Capitol consensus: Parties tout legislative session
DENVER — Troopers, transportation, transparency in government, oh, and dance halls and Pueblo chili.
From the serious to the inane, the Colorado Legislature managed to accomplish much during the 2017 session that ended last week despite the two chambers being split between the two major parties.
While no side of the political aisle got everything they wanted, both said they were satisfied with what they were able to enact.
“You have leadership in both chambers who now are more familiar with having a split Legislature,” Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert, R-Parker, said in explaining why he thinks more got done this session. “We have had more consistency in the split dynamic, and having to work together or nothing gets done. It’s about trying to find the right words on paper so that we ... move the ball forward, and that’s what I would encourage constituents to consider.”
After every legislative session, lawmakers always claim they worked in a bipartisan fashion on the preponderance of bills that clear the Statehouse.
And while that’s true, it’s mainly for simple, housekeeping measures or noncontroversial bills, such as creating a new specialty license plate honoring Pueblo chili or a bill moving laws governing dance halls and escort services to a different part of the statute books.
This year was different.
From the start, there were bipartisan efforts to take on some meaty issues, such as finding money for transportation projects, bringing broadband services to rural parts of the state, examining whether law enforcement agencies are using civil asset forfeiture laws correctly, and settling decade-long disputes over construction defect cases.
“We were able to accomplish a lot of stuff, even from being in the minority,” said House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, R-Castle Rock. “Some of the stuff that we were able to accomplish that were major issues was, first off, the construction litigation reform. Another thing was charter school equity. (Legislators) proved that they didn’t need to have the glory and credit to get (bills) across the finish line.”
Perhaps the beefiest measure that is on its way to Gov. John Hickenlooper’s desk was SB267. That’s a bill to turn the state’s hospital provider fee program, used to fund health care for the poor, into a standalone government enterprise.
Doing that to the fee, which patients pay for in- and out-patient treatments, frees up millions of dollars under the revenue cap mandated by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. Last year, that fee brought in about $670 million, but after being matched by the federal government, it totals about $1.3 billion. All that money is paid back to hospitals to cover their costs from indigent patients who don’t pay and those paying with Medicaid, which pays less than private insurers.
That means when the Legislature does its budget next year, there will be about $470 million more to spend. (The bill also lowered the TABOR revenue cap by $200 million, something Republicans insisted on to help limit future spending.)
While it was ironic that Republicans led the effort to make the provider fee an enterprise — they opposed it for several years on grounds that it violated the spirit of TABOR — they did so because it was a better alternative to what Senate President Kevin Grantham, R-Canon City, and House Speaker Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, wanted to do: Raise the state’s sales taxes by 0.62 percent to be used entirely to fund transportation projects.
“(Grantham) starting the conversation absolutely helped the rest of the transportation conversation in my bill,” Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, said, “This was a good year for Colorado in the Legislature. Businesses will have less regulation, less taxes to be able to grow Colorado.”
The bill became somewhat of a Christmas tree. It needed more ornaments to sell the idea to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, said Sonnenberg and other sponsors of the bill, Senate Minority Leader Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, House Majority Leader KC Becker, D-Boulder, and Rep. Jon Becker, R-Fort Morgan.
The bill included such seemingly unrelated items as a plan to leverage state buildings to issue about $1.88 billion in certificates of participation, a kind of bond, to fund numerous transportation projects around the state.
It also includes a business personal property tax credit, an increase in the co-pay Medicaid patients are charged, extra money for rural schools, protecting the Homestead Property Tax Exemption for seniors, and increasing marijuana taxes to the maximum level that voters have already approved.
Early in the session, Sen. Kerry Donovan, a Vail Democrat whose district includes Delta County, tried to get the Legislature to approve a bill that would have forced a 2014 law to go into effect that has been delayed by a lawsuit.
That law called for an eventual phase-out of the state’s High Cost Support Mechanism, which comes from a 2.6 percent surcharge all telephone users pay (about 20 cents on a $150 bill) that was created decades ago to help telecommunications companies afford the cost of bringing phone service to hard-to-reach areas of the state.
Donovan’s bill would have changed the 2014 law that allows the Colorado Public Utilities Commission to begin transferring money from that fund into a new Broadband Deployment Fund, which provides grants to internet service providers to bring broadband to parts of the state that don’t have it.
As a result of the lawsuit filed by CenturyLink, only about $2 million has been moved into that new fund.
Front Range senators, however, ended up killing it.
Later in the session, the Joint Budget Committee decided to shift $9.5 million from the high-cost fund into the broadband fund, and introduced a bill to do so. That’s when KC Becker and Rep. Yeulin Willett, R-Grand Junction, tacked an amendment onto it that mirrored Donovan’s bill in the final days of the session.
Near pandemonium ensued, not just between legislators, but also among the lobby corps outside the two chambers.
By the final day, Becker, Willett, Donovan and Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose, backed off for fear their efforts might kill the original bill, jeopardizing the $9.5 million. They left it in a place, however, where even opponents of the change were saying it will be a top priority when the Legislature meets again next session.
“I think the last couple days were a wake-up call for some of (the telecommunications companies) that change is coming, and I wouldn’t be surprised that we see multiple efforts come next year,” Grantham said.
“There’s momentum built up,” Hickenlooper added. “Too many people recognized that part of the strength of the state is having every ranch, every farmhouse have access to broadband. It’s the same as rural electrification in the 30s.”
Politics still played a role in what bills won approval and what didn’t, and nothing showed that more than when it came to the Colorado Energy Office.
Earlier in the session, the JBC made the decision not to pay for that 35-member office, 24 full-time jobs which are funded by the state. As a result, the office will virtually go away at the end of the fiscal year, which ends June 30.
Still, Hickenlooper was disappointed that a bill introduced by Sen. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction, didn’t pass, saying Colorado now will be the only state in the West without one.
Hickenlooper and Scott rarely agree on anything, but both didn’t understand why this one didn’t pass.
Critics of the bill said is was partly because it came out of the chute political, because it included provisions that had nothing to do with rescuing and retooling the office. Scott’s bill not only would have taken its focus away from renewable energy, but also included provisions to help public utilities drill their own gas wells.
The bill also got caught up in a couple of other measures that came and went long before Scott’s bill was even introduced, and that was partly because a natural gas flow line from a well located near a subdivision in Longmont exploded earlier this month, killing two people and seriously injuring a third.
Earlier in the session, the GOP-controlled Senate killed HB1256 that would have altered the state’s 1,000-foot setback rule to be measured from a school building to the school grounds. At the same time, the Democratic-controlled House killed SB35 to impose stricter penalties on anyone who tampered with oil and gas equipment.
Hickenlooper said the battle’s not over, and that no one will lose their jobs in the energy office because he can move the existing employees into other temporary positions.
Still, he said bringing the office back will be a top priority.
“There was tremendous emotion attached to a lot of the energy bills throughout the entire session, and then the energy office gets killed,” the governor said. “To me, when you see that tension, all the more reason why you do need to have that energy office. There are so many different opinions and so many people on different sides of the issue on each energy issue.”
The governor has hinted that he may call a special session to continue work on many of these issues.
While he said the session was the most productive since he took office in 2011, he wasn’t completely satisfied with how it all turned out.
If a special session is called, the governor said it would address the energy office, transportation funding, broadband and the rising costs of health insurance.
Legislative leaders, however, say even if a special session is convened, something they doubt will actually happen, it’s unlikely anyone will change their minds on any of those issues, at least not yet.