Business likely to be high priority during upcoming legislative session

It remains to be seen what kind of economic development ideas the Colorado Legislature will consider when it convenes the 2010 session this month, but some lawmakers are planning to present a slew of bills they hope will help businesses.

That primarily means measures aimed at encouraging job growth and speeding the state’s economic recovery.

Problem is, though, state government is facing some of the worst revenue shortfalls it has seen in decades. That makes it harder for some lawmakers to justify additional tax credits or new business-friendly programs that come with a price tag.

Last month, Gov. Bill Ritter and other Democrats unveiled a package of measures designed to help businesses recover from the recession.

“Small businesses are the backbone of Colorado’s economy and the engine that drives job creation,” Ritter said. “Family-owned firms continue to struggle from the lack of available credit, low demand for goods and uncertainty about the future. While there are limits to what state government can and should do even during such difficult times, we can build on our partnerships with the private sector and play a vital role in continued economic recovery.”

During last year’s session, lawmakers approved new tax credits for companies that create jobs.

Some lawmakers are talking about extending that credit to businesses that bring back positions they were forced to eliminate because of the recession. Others, however, say the state can ill afford more credits or tax cuts, especially the business personal property tax that Republicans and some Democrats want to do away with.

Both issues are expected to come up during the session.

Meanwhile, Ritter is pushing for a package of bills designed to help better educate workers who have been forced to look for new work or even switch careers because they lost their jobs.

One of those measures is designed to help workers get noticed by employers who are hiring. Called CareerReady Colorado Certificate, the program, to be operated by the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, will certify workers based on skills they already have.

Businesses looking for qualified workers – or those with the basic skills needed to receive on-the-job training for positions they may not otherwise qualify for – would be able to avoid having to weed through dozens, if not hundreds, of applications from unqualified job candidates.

At the same time, it would give workers an edge in getting a new job.

“We talk a lot about shovel-ready projects,” said Don Mares, executive director of the department. “But employers know a project is truly shovel-ready only when there’s a career-ready workforce. (This) will help businesses to easily identify prequalified candidates with the desired skill set.”

Other job-training measures include creating an employer-matched education fund for individual workers to allow them to get additional job training, and programs to forgive loans for people who want to enter the health care field, particularly to nursing students who agree to work in rural parts of the state.

Lawmakers are expected to take up two hot-button issues dealing with pensions for teachers and state workers and the state’s biggest worker’s compensation insurance carrier.

Like most pension plans, the one run by the Colorado Public Employees Retirement Association has been hit hard by the tumbling stock market during the recession. As a result, most of its pension funds are at risk of becoming insolvent within their 30-year life span. PERA’s net assets dropped more than 25 percent over the past two years, from $43.1 billion to $30.8 billion.

To fix it, the PERA board of directors plans to ask the Legislature to require teachers and state workers to contribute more of their monthly pay to their retirement funds. Because of the state’s revenue problems, however, the board isn’t asking for a similar hike in employer contributions.

Meanwhile, Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, plans to continue her push to remake Pinnacol Assurance, the quasi-governmental company that provides worker’s compensation insurance to about 58,000 Colorado businesses.

During a series of hearings over the summer, Democratic legislators voted along party lines to introduce several changes that Republican members of an interim committee on the subject believe would lead to high premiums for businesses.

Those measures include: penalizing insurers for wrongfully denying worker’s compensation claims; prohibiting insurer’s employees from receiving bonuses for denying claims; and adding nonmanagement and injured workers to the Pinnacol board of directors.

The Pinnacol debate became a hot topic at the end of the 2009 session when Democrats tried to take $500 million from its reserves to help balance the state’s budget.


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