more technologies would further encourage rural areas to invest in green energy. Roberts said Pagosa Springs is already looking into geothermal and that several other towns in her district — including Durango, Silver and Ouray — are viable spots for the technology.

Both bipartisan measures got easy first approval in the Senate and likely will come up for a final vote this week. For now, here is a helpful micro hydro video for the environmentally-friendly DIYer.


House passes Jessica’s Law, everyone plays nice 

After serious debate (read: voice-raising and finger-pointing) on the floor yesterday, House Republicans came out strong in support of Democratic Lafayette Rep. Mike Foote’s toned-down version of mandatory minimum sentences for sexual offenses against children — legislation nationally known as Jessica’s Law. The original law, passed in Florida, mandates 25 years to life for first-time offenders. Colorado’s HB 1260 is tiered, beginning at 10 years.

“Yesterday I called the move to name this bill Jessica’s Law a trashy political stunt and I stand by that. But I am not one to ignore progress and this bill is progress,” said Rep. Frank McNulty of Highlands Ranch.

“It is a positive move that this bill is finally being debated on the House floor under Democratic leadership,” he concluded, referencing several years of Republican efforts to carry a Jessica’s Law that never made it out of committee.

Rep. Bob Gardner of Colorado Springs said he would support today’s compromise version because yesterday the bill was amended to include a provision mandating that child sex offenders be electronically monitored while on parol.

Rep. Libby Szabo of Arvada carried a Jessica’s Law bill mandating a 25 year minimum sentence before it was killed in committee at the beginning of the month. She ended up thanking Foote for carrying his own version of the bill, which she considers a decent first step.

“At least somebody did something,” said Szabo.

Foote concluded that the bill, which ups mandatory minimum sentences for child sex offenses across the board, sends the right public safety message.

“This bill is going to make our communities safer and send the message to anyone and everyone out there that we don’t tolerate these types of offenses against children. We will put you away for a long log time.”

Colorado’s version of Jessica’s Law passed unanimously in the House and now heads to the Senate.


Keep that train a comin’! 

The bill comes with proposed stops in Pueblo and Walsenburg.
The bill comes with proposed stops in Pueblo and Walsenburg.

The news has not been good this year for southern Colorado towns like Trinadad and La Junta — all stops on Amtrak’s Southwest Chief passenger train. The company has threatened to pull out or re-route unless Colorado updates its tracks. With busses and airlines rapidly receding from rural communities, Rep. Leroy Garcia of Pueblo says losing Amtrak would be a disaster for southern Colorado.

His bill, HB 1161, would create a commission and A fund dedicated not just to saving the train route but also to expanding its stops to include Pueblo and Walsenburg.

“This bill is critical for rural communities in southern and south-eastern Colorado. It will help boost local economies, increase tourism and expand transportation opportunities,” said Garcia. He added that the Colorado Department of Transportation already has offered to donate staff time to the commission and that the city of Pueblo has promised to kick in some $8,000 for the project. And who knows? Maybe a Coloradan will score a spot on Amtrak’s much-lauded new writers’ residency program and provide some much-needed marketing. 

The House gave Garcia’s train bill initial approval today. It will likely come up for a final vote this week.


House approves limited child-parent reunification bill

A lot of factors contribute to a parent losing custody of a child. But for families where drug or alcohol abuse is at play — and physical abuse or severe neglect of the child aren’t factors — SB 62 may create the opportunity for reunification. Already passed by the Senate, the House gave the measure a first approval today.

The bipartisan bill is co-sponsored in the House by Rep. Mike Foote of Lafayette and Rep. Bob Gardner of Colorado Springs. It applies only to a narrow range of cases in which a child is 12 years or older and not being adopted by another family. At lease three years need to have passed since the parent or parents lost custody ,and they need to be able to demonstrate in court that they’ve put their lives back on track. Finally, both parent and child must consent to the reunification.

The measure got initial approval today and will come up for a final vote this week.


Bill to create hit-and-run alert program heads to Gov’s desk

The Senate all but unanimously approved HB 1191 today by a vote of 30-1. The bill calls for the creation of a community alert program to notify people of a violent hit-and-run accident and to request assistance in catching the dangerous driver.

The program is named after Jose Medina, a valet who was killed two years ago in a hit-and-run. In that case, the perpetrator was caught by a taxicab driver who wrote down the driver’s plate number.

The measure, sponsored by Sen. Steve King of Grand Junction, now heads to Gov. John Hickenlooper for signing.