Senate moves college affordability bill; House works to better serve juvenile offenders

Henderson Rep. Kevin Priola resigns as Minority Whip in wake of attempted coup 


Last week the House GOP caucus blew up twitter when its more conservative members called an impromptu caucus to try to replace Minority Whip Kevin Priola of Henderson with Rep. Polly Lawrence of Littleton. While their caucus chair, Littleton Rep. Kathleen Conti, found that effort out of order because the Whip position wasn’t vacant, things will certainly progress now that Priola has officially announced his resignation.

“I felt like my title was being used to control my votes,” Priola told the AP’s Kristen Wyatt.

As news of Priola’s resignation — which was motivated by his out-of-party-line approach to an education amendment —broke online, the representative had this to say:

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Senate unanimously passes limitations on solitary confinement

Today the Senate unanimously passed SB 64, which prohibits the use of “administrative segregation,” popularly known as solitary confinement, on prisoners with major mental illness.

The bill’s sponsor, Jessie Ulibarri of Westminster, described the policy as a matter of public safety because 97 percent of all inmates return to life in the community.

“Through this legislation, we will move those inmates from solitary confinement to another restrictive environment where they will have the therapeutic time and mental health interventions they need,” he added in a release after the bill’s passage.

Despite previously expressing concerns that the designation of “major” or “serious” mental illness might exclude unstable prisoners who also shouldn’t be kept alone in a cell 23 hours a day, the ACLU of Colorado also celebrated the bill’s passage and urged the House to move quickly on the bill.

“Today’s unanimous passage of Senate Bill 64 is further evidence of a growing consensus among lawmakers, prison officials, and civil liberties advocates in Colorado that warehousing prisoners with mental illness in long-term solitary confinement is a cruel, costly, and unlawful practice that unnecessarily jeopardizes public safety,” said the ACLU’s Denise Maes in a statement.

The bill now heads to the House.


Senate advocates creation of suicide prevention commission

The Senate gave initial approval to SB 88 today, which creates a public-private commission to study suicide rates, causes and prevention tactics throughout the state. Colorado currently ranks eighth in the nation for highest rates of suicides. Suicide is also the leading cause of death among Coloradans aged 10 to 34.

“Colorado is in the midst of a silent yet deadly epidemic,” said the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Linda Newell of Littleton.

Some senators opposed the bill saying that suicide is an extremely personal issue best dealt with a micro-community level and certainly not by the public sector.

Representing Mesa County, which has the highest rate of suicide in the state, Sen. Steven King of Grand Junction disagreed, saying it’s time to ramp-up efforts.

“Until someone can tell me why our citizens are killing themselves, I welcome commissions, I welcome insight from both the public and private sector,” said King.

Other supporters noted that the issue of suicide is also particularly relevant to Colorado’s military communities, where the suicide rate went up 33 percent for people aged 18-24 between 2009 and 2011.

Noting that the state has extremely limited resources when it comes to suicide prevention, Sen. Gail Schwartz of Snowmass proposed asking the commission to also look into how state dollars are distributed and to make recommendations about how we can use that money most effectively. Schwartz’s amendment passed and the bill overall was given initial approval.


Senate finally gets to their first bill: college affordability 

The legislature’s much-discussed $100 million investment in the state’s institutions of higher learning finally hit the Senate floor today, despite being the first bill introduced by that chamber back in January.

Sen. Andy Kerr of Lakewood, SB 1‘s co-sponsor, acknowledged that the bill was a long time coming. He added that in some cases Colorado’s public universities have had to increase tuition as much as 68 percent since 2008 due to recession-era cuts in their state funding.

In addition to re-investing in the state’s public higher ed, the bill also prohibits public colleges and universities from raising tuition by more than 6 percent for the next two years.

The measure’s co-sponsor, Sen. Cheri Jahn of Wheat Ridge, said the bill was a top priority for her constituents — many of whom watch young adults bail out of higher ed when they have to repeatedly take time off to earn enough to pay tuition.

The bill got hearty bipartisan approval today and will likely come up for a final vote this week.


House approves adding social workers to juvenile offender team

As part of a multi-bill push to reduce youth incarceration rates, HB 1023 to add social workers to the docket of folks who defend and treat juvenile offenders got initial approval in the House today.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Pete Lee of Colorado Springs, noted that 70 percent of juvenile offenders have some kind of mental health diagnosis. He added that other states that have included social workers in deciding alternative punishment and treatment options for youth offenders have seen a fourfold return on their investment, sometimes saving millions in public money that would have otherwise funded youth incarceration.

Lee asserted that when social workers engage early in the juvenile corrections process they can identify underlying social deficiencies that put teens before courts in the first place. That includes potential abuse at home, a lack of academic and job skills, illiteracy, substance abuse, and mental health issues. Lee asserted that tackling these problems, which often drive deviant behavior, is better for teens and better for the communities they live in.

The measure was briefly opposed by Rep. Cheri Gerou, who agreed with the intent of the legislation but didn’t want to see more state dollars directed towards the public defenders office which she describes as greedy and not trustworthy.

Ultimately Lee offered an amendment binding the bill’s funding directly to the hiring of social workers. With that, the measure got initial approval.


House votes to insure kids the right of representation 

Also sponsored by Rep. Pete Lee of Colorado Springs, along with Rep. Daniel Kagan of Cherry Hills Village, HB 1032 adds 20 full time staff to the public defenders office in order to live up to the bill’s policy that no juvenile should have to go through the courts without representation.

The legislation follows reports that some 45 percent of Colorado’s youthful lawbreakers went through the courts entirely without a lawyer, in many cases making plea bargains that hamstrung them for years to come.

The measure passed unanimously out of Judiciary after it was amended to exclude the children of wealthy parents who could afford representation as well as kids who agree with their parents in declining representation. If passed, the requirement to provide all kids with the same access to legal representation as adults will go into effect this November.

The measure will likely come up for a final vote this week before heading to the Senate.


House approves solar garden tax break

It’s a sunshiny day for solar gardens throughout the state who stand to benefit from Sen. Max Tyler of Lakewood’s bill to extend rooftop solar tax exemptions to gardens as well.

HB 1101 got initial approval in the House today off Tyler’s argument that if owners of rooftop solar don’t have to pay business personal property tax, then neither should their counterparts who’ve invested in solar located in a distant sunny field.

The bill will likely come up for a final vote this week.


House approves “odd couple’s” remote testimony bill

The only concerns about the skype to testify bill were around decorum...
The only concerns about the Skype to testify bill were around how it might impact decorum…

Affectionately called the House “odd couple,” Democratic Speaker Mark Ferrandino of Denver and Republican Rep. Ray Scott of Grand Junction got many “likes” for their remote testimony bill today.

“This bill will allow me to testify next year after I’m retired from that beach in Hawaii,” said Ferrandino.

Joking aside, HB 1303 allows for remote testimony via video conference like Skype only from approved in-state locations — at least one of which would be located on the Western Slope to serve constituents who often literally cannot come to the capitol during the session due to winter road closures in the Rockies. The measure would cost more than $100,000 next year as remote locations slated for institutions of higher education are established and staffed.

The bill was hailed by virtually the entire chamber as an inclusive boon for rural Coloradans, many of whom can afford neither the time nor the money it takes to travel hundreds of miles to the capitol and weigh in on issues from water management to gun control.

The measure will likely come up for a final vote this week.


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