The 2017 legislative session may have done more for rural Colorado than any session in the past two decades.
“Rural, rural, rural! Music to my ears!”
As Colorado’s population grows, largely along the Front Range corridor, rural lawmakers at the state Capitol have lamented that the General Assembly is overly urban-focused.
That dig is aimed at Gov. John Hickenlooper, too. Every year, in his annual State of the State address, he points out Colorado’s economy prosperity. But rural lawmakers are quick to note that the prosperity the state has experienced in the past few years hasn’t yet reached many of their communities.
That said, 2017 could be called the year for rural Colorado. The most significant bill of the 2017 session would save rural hospitals and provide a funding boost for rural schools and transportation projects. But “Sustainability of Rural Colorado” wasn’t the only bill that is intended to helps struggling communities outside the I-25 corridor.
Another measure designed to help rural schools awaits the governor’s signature. The bill would allow retired teachers covered under pensions provided by the Public Employees Retirement Association (PERA) to teach for an entire school year in rural schools. PERA currently limits the amount of time a teacher can work in a PERA-covered school district to 140 days, and that’s on average about 40 days short of a full school year.
And while one of the other big issues for rural Colorado, reliable Internet access, got a funding boost that’s intended to help build out infrastructure, Hickenlooper said Thursday the $9.5 million is not enough to achieve his goals for rural broadband. He proposed in January that 85 percent of the state be covered by broadband services by the end of his term, some19 months away. The state is at about 70 percent coverage currently, and the largest gaps remain in communities along the Eastern Plains, the West Slope and central mountains.
You say energy, I say energ-i, let’s call the whole thing off
The most contentious issue in 2017 was likely energy. It started off with a bill to make tampering with oil and gas operations a felony, up from its current misdemeanor status (the measure failed in the Democratic-controlled House).
The controversies continued with an effort by House Democrats to send a message to Attorney General Cynthia Coffman that they didn’t approve of her suing Boulder County over its oil and gas moratorium.
Democrats denied her office extra funds to hire another attorney and to pay for information technology security. They were aided in their effort by House Republicans who believe Coffman’s spending for the Attorney General’s office is out of control.
Next: some of those same Democratic lawmakers attempted to go after forced pooling, the practice by oil and gas companies to force mineral rights owners to accept leases for their rights. The measure initially attempted to require that a majority of mineral rights owners in a proposed drilling site approve the leases. It was then watered down to provide just more time for them to review those leases. And then unsurprisingly, it died in the Republican-controlled and pro-oil and gas state Senate.
House Democrats also tried a bill to increase setbacks – the distance between a new oil or gas operation and homes and schools – but it ran into the same resistance in the Senate.
Then, Firestone happened. On April 17, a home in a subdivision outside of Firestone, in Weld County, exploded, killing two people and injuring two others, one critically. Investigators said the cause was an uncapped Anadarko flowline that had been leaking natural gas into the soil near the home. That gas, which was unprocessed and so didn’t contain that distinctive sulfur smell, seeped into the home and exploded.
The governor immediately ordered a 30-day review of all oil wells and flowlines within 1,000 feet of homes. Democrats reacted, too, putting up a bill in the last days of the session to expand on that executive order that would make maps of lines leading to and from wells and tanks available to the public. House Republicans launched a late-night filibuster against the measure and it died minutes before midnight Monday.
Finally, Republicans in the state Senate put forward a sweeping rewrite of the state’s energy policy, contained in a bill that initially sought only to extend funding for the Colorado Energy Office. The office focuses on promoting energy, including renewables, as well as providing weatherization assistance to low-income Coloradans. Republicans loaded the bill with ideas such as allowing oil and gas companies to exert eminent domain over homeowners to install pipelines, allow investor-owned utilities (Xcel is the largest in Colorado) to invest in natural gas reserves, and shifting the focus of the energy office to fossil fuels, hydroelectric and long-abandoned nuclear energy.
The bill didn’t go over well with House Democrats, as one might expect, and was stripped clean of everything but the funding. And in the last action taken by both chambers in the 2017 session, the House stuck to its guns, the Senate stuck to its guns, and the bill died. The energy office funding ends on June 30. Hickenlooper said this week he has options for funding, which could include line-item vetoes in the 2017-18 budget. He also has made funding for the energy office a potential issue for lawmakers to address, should he decide to call a special session, a decision he expects to make by Monday.
Washington, home of gridlock. Colorado, not so much
One surprise out of the 2017 session is that the General Assembly largely avoided getting mired down in issues related to the changeover in Washington, D.C. Legislative leaders in both chambers and the governor all pointed to the 2017 session as one of the most productive in years; Hickenlooper went so far as to say it was the most productive session he’s seen since becoming governor in 2011.
That said, there were a few nods to the new president and his priorities. But none were successful.
Starting off on Day One, back on January 11: Senate Republicans introduced a bill to repeal ColoradoCare, the Colorado health benefit exchange set up after the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010.
The bill would have put Coloradans covered by insurance through the exchange under the Affordable Care Act, or whatever Congress came up with. But lack of Congressional action and a high price tag in a budget-strapped year signaled the bill’s doom and it was quietly killed off on Monday, after waiting for final action for 118 of the session’s 120 days.
Democrats countered with a measure to require candidates for “certain federal offices” to provide tax returns in order to appear on the Colorado presidential ballot in 2020, which predictably died in the Senate.
Then there was sanctuary cities. Already an issue before the 2017 session, arguments ramped up to frenetic levels in a series of pro- and anti-sanctuary bills, as well as sometimes-nasty jibes in and out of the state Capitol between its two protagonists: Republican Rep. Dave Williams of Colorado Springs and Democratic Rep. Joe Salazar of Thornton, who is running for attorney general next year.
But the two made peace late in the session, although not on that issue. They jointly co-sponsored a resolution that asks Hickenlooper to grant clemency to an inmate who was mistakenly released early from a 98-year prison sentence for robbery. Once the error was discovered in 2014, Rene Lima-Marin turned himself in, after spending six years out of prison, obtaining a good-paying job, starting a family and buying a home. Lima-Marin, now 38, is not eligible for parole until 2053, when he would be 74 years old.
A rare moment of unanimity over Washington came in the last days of the session, when lawmakers in both chambers approved a resolution asking the federal government to pay for damages caused in 2015, when contractors for the Environmental Protection Agency accidentally released wastewater from the abandoned Gold King Mine outside of Durango. That spill dumped three million gallons of wastewater and mine tailings into the nearby Animas River. Just before the change of administrations in January, the EPA announced it would not pay out more than $1 billion in claims for damages caused by the spill. That prompted lawmakers to send a request to Washington to pay up.
The resolution also produced one of the more memorable tweets of the 2017 session, from Ed Sealover at the Denver Business Journal:
#coleg House is debating resolution to Congress over Gold King spill. I try to write letters to Santa Claus before 7 p.m. on Christmas Eve.
— Ed Sealover (@ESealoverDenBiz) May 11, 2017
Bipartisan, for once, on major issues
The first day of every session features speeches from legislative leaders in both parties and in both the House and Senate. Those speeches always include a nod to an effort to work in a bipartisan fashion, but by the end of the first month that pledge often seems to have faded into memory.
The 2017 session may go down as one of the few where that promise largely held on the legislature’s biggest issues. Lawmakers worked across the aisle to come up with solutions to issues that have dogged the legislature for years.
First: construction liability. Denver’s housing affordability woes are well-documented, especially when it comes to condos for first-time homeowners or seniors looking to downsize. Lawmakers have tried for the last five years to come up with something, anything, that would get developers to kick-start building those units. Failing to do so, more than a dozen municipalities have passed their own versions of construction liability reform, only to see it ignored by builders who don’t want to be the first sued under those reforms.
Enter the 2017 session. Lawmakers started out with a variety of measures intended to address one piece or another of the construction defect issue, rather than one grand bargain, as had been tried in previous years. No matter. The five bills, which focused singularly on insurance liability reform, arbitration, even a narrow definition of construction defects, failed to please one side or the other: either the builders, banks and insurance companies or the homeowners who have fought against them over defective homes. Could the sixth time be the charm?
To misquote Shakespeare: “But wait! What light through yonder window breaks?” It is House Bill 17-1279!
While it wasn’t the grand bargain sought by either side, the reforms on homeowner association informed consent, sponsored by Democratic Assistant House Majority Leader Alec Garnett of Denver and Republican Assistant House Minority Leader Cole Wist of Centennial, were enough to win the support that had eluded previous efforts. The bill won support from the two warring sides outside the Capitol, as well as garnering unprecedented unanimous votes from every committee and in every chamber, and headed to the governor on May 4.
“The best parts of the session were when Democrats and Republicans found ways to get things done,” Senate President Kevin Grantham of Cañon City said yesterday. Both Grantham and Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran of Denver spoke about compromise, saying that what worked on some of the biggest wins of the session was to find the common ground first and find the compromises after that.
Winner: Moderates in both the House and Senate. In January, a Princeton researcher said Colorado had the most polarized legislature in the country, topping even California.
It may be time to revisit that conclusion, particularly with the emergence of moderates in both chambers who made a difference in either defeating so-called “message” bills or casting deciding votes that pushed major legislation to the governor’s desk.
Most notable were moderates in the state Senate, dubbed the “mod squad” by The Colorado Independent.
Other bipartisan highlights:
The legislature’s biggest win of the season: reclassifying the hospital provider fee, a measure that Grantham declared a non-starter at the beginning of the session. The measure’s four sponsors labored over negotiations for months, with the final deal hammered out by Republican Rep. Jon Becker of Fort Morgan and Democratic House Majority Leader KC Becker of Boulder. With the final agreement in place, the measure sailed through the Senate and House without any amendments and is now waiting for the governor to sign it.
Winner: Charter-school funding. Republicans have long lusted after property tax dollars paid to local school districts but not always shared with the charter schools in those districts. A Senate Republican measure to require school districts to share those dollars, known as mill levy overrides, failed to gain enough traction to be heard in the House this session. So its sponsor, Republican Sen. Owen Hill of Colorado Springs, inserted that bill into the School Finance Act in the session’s closing weeks.
Democrats who have long opposed that idea, argue that charter schools, freed from many state laws as well as local school district rules, don’t operate the same as traditional public schools and shouldn’t get those dollars. But the charters argue that every child should receive the same amount of money, regardless of what kind of public school they attend. They also point out that receiving just the dollars handed out by the state through the school finance act means they have to make those dollars work harder, using them for construction or leasing of school buildings or paying teachers less.
The charters won the argument this year, when Rep. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat who is running for the 7th Congressional district, sponsored a bill to equalize the funding, and won an agreement from Senate Republicans to pass a “clean” school finance act without the charter language.
Winners: Bills that made it through the legislature to everyone’s surprise. That includes a bill to add sexual orientation to the state’s anti-harassment statute, the provider fee bill, and a wage transparency measure that would allow employees to talk to each other about how much they make without fear of retaliation. That measure, one of Democrats’ centerpiece wage fairness proposals in 2016, died that year in the state Senate but quietly passed this year. Also clearing the General Assembly in the final days: a bill mandating that custodians of public records must provide those records through open records requests in the same format in which they are created.
In 2015, the Fort Collins Coloradoan filed a request for employee salary information from Colorado State University. That data was was contained in a computerized database, but the university instead provided it through thousands of printed pages. The new law, if signed by the governor, would require data to be provided in the same format as the original, particularly as it applies to electronic formats.
But compromise is still apparently something of a dirty word, both inside and outside the Capitol. At least a half dozen Republican lawmakers who backed the hospital provider fee bill have said they are being threatened with primaries in 2018, punishment for working across the aisle or failing to uphold TABOR in a manner acceptable to outside groups such as the Colorado Union of Taxpayers or Principles of Liberty, both pro-TABOR groups.
Finally, the one bill that never happened: Despite early session interest, a bill to make fake urine illegal failed to surface, although its sponsor, Jon Becker, says he may consider it again next year.
Feature photo by Karen, via Creative Commons license, Flickr
Photo of US Capitol, Washington, D.C., by Ontheway Advice, via Creative Commons license, Flickr
Photo of Cynthia Coffman from her 2014 campaign
Photo of Gov. John Hickenlooper by Allen Tian, The Colorado Independent
Photo of Shakespeare statue by Matt Brown, via creative commons license, Flickr