Attorney General Cynthia Coffman is siding with the oil and gas industry by appealing a lower court ruling that would increase safety and environmental regulations when drilling in the state.
Whether Colorado’s next attorney general should take a similar position was addressed head-on in a debate between three Democratic candidates vying to replace Coffman, who is giving up her job as the state’s top law enforcement official in a bid for governor.
Joe Salazar, a state representative from Thornton, Phil Weiser, a law professor at University of Colorado Boulder, Brad Levin, a commercial litigation attorney, met Thursday night at the Community College of Denver in a debate put on by the Colorado Criminal Defense Bar and the college’s paralegal program.
The other Democratic candidate, Amy Padden, a Denver prosecutor, and the only Republican candidate, District Attorney George Brauchler, were invited but did not attend.
Should a Democrat win the race in November, it would break a 13-year streak of Republican leadership.
Besides the issue of how to regulate oil and gas, the candidates talked about how to defend the state’s marijuana industry against a hostile Department of Justice and how to get treatment for people addicted to opioids who may otherwise end up in prison.
Not surprisingly, the candidates agreed on a number of issues, including that the state should ban military-style assault weapons and that Colorado should do away with the death penalty. Not all the hot-button issues facing the office came up. There was no discussion about sanctuary cities, the fate of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, or whether Clarence Moses-EL, whom jurors in 2016 found not guilty of sexual assault after he spent 28 years of a 48-year sentence behind bars, should be compensated for his time in prison.
While their policy goals were largely aligned, there were some key differences on how they would achieve those goals on a few issues: oil and gas regulations, protecting marijuana legalization and the opioid crisis.
Oil and gas
Since the Firestone explosion last April that killed two men, residents and local communities have been calling for greater protections for public health and safety. In the Front Range, a population boom has created recent conflicts between residential neighborhoods and oil and gas developments.
Salazar said he wants to take on the oil and gas industry to ensure residents are protected. He talked about his effort in the legislature to codify into law the opinion of a lower court ruling in the Martinez v. Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission case that would have required state regulators to prioritize public health and safety when issuing drilling permits. The case currently before the Colorado Supreme Court on appeal.
“I go after them. That’s what I do,” Salazar said of oil and gas companies, as he skipped the lectern to walk around the room and talk directly an audience largely made up of college students. “And the reason for that is you. All you young folks here.”
Levin sought to balance the interests of the oil and gas industry with the pressure to regulate the industry. For example, he said efforts by local communities to create setback requirements for wells are a bad idea.
“All you’re gonna do is get sued,” Levin said. Instead, he said, the next attorney general needs to bring local communities and oil and gas companies together to resolve conflicts.
After the debate, he told The Colorado Independent he wants the Colorado Supreme Court to decide the Martinez case. He said the COGCC has to follow the law, and if lawmakers want to change that, they can.
Weiser, a former dean of the University of Colorado Law School, said the COGCC has clear authority to deny oil and gas drilling permits on grounds of public health, safety and the environment.
All candidates supported the state’s legalization of marijuana, and promised to defend it.
Salazar said he would use the Bill of Rights’ 10th Amendment, which limits the federal government’s powers, to defend the state’s law. He said the majority of Coloradans who voted for Amendment 64 will want the state to fight back.
Weiser agreed. He said it’s tax revenue used to pay for scholarships in Pueblo County and mental health support in Eagle County.
“We’re not gonna let you commandeer us,” he said. “We’ll fight for our sovereignty in the 10th Amendment.”
Levin said defending the law is good for businesses in the state, but he added the state needs to enforce marijuana laws, including making sure it isn’t trafficked across state lines.
“In order for us to make sure that we don’t have any kinds of criticism about what it is that we do, we have to be responsible,” he told The Colorado Independent. “That creates legitimacy.”
Drugs and jails
The moderators asked whether the lack of treatment centers in the state is making incarceration the default option for treating opioid addiction. They also asked whether the state should open the Colorado State Penitentiary II, now called the Centennial South Correctional Facility, to house prisoners.
“We’ve had a war on drugs, and we lost,” Weiser said. “Because too many people were put in jail.”
To address the opioid epidemic, Weiser said pharmaceutical companies need to be held accountable. He said he will sue these companies and reinvest the settlement money into treatment centers. Also, he said dealers, pill mills and doctors need to be held responsible.
Levin agreed. He added that insurance companies should be paying for drug treatment. And, he said, prisoners’ rights should be protected by increasing communication between Department of Corrections and the Attorney General’s Office.
Salazar, who said he has cousins in the San Luis Valley who are addicted to opioids, took a different approach. He targeted the Department of Corrections, which is seeing pushback this year from lawmakers as it tries to lease a private prison to make room for an expected rise in inmates next year.
Salazar pointed out an increase in the DOC’s budget despite a drop in the prison population. (Since 2011, the prison population has declined about 12 percent, but the budget has increased about 23 percent.)
He also cited a report by the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition that found, despite drug sentencing reforms, the number of felony drug cases prosecutors file with DOC has doubled in the last five years, with the largest increase being among women.
Salazar labeled the Department of Corrections as an “industry” that is fighting for itself.
“This attorney general is going to go after them,” he said. “I think there has been a misuse of taxpayer dollars.”