Next week begins another legislative session in Colorado where Republicans who control the Senate and Democrats who control the House will hash out bills under the gold dome of the Capitol all while Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper continues to shape his legacy a year into his final term.
Democrats and Republicans are offering differing agendas but they’ll both be dealing with budget cuts and will be debating laws this year under the pressure of a presidential election cycle and while every member of the House and half the Senate is up for re-election themselves.
The following is just some of what lawmakers have been talking about on the brink of another split session that begins Jan. 13.
‘A lot of potential out there’ for ethics and accountability
Lawmakers this session are looking at trying to rid inherent conflicts of interest at Colorado’s Independent Ethics Commission, the currently director-less panel tasked with hearing complaints about potential political wrongdoing in Colorado. Denver Democratic Rep. Beth McCann told The Colorado Independent she’ll introduce a bill that would stop the attorney general from giving legal advice to the Ethics Commission while at the same time offering legal advice to those under investigation by the panel. McCann wants the IEC to have its own lawyer. She’ll also look at changing the way Colorado handles complaints against politicians. Currently, the state is the only one in the nation where citizens have to investigate and prove claims of potential wrongdoing by public officials, while those officials can use state money for their defense. McCann wants to bring Colorado in line with other states on the issue. Denver Democrat Pat Steadman will support the effort in the Senate.
“There is, I think, a lot of potential out there” for accountability reforms this year, says Peg Perl, senior counsel for the nonprofit Colorado Ethics Watch. Another proposal she expects to see is one to shore up loopholes in state disclosure laws, like extending into election years certain disclosure laws that apply only to non-election years. (Currently the disclosure rules for those years vary, so voters can be left in the dark about who is giving money to whom.)
“Money can come in during odd years but is not disclosed the same way as it would in an election year,” Perl says, adding that multiple lawmakers she’s talked to have shown interest in plugging the loophole.
Civil liberties: Regulating the police drone zone
This year the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado plans to help advance legislation that regulates the way local police use drones.
“Laws to protect our privacy have not nearly kept up with all of the technological advances to invade it,” says the group’s public policy director Denise Maes.
Marijuana: In ‘da clubs
A bipartisan pair of lawmakers — Longmont Democratic Rep. Jonathan Singer and Colorado Springs Republican Rep. Kit Roupe — wants to get a statewide grip on social pot clubs that are popping up around Colorado. The problem, Singer told The Gazette, is that some of them “are glorified drug fronts and some of them are legitimate organizations wanting to make sure that people can safely consume outside their own homes.”
One bill would allow people to smoke dope at social clubs, but not allow them to buy it there. Another agenda item might be to allow pot smoking at retail stores similar to how wineries do tastings.
The death penalty: Do, don’t, dead?
Will there be an effort to repeal the death penalty in Colorado this year? Not likely, especially in an election year, says Denver Democratic Sen. Pat Steadman. That’s what he’s hearing from legislative leaders, advocates, political consultants and handlers who work on the issue. “I’m disappointed,” he says. “I thought we were going to do it this year, or at least make a good run at it.”
Senate Minority Leader Lucia Guzman confirmed to KRCC’s Bente Birkeland in an interview that she wouldn’t be carrying a bill this year to repeal the death penalty in Colorado, though she feels strongly about doing so and will work on it over the next three years. But the decision, she said, comes from her current position as minority leader.
On the other side of the issue, Douglas County Republican Rep. Kim Ransom told The Independent she’s proposing a bill that would give district attorneys a second chance with a jury in a death penalty trial if they can’t convince the first to put someone to death.
All this while Arapahoe District Attorney George Brauchler says he wants to see a ballot measure in 2016 asking voters to decide whether to keep or scrap the death penalty. “You want to end the death penalty? Put a ballot initiative on there,” he told The Indy. “I would think that you’re going to get the best turnout and the best sense of people in a presidential year.”
Public records: Let the sun shine in
Lawmakers plan to tackle a handful of measures to crack open secret info and let the sunlight in. “The biggest-impact proposal is meant to ensure that public records maintained in spreadsheets and databases are made available to requesters in similar file formats that can be searched and analyzed,” writes Jeffrey Roberts, director of The Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.
Democratic Rep. Jessie Danielson of Wheatridge aims to make sure the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment discloses names of employers here who are violating wage laws. A century-old law in Colorado keeps that information secret in Colorado. A new law that went into affect in Colorado last year helps those who had their wages stolen recover what they’re owed.
Another proposed bipartisan effort would bring the judicial branch of government under the Colorado Open Records Act, giving the public more access to administrative records in the state court system.
Meanwhile, an advisory task force set up to review how police use body cameras in Colorado is slated to wrap up with recommendations sometime in the spring. Whether anything that comes out of it would be something lawmakers will address in state law remains to be seen. In Colorado, more police are wearing body cams, but when the footage becomes public is up to each individual police department. Roberts, who has sat in on the task force panel, tells The Independent the issue of when footage becomes a public record hasn’t really come up a lot yet.
It’s time to talk about rural Colorado…
Only about 30 percent of lawmakers represent rural areas of Colorado, a state where more than 80 percent of the population lives along the Front Range. But some lawmakers this session might try to focus more on the needs of rural Coloradans, said Senate Minority Leader Lucia Guzman, a Democrat from Denver.
“The people in rural Colorado – whether it be west, north, east or south – are oftentimes left out,” she said, according to The Durango Herald. She said one idea could be to launch a state fund where money could go to help rural communities in a time of crisis, like what happened in Durango with the Gold King Mine spill into the Animas River.
The spinning blade of budget cuts
Get ready for the buzz saw.
In economic forecasts, the executive and legislative branch differ some on the expected shortfall of revenue this year to the tune of $208 million and $157 million. But either way, a piggy bank deficit is one lawmakers will grapple with this session, meaning they might have to dip into reserve funds and do the old snip, snap, snoop on state program spending.
“We are in a situation where all the additional revenues we collect has to be capped and refunded, generally speaking it’s not very much, to residents of the state of Colorado,” said Democratic House Speaker Dicki Lee Hollinghorst. “They would much prefer to have that invested in important infrastructure like transportation and making sure we have the best education for our kids.”
Loveland Republican House Minority Leader Brian DelGrosso said, “It looks like the revenue is going to come in lower than projected, and for what we needed to basically fund all of our mandated spending, so I think you’re going to see cuts that will have to happen this year.”
Energy and a water war
Colorado this year has a historic state water plan aimed at making sure the state has enough of it, and Gov. John Hickenlooper wants lawmakers this session to examine how to fund goals in the plan. So far Hickenlooper has said his priorities include “water storage projects and alternative transfer methods – ways to meet growing municipal water demand without resorting to buy and dry, which is what happens when a municipality buys land from a farmer for the water rights and lets the land go dry,” reports The Coloradoan.
On the fracking front, nearly a dozen ballot proposals “aimed at Colorado’s oil and gas industry — including increasing setbacks to 4,000 feet and a statewide ban on the use of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — have been filed with the state’s Legislative Council, the first step to getting on the 2016 ballot,” according to The Denver Business Journal.
Closing a Cayman Islands loophole vs. staying out of the way
House Democrats, who are in the majority, say they aim for getting equal pay for men and women this session, and to make sure Colorado can get its hooks into tax money held in offshore accounts. Democrats in the Senate will also try to get better broadband access across the state, they said. In towns and cities across Colorado, voters in the recent November elections overwhelmingly supported allowing local governments to get involved in broadband service.
When it comes to an economic agenda this session, House Republicans plan to do what they can to keep government out of the way of business, House GOP spokesman Joel Malecka told The Independent. They’ll work more on repealing regulations and removing obstacles rather than putting forward new laws, he said, adding, “Maybe staying out of the away is the better way.”
In that regard, Republican Rep. Patrick Neville, R-Castle Rock, says he’ll focus on requiring state agencies to give a break to small businesses if they’re first-time offenders who violate new rules. He wants them to get a written warning instead of a fine.
Also, remember these three words: construction defects reform. For members of the business community and House Republicans, legislation that would choke off the prospect of class-action lawsuits about construction defects from condo owners will likely get plenty of discussion. But this is likely a nonstarter for the majority Dems who like the idea of tax-free savings accounts for first-time home buyers and setting up an assistance fund for renters.
Transportation: Hard on the brakes, chains on the tires
No money for transportation this year seems to be a theme.
One local group has formed a “Fix Colorado Roads Act,” that would generate money in the form of a bond, “because there are no permanent, reliable general fund dollars set aside for transportation improvements in Colorado,” according to North Forty News.
A bipartisan pair of lawmakers from the mountain region wants to bring back a bill to clarify laws about what kinds of passenger vehicles should have chains and traction devices on their tires to ease congestion along the I-70 corridor.
LGBT issues: Ready to fight
Leaders in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community hope lawmakers this year will work on making it easier for residents to update their gender on birth certificates, ban conversion therapy for minors, and align the state’s civil unions laws with Supreme Court rulings, according to One Colorado.
The group will also try to defeat “any and all bills that allow individuals and businesses to claim their religion gives them permission to ignore the law, stop all attempts to stigmatize and attack transgender Coloradans and their families, and fight any other bills that will hurt LGBT Coloradans.”
It’s 2016, so don’t envy any of us
What does a presidential election year mean for the Colorado legislative session? Political reporters Joey Bunch of The Denver Post and Peter Marcus of The Durango Herald told KRCC’s capitol reporter Bente Birkeland what they think in an interview this week. Bottom line: Look for wedge issue bills introduced by lawmakers so they can use them as talking points during their campaigns. Campaign operatives and reporters will also be trying to get lawmakers on the record about national issues or candidates.
“You’re going to see anti-Planned Parenthood legislation, you’re going to see pro-Planned Parenthood legislation, and it’s all going to feed into this national narrative,” Marcus said.
“I think we’re going to see people try and write campaign ads during this session,” Bunch said. “Putting poison pills into very good bills just to say a candidate voted against it. It’s going to be a tough job for voters next year, I don’t envy them, and I don’t envy the reporters who have to figure all of this out.”
Healthcare: The three words that won’t go away
Hospital Provider Fee.
This biggest issue in the healthcare debate for Colorado this session will focus on the role of this $2.4 billion program that’s made up by money hospitals pay each year depending on how many patients they had stay in their beds. Each hospital pays a different amount — some pay a lot, some pay nothing— and the aggregate figure came out to more than $600 million last year. That money is then matched almost dollar for dollar by the federal government to expand Medicaid, insure more residents who visit emergency rooms, and reimburse hospitals for care. In addition, the money helps hospitals pay for indigent care. The more money brought in from the HPF, the more money the feds give Colorado.
But so much of that money coming in to the state triggers a Taxpayer Bill of Rights tripwire, meaning money would have to go back to the taxpayers, and state government would have to trim budgets in other programs. A fight over how to deal with this issue and whether Colorado can keep more money in the budget for state programs is likely to fall along party lines with Democrats wanting to change how the HPF operates, and Republicans opposing it.
Meanwhile, Democratic Sen. John Kefalas of Fort Collins will try to help disabled Coloradans find jobs.
Last but not least. Hunting colors: code pink
Because this is Colorado, Democratic Sen. Kerry Donovan of Vail told KVNF radio that one thing she wants to do this session is add “blaze pink” to the safety colors hunters here can wear.