Midpoint in the Garden of the General Assembly

Gov. John Hickenlooper has signed roughly 33 bills into law in the past week. You’d be hard pressed to name even one of them. But the General Assembly has finally made headway on one of its biggest issues: how to come up billions of dollars to pay for road fixes around the state.

Saturday marks the 60th day, or halfway mark, for the 120-day session of the Colorado General Assembly. The big-ticket items that have dominated the first two months of talk at the state Capitol are now hitting prime time.

Wednesday afternoon, the House introduced a transportation bill that would raise the state’s sales tax in order to fund $3.5 billion toward an estimated $9 billion in badly-needed road repairs statewide. It’s been the major priority for the leadership of both the House and Senate, business and community leaders and the governor.

Related: Lawmakers draft bill that relies on sales tax hike to pay for state’s transportation needs

Ask lawmakers what the first 60 days produced, and the answer is mixed. Republicans in charge of the state Senate couldn’t answer that question on Monday, pointing instead to what they hope to accomplish in the next 60 days.

House Republicans cheered their ability to run “heavy Republican bills” that obtained public input (but then died anyway). That’s included measures on gun rights, freedom of religion, sanctuary cities, parents’ bill of rights, pro-fracking and anti-abortion legislation. All of those bills were defeated in House committees on party-line votes.

House Minority Leader Patrick Neville of Castle Rock said he believes the tone of the next 60 days will depend on the committee choice for a Senate bipartisan bill on construction defects, a law that builders say prevents them from building affordable, owner-occupied condos. Sending Senate Bill 17-156 to a “kill” committee where it is doomed to fail is just not appropriate, he said.

Lawmakers to watch

Three long-time members of the House who won seats in the Senate are on the lawmakers-to-watch list. Sens. Rhonda Fields of Aurora, Dominick Moreno of Commerce City and Angela Williams of Denver, all Democrats, are all in their first year in the Senate. And all three have cast votes that cross the aisle on major issues in the Republican-controlled Senate.

All three voted in favor of Senate Bill 17-001, the Republican’s key agenda bill of the session, which would have given small businesses a break when they violate a state regulation for the first time. (The bill was killed in the House last week.) Fields and Moreno both voted this week for a Republican-sponsored bill on construction defects and Williams is the sponsor of two other related measures.

The tone of this year’s session has been different, too – more collaborative than in some years –  which Capitol observers attribute to new leadership in both the House and Senate and the fact that it isn’t an election year.

Despite criticism from the more conservative Republicans in both the House and Senate, a bipartisan bill on transportation funding is considered a win for leaders in both chambers who found a way to compromise that their predecessors could not.

Rep. Dan Thurlow a Grand Junction Republican, and Sen. Larry Crowder, an Alamosa Republican, have been noticeable for their willingness to do the unexpected this year. Thurlow saw the House today give final approval to a bill he and Crowder are pushing that that would ask voters to change how the TABOR (Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights) revenue limit is calculated and which would allow the state to spend more of the revenue it collects. The bill has earned the duo animus from Republicans, who claim it will allow more growth in government spending and would take away taxpayer refunds, but praise from Democrats for coming up with a different option for dealing with the state’s budget issues.

Affordable housing, aka construction defects

Although lawmakers now have the transportation fix out of the gate, it’s far from the only major issue remaining on their plates for the next 60 days. Another is what to do about affordable housing, or as it’s referred to at the Capitol, construction defects.

Builders claim they can’t build affordable owner-occupied housing, specifically condos, because the state’s construction defects laws make it too easy for homeowners to sue for minor defects. But homeowners and trial lawyers claim builders just want to get out of lawsuits for shoddy construction, and point to construction problems with major condo projects such as the downtown Denver Beauvallon.

The Denver high-rise is considered the poster child for construction defects. Built in 2001, the 200-unit building had a multitude of defects, including major water leaks. Owners eventually sued the builder for $21 million to pay for repairs, settling out of court in 2009 for $17 million. A recent fiscal analysis of one construction defects reform measures introduced this year said that Colorado courts see 150 to 200 lawsuits related to defective housing every year.

The legislature has tried for three out of the past four sessions to come up with a fix that will work for both the homeowners and the developers, to no avail. The past three attempts, originating the state Senate, focused on comprehensive, one-bill fixes that homeowners groups didn’t like and that failed in the Democratic-controlled House.

This year, lawmakers, primarily in the state Senate, have tried a different approach, offering a half dozen bills, with each carrying a portion of the construction defects/affordable housing fix. The most successful so far has been Senate Bill 17-156, on binding arbitration, that passed the Senate Tuesday with 18 Republicans and five Democrats in favor and 12 Democrats opposed. Builders, developers, insurance companies, bankers, business groups and a host of cities, including those that have already passed local resolutions on construction defects, also back the measure.

The governor pointed to progress on construction defects as one of the wins in the first 60 days. “I believe this is the year it will get through,” which he said would improve affordability and housing stock.

But the proposal faces an uncertain future in the House, given opposition from the homeowners’ groups and trial lawyers.

The Budget

Lawmakers will have to work through those two major issues at the same time they’re also facing their number one task, and by law, the only thing they’re required to do every year: pass a balanced budget.

The state’s annual budget will start in the Senate later this month, a responsibility that flips between the House and Senate every year. In addition to the annual budget, known as the Long Appropriations Bill, the Senate also will be responsible for introducing the annual school finance act, which funds the state’s public and charter K-12 schools.

Both of these measures face big problems this year: Hickenlooper’s proposed 2017-18 budget last November showed a $500 million gap between revenues and expected expenses, and the school finance act faces a shortfall in the property taxes that pay for school operations. That shortage, which could be as much as $170 million. becomes the lawmakers’ headache because state law requires that any shortfall in property taxes be covered by the state budget.

Once the budget is introduced, around March 27, the next act in the budget play is finding out which new bills receive funding. Dozens of bills are sitting in appropriations committees in both the House and Senate, while their sponsors wait to hear how much money is available after the budget is completed. It isn’t expected to be much. Last year, when the state wasn’t facing a budget shortfall, lawmakers had only $3.2 million to spend.

One big-ticket bill that’s waiting to see if there’s enough money is the repeal of the Colorado health benefit exchange. The measure carries an anticipated cost, beginning in 2017-18, of almost $2.6 million. But even if the Senate Appropriations Committee granted its funding request, the bill is expected to be dead on arrival in the Democratic-controlled House.

What else to watch for the rest of the session

Aside from the major issues that face the General Assembly between now and the end of the session, lawmakers have come up with some pretty interesting and even some unusual ideas.

Among them:

• Daylight Savings Time: On Sunday, we all get up an hour earlier after making the semi-annual clock change. Lawmakers have tried several times in the past few years to say “Enough! Fall back or spring forward, but pick one and be done with it for the year.” That idea likely has the best chance it’s ever had this year, with bipartisan sponsorship of a bill to put Colorado on Daylight Savings Time year-round. The bill’s sponsors, Democratic Rep. Dan Pabon of Denver and Republican Rep. Phil Covarrubias of Brighton, tried a measure earlier this session to make Mountain Standard Time the one and only for Colorado. But that measure died at the sponsors’ request after they heard from constituents and polls showed that people want that extra hour of daylight in the evening. The two have introduced their second go-round on the issue, which would also require Congressional approval should it pass the General Assembly and be signed into law by the governor.

• It would be legal to break into someone’s car to rescue a pet or child in distress under a bill that won overwhelming support in the House and is now being considered by the Senate. The bill says that if you see a pet or a child who appear to be in life-threatening distress, as in the summer when closed car temperatures can reach more than 100 degrees, you can do what you can to free them from the vehicle, so long as you make a reasonable effort to find the vehicle’s owner. If unable to find the owner, you must contact emergency responders and remain on the scene until they arrive. The measure drew 33 bipartisan co-sponsors in the House, which is quite a feat these days, and passed the House this week with 63 yes votes and only two naysayers, one from each party.

• The General Assembly revamped its website for the 2017 session, to include a daily listing of the most-accessed bills. The most-watched bill of the session to date? Sterling Republican Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg’s measure to make tampering with oil and gas gathering operations a felony. The bill generated fierce criticism from members of the environmental community who showed up in force in mid-February to testify against it.

Sonnenberg and the bill’s proponents from the oil and gas industry argued that it’s already illegal to tamper with oil and gas equipment – it’s a misdemeanor – and they just intend to make tampering a more harsh penalty. The bill won 18 Republicans votes and one Democratic “yes” in the 35-member Senate, but faces certain defeat in the House’s State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee when it comes up for review on April 12.

Then there’s bills on tampons and diapers. Really.

• Two bills would eliminate sales taxes on purchases of feminine hygiene products and diapers for babies and adults. It’s worth reading the fiscal analyses on these two bills for the level of detail that went into figuring out just how many diapers a baby uses between birth and age 3, or how many tampons a woman will buy during her reproductive years.

Both bills, however, would cost the state in the form of less sales tax revenue, and again, in a year with a budget shortfall, each will struggle to win approval from appropriations committees.  Each carry at least a one million dollar hit to the state’s sales tax coffers.

As for the 33 bills signed by Hickenlooper in the past week: not exactly page-turners, but important to the operations of state government. A dozen bills fine-tune the 2016-17 state budget, two bills repeal obsolete laws on redistricting, a couple of bills deal with fire and police pension rules, and there are now several new laws on reporting requirements by state agencies to the General Assembly.

The 2017 legislative session concludes on Wednesday, May 11.

Photo credit: Intiaz Rahim, via Creative Commons, Flickr