Lawmakers adjourn without agreement on broadband service

DENVER — Much of the really big stuff was a foregone conclusion on the final day of the 2017 legislative session Wednesday, but a few controversial issues still came down to the wire before the Colorado General Assembly adjourned late into the evening.

There was little doubt that enough lawmakers supported what many considered to be the biggest issue the Legislature tackled during this year’s session: turning the state’s hospital provider fee into a standalone government enterprise, freeing up money in the budget for other programs.

But other important issues didn’t fare as well on the final day, such as an effort to rescue the Colorado Energy Office, and an attempt to force money into a special fund designed to help build broadband infrastructure in rural parts of the state.

That measure, SB306, ended up going to a conference committee of three members of the House and three from the Senate — including Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail — in what turned out to be a vain attempt to iron out differences between the two versions of the bill, an effort that failed.

An amendment tacked onto the bill earlier this week virtually mirrored a bill Donovan introduced earlier in the session that was killed in the Senate, and a similar effort that Sen. Don Coram, R-Montrose, wanted to introduce later in the session, but wasn’t allowed to by GOP leaders.

Both were designed to force full enactment of a 2014 law that called on the phase-out of a fee program used to fund infrastructure for telephone service in hard-to-reach areas of the state, and transfer that money — more than $30 million — to a broadband development fund.

On Tuesday, several lawmakers called out CenturyLink for reneging on a deal that got that 2014 law passed, saying the telecommunications company has only been interested in keeping a multi-million subsidy it receives.

That year, the Legislature reached a historic agreement on phasing out the fund for telephone service and switching it to broadband, an agreement that fell apart after that year’s session ended and CenturyLink and other companies sued the Colorado Public Utilities Commission over one provision of the law, blocking the entire thing.

Lawmakers interested in bringing broadband to all of Colorado have become increasingly frustrated as that lawsuit has dragged on.

“This chamber made a promise beginning in 2014 that we were going to make a very concerted effort to connect all of Colorado, and we haven’t seen progress being made toward that largely because we haven’t given the PUC a tight enough definition to work around the lawsuits that were thrown at them,” Donovan said Wednesday. “What SB306, the Senate version and the House version, represents is trying to fulfill that promise.”

Eventually, the House voted to recede from its position because not doing so would have killed the original bill, and prevented the $9.5 million from being transferred into the broadband fund.

“We can at least start something,” Rep. Marc Catlin, R-Montrose, said. “Broadband is something that we need.”

The whole matter left raw the nerves of many state lawmakers, particularly House Majority Leader KC Becker, D-Boulder, who said she didn’t want to let a solitary company dictate what kind of high-speed internet service rural Colorado should have.

“I am angry, and I’m not backing off my version because it isn’t the right thing for the people of Colorado,” Becker said. “I do not want the people of Colorado to be held captive by corporate interests. I am not willing to keep pushing this down into the future because we are not willing to take on those corporate interests. That’s exactly what’s going on with this bill.”

On the energy office, the final acts of the House and Senate before they both adjourned were to stick with their own versions of the bill without even bothering to go to a conference committee. The measure, SB301, which was introduced by Sen. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction, was designed to give the office an all-of-the-above focus on energy, rather than a focus on renewable energy.

But House Democrats balked at provisions in it that would have allowed utilities to drill their own gas wells.

On another issue, after killing a similar measure earlier in the session, the Colorado Senate gave its final thumbs-up to a bill that would require law enforcement agencies to better report how they use the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws.

Under HB1313, local law enforcement would be barred from receiving proceeds from such forfeitures, which come from property taken from suspected or convicted criminals, but only those that are part of a joint seizure with federal law enforcement that is less than $50,000.

Mesa County Commissioner Rose Pugliese said the bill would be devastating to local budgets. She said county law enforcement received about $2 million in civil forfeitures from 2012 to 2016, adding that $1.1 million was in cases of less than $50,000.


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