UPDATE Friday, Feb. 17: the House did not vote this morning on a request to reconsider the Department of Law supplemental budget request and the bill died when the House adjourned for the three-day weekend. The decision to deny a budget change in this way is uncommon and hasn’t happened in at least 20 years.
The House on Thursday sent a message to Attorney General Cynthia Coffman and her Department of Law. Well, actually about three messages, and none of them complimentary.
The department asked state legislators for another $315,799 to supplement Coffman’s 2016-17 budget. The money would have been used to hire another attorney and to improve information technology security.
The House said no.
Of the chamber’s 28 Republicans, 25 voted against it, joined by 19 of the House’s 37 Democrats.
Supplemental budget requests often become a political football used by lawmakers irritated by something a state agency has done. Voting against a supplemental is one way lawmakers send a message to a state agency.
In this case, Republicans have for a few years now complained that the Department of Law isn’t managing its money well. Republican Rep. Kevin Van Winkle of Highlands Ranch said the department’s budget has grown about 20 percent in the last four years. It’s a matter of priorities, some Republican lawmakers said, and they don’t like adding employees in a tight budget year.
But the real fire this week came from Democrats, particularly Boulder area representatives who were not happy with Coffman’s decision to sue the county over its decision to extend a ban on oil and gas development. That moratorium, which has been in place for the better part of five years, was extended last December by the county commission to May 1. Coffman, however, threatened to sue the county, citing a 2016 Colorado Supreme Court decision that said local governments did not have the right to ban oil and gas developments within their boundaries. She gave the county until Feb. 10 to lift the moratorium, and filed suit in Boulder District Court Tuesday.
“It’s virtually unheard-of for the state to sue on behalf of a private industry,” an irate House Majority Leader K.C. Becker of Boulder said. “The Attorney General has decided to wield the power of her office for the benefit of private companies at the expense of local communities.” (Ticked as she was, Becker did vote in favor of the supplemental today.)
Not so Rep. Mike Foote of Lafayette, who said in a statement earlier this week: “The oil and gas industry has been working behind the scenes for months to get someone else to go after local governments. They finally found an accomplice. I’m glad the Boulder County commissioners are standing strong against this lawsuit.”
Foote told The Colorado Independent today that “the Attorney General doesn’t need any more resources if she’s able to use the ones she has to sue a local government on behalf of a corporation.”
Rep. Paul Rosenthal of Denver expressed similar views, saying: “It’s important to be fiscally responsible in the litigation our state conducts.”
Coffman said in a statement this afternoon: “I can’t remember a time when our General Assembly decided to play politics with supplemental funding bills – especially when the politics had nothing to do with the substance of the supplemental funding request.”
She said the supplemental request “has literally nothing to do with the lawsuit in Boulder where I am simply fulfilling my obligation to enforce Supreme Court precedent. I hope they reconsider.”
If how the department is handling its budget is one message, and anger over its lawsuit against Boulder County is the second, the third may come down to conservation easements. Rep. Jon Becker of Fort Morgan is unhappy with the Attorney General’s office over its stance on conservation easements, an issue that has been close to Becker’s heart for the past several years. In a conservation easement, a landowner donates his or her land to a land trust. In exchange, the landowner gets a tax credit from the Department of Revenue.
The Department of Law, along with the Department of Revenue, tacked on a $2 million cost to a conservation easement bill carried by Becker and Rep. Kimmi Lewis of Kim that was defeated in the House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee two weeks ago. Becker pointed out to the committee that his bill was identical to one he ran a year ago, which carried an estimated cost of about $5,000.
“Either [the departments are] lying or they tacked it on to the bill” on purpose to kill it, an angry Becker said at the hearing.
Becker acknowledged the department’s hand in the failure of his bill played a role in his no vote today.
Where we go from here: usually these dustups are resolved and the supplemental eventually passes. Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat who voted against the bill, asked the House this morning to reconsider its vote.
In order to revive a bill, two-thirds of the chamber must vote to reconsider. Under the rules, that has to happen by tomorrow. And while tempers may have cooled by then, whether enough members will change their minds is a good, and so far, unresolved question.
Photo courtesy Colorado Department of Law