Politics, suspicion foil effort to secure in-house legal counsel for state ethics commission
Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, was a portrait of frustration. Last week State Affairs committee Republicans killed his proposal to address an unnecessary and costly conflict of interest faced by the state’s Independent Ethics Commission. Today, the same Republican lawmakers took to the floor to rail against the ethics commission’s ballooning legal fees.
The Colorado Independent Ethics Commission was created in 2006 through a citizen initiated constitutional amendment. Its five members hear complaints about state officials’ spending and fundraising and it generally has no friends under the Gold Dome. Lawmakers here would like to see it exiled to Siberia or at least California or they would like to shrink it to a size that might be sucked down the drain of Grover Norquist’s bathtub.
As things stand, the commission considers legal questions. That’s what it does. And yet, it has no legal staff. So it leans on the attorney general’s office to provide legal advice.
Steadman’s dead bill, SB 88, would have allowed the commission to hire in-house legal staff, the need for which, he argued, could not be more obvious.
He laid it out for his colleagues: The attorney general’s office is representing the officials accused of wrongdoing as well as the commission tasked with pursuing the charges. More than that, some officials accused of wrongdoing end up suing the commission on behalf of accused officials. In those cases, the attorney general’s office is lawyer for the prosecution and lawyer for the defense.
“That’s going on,” said Steadman. “That’s reality, folks.”
In addition to avoiding these kind of surreal conflicts of interest, Steadman said that allowing the commission to retain in-house counsel would build better institutional memory and ensure more consistent rulings. He noted that the commission suffers high turnover and has absurdly wide jurisdiction.
Still, there’s nothing obvious in politics. So Steadman’s bill was killed on a party-line vote.
And there he was, today, a member of the Joint Budget Committee required to find the money to fund the ethics commission and, as a formality, bringing the request to the Senate, only to then suffer showy complaints about the legal expenses charged by the commission.
“A lot of campaign-season shenanigans visited themselves on the ethics commission last year,” he said, in reference to the commission’s legal costs. “But the Constitution directs us, it says the General Assembly shall appropriate money for the expenses of the Independent Ethics Commission,” he concluded. “The voters gave us a directive.”
What else were they going to do? The Senate voted for the funding measure, SB 152.
Limping weed-funded substance abuse program wins an extension
Members of the Joint Budget Committee today asked the Senate to allow them to rollover more than $1 million in Prop AA marijuana tax revenue to fund a substance-abuse prevention program.
So far, just a few hundred dollars of the revenue have been spent on the program.
“There is a concern that these dollars could end up going unspent and that would miss the mark a little bit in terms of priorities for use of the marijuana tax revenue,” said Sen. Steadman, who again found himself begging funds. “Frankly, I think substance abuse treatment is first and foremost.”
The measure, SB 167, passed, giving the department another year to spend the money.
“This is a very volatile, uncertain and unpredictable funding stream,” said JBC Chairman Sen. Kent Lambert, R- Colorado Springs, of the pot-tax revenue. “This [measure] gives us a chance to see how the program works … so they can make a predictable program for people that need substance abuse treatment.”
Cottage industries get boost from Senate
Freshman lawmaker Sen. Beth Martinez-Humenik, R-Thornton, passed a bill today that will double the amount of money home-producers can make selling things like honey, granola and pies at festivals and roadside stands, before they are taxed on their earnings.
“For an aging parent that can’t work full time, or single moms trying to stay home with their kids because daycare is too expensive, this bill gives them an opportunity to produce something and make some money on an annual basis,” she said. “I bumped it up 100 percent from $5,000 to $10,000, so if they had five products they could make up to $50,000 a year before taxes.”
Martinez-Humenik said she hopes the bill will function as a kind of micro-stimulus.
“My hope is that these cottage foods, if they’re really popular, can explode into bigger businesses for people,” she said. “It encourages people to be entrepreneurs and that’s really good for our economy and our state.”
SB 85 now moves to the House where it has bipartisan sponsorship from Reps. Perry Buck, R-Windsor, and Faith Winter, D-Westminster.
Colorado honey and tomatoes. Image by S. Reilly.
New kid on the block
With former state Rep. Libby Szabo, R-Arvada, officially moved on to greener pastures, the lege officially welcomed her replacement today. Rep. Lang Sias, R-Arvada, is a former Navy man and staunch conservative -— he’s pro-school choice and wants to see construction defects legislation reformed to give homebuilders longer to cure defects.
“I want to thank Commissioner Libby Szabo for her dedication and service and I am humbled to have been selected to represent the people of Arvada,” said Sias in a release today. “I’m excited to start working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to create greater opportunity for my constituents and the people of Colorado.”
— Tracy Kraft-Tharp (@tkth) February 4, 2015
In typical #coleg fashion, Rep. Sias was warmly welcomed by his colleagues on the other side of the aisle and swiftly ribbed by the press corps.
With paint still not dry on newly minted Rep. Lang Sias, he’s fined $2 for late voting, and he’s not alone. #coleg
— Charles Ashby (@OldNewsman) February 4, 2015
[Top photo by Mike Richardson.]