“Dust Settles Slowly”
It’s been over 10 days since the legislature adjourned its session. You would think the dust would have settled, that everything would be determined, that we could all go home and read about and know exactly how the story ended.
But 2016 wasn’t that kind of year. Much is still unsettled. Don’t count on bills being signed or unfinished business not cramping your style. The rumblings about a Special Session have only just begun. A veto or two or three could add fuel to that fire…
ACCOMPLISHMENTS IN 2016
The critics have been hard on the 70th General Assembly. They praise the balance and moderation that come from a divided legislature at the same time they complain of inaction and indecision. Everybody likes to have it both ways.
As is always the case, a lot more happens during a legislative session than ever gets reported. Often the biggest accomplishments go unnoticed because they lack controversy or sex appeal. Our media prefers partisan storylines, so some stories don’t get told.
Most have credited the FY 2016-17 budget as being one of the high points of the session, and as a humble member of the Joint Budget Committee I’d have to agree. We resolved a great number of problems and only cut a few things in the end. Transportation funding from SB 228 got fixed at 75% of full transfers, a reduction of $52 million. We wiped out TABOR refunds by shortchanging hospital provider fee revenue. But in so doing, we avoided cuts to K-12 and higher education that had originally been proposed by the Governor in his November budget submission.
Many positive notes in the Governor’s budget request and JBC-crafted budget package were approved:
- $2.5 million for expanded Family Planning services
- Reform of Food Stamp (SNAP) county administration with workload study and quality improvement resources
- 100 new caseworkers for county child welfare offices
- 75 new security and support staffing for DYC
- creation of CyberSecurity initiatives program at UCCS
- creation of Institute for Cannabis Research at CSU-Pueblo
- investment of $6 million in new marijuana taxes in expanded access to substance use disorder intensive treatment
- stabilized funding to Tobacco Master Settlement Agreementhealth programs, such as Nurse Family Partnership and HIV prevention
- increased fees at the Division of Motor Vehicles
- maintained mid-year gains in reducing Negative Factor in school finance formula, which now stands at $831 million
- fully funded the Senior Property Tax Exemption, even at its alarming growth rate!
- Avoided cuts to Air Quality Division that would have reduced staff levels
Aside from the always-functional budget process, here are some other Big Accomplishments of 2016, organized by subject matter:
- Student Data Privacy. Hi Mom! HB 1423
- School Finance, now for charter schools, too! HB 1422
- The school construction program BEST will be allowed to increase its debt cap with the backing of constitutionally-pledged marijuana excise tax revenue thanks to SB 72.
- Rural Teacher Incentives are authorized by SB 104 to attract more teachers to small, rural school districts across Colorado.
Environment & Natural Resources
- HB 1005: because Rainbarrels!
- Tax credits for alternative fuel vehicles, such as electric cars, will be easier at the time of purchase and financing thanks to HB 1332
Jobs & Workforce
- HB 1288 creates an industry infrastructure grant program to support job training capacities in our economy
- HB 1290 gave a 5-year extension to the Transitional Jobs Program
- HB 1453 invests $8 million in the development of a national CyberSecurity center in Colorado Springs in conjunction with state and federal agencies and UCCS
- SB 180 and SB 181 were the biggest bills on sentencing reform this year, and they consumed a lot of the oxygen in the building, as we like to say. 48 juvenile lifers have new hope in resentencing and available program options in prison.
- Modest and mutually agreeable progress on mandatory minimum sentences was made with SB 102 (unlike more radical proposals…)
- And speaking of modest, SB 65 made several small and positive changes to restitution laws (lowering interest rate, allowing expungements and drivers licenses, etc.), and I scored a much bigger victory with the HIV decriminalization portion of SB 146.
- creation of new First-Time Home-Buyer tax deduction HB 1467
- extension of Low-Income Housing Tax Credit HB 1465
Health & Human Services
- Zero-Suicide Prevention Initiatives SB 147
- Emergency Mental Health Procedures SB 169
- Respite Care Task Force implemented HB 1398
- Agreement on transition, closure, sale of Grand Jct Regional CenterSB 178
Finally! A systematic review of tax expenditures. SB 203 is the product of several years of discussion that resulted in overwhelming support from legislators in both parties and both chambers. The JBC sponsored the billwith an extensive cast of characters wringing their hands and getting their fingerprints on it, but the end product met with everyone’s approval. On a rotating 5-year schedule the auditor will contract for the review of most tax expenditures and their return on investment. This could lead to future tax policy reforms that close loopholes, deductions, credits and exemptions for various special interests. The tax code is full of these tax expenditure loopholes now; SB 203 sets in motion a process to scrutinize them on a regular basis.
With all that was accomplished it is absolutely true that the legislature dropped the ball on several key issues:
Hospital Provider Fee
The biggest issue of the year didn’t get the play it deserved. In the House, Democrats ran the bill in conjunction with the budget package, hoping it would serve as a foil to an otherwise gloomy budget. But then they decided to not be too hasty in sending HB 1420 to a hostile Senate, so they let it languish on the House calendar. Its promissory companion HB 1421 sat with it and was later replaced by HB 1450. This latter bill was sent to the Senate with HB 1420 on April 29, although the Senate did not introduce the bills until May 10, at which time they were hurried off to defeat in committee.
Construction Defect Litigation
Negotiations over the topic have supposedly been taking place for years, and towards the end of the legislative session there was hope that an agreement was near. It never happened. Certain other topics held hostage by these negotiations were freed, some of which passed (see items underHousing above), and some didn’t.
Presidential Primary Election
First there was HB 1454, and later SB 216, and both were bipartisan attempts to restore the Presidential Primary Election, although the details varied somewhat. Chief among the differences, and key to the debate, is whether and how unaffiliated voters may participate. I would have supported either bill, but I lean more the direction of HB 1454 on the question of including unaffiliated voters in the process. For the record, I wasn’t wild about everything in HB 1454, but neither bill passed. As I’ve previously stated, I think we should disentangle the Presidential politics from our precinct caucus system, reserving it for state-level and local district candidates. See the Event listings below for more on this topic!
The current mechanisms for funding transportation infrastructure are not satisfying. They’re inadequate and to some extent unreliable, particularly that portion from the General Fund. Current requirements of SB 228 drive the JBC crazy, so we’ve been re-writing them a year or two at a time (Seee.g. HB 16-1416). Funding obligations ranged from $100 million to $200 million to zero, all depending on which forecast turned out to be correct. Instead of gambling on a choice between 100% of the $200 million maximum amount and 50%, or $100 million, the JBC fixed the number at 75%, saving ourselves $50 million toward bringing the budget into balance. Meanwhile, proposals for bond-financed projects went nowhere. All the while, traffic congestion increases with population growth. There is an urgent need for new or increased revenue for transportation in Colorado.
On April 25, 2016, the Colorado Supreme Court decided an appeal of a tax deduction case that for some reason seems to have caught everyone unprepared. The ruling in the case will allow oil & gas companies to amend their past three years of tax returns to claim a deduction and therefore owe less severance tax and now be eligible for a refund. The total refund liability is estimated at $115 million, although everyone admits uncertainty in the numbers. We likely owe $115 million in refunds over the next few months, and we’re being told this tax deduction will reduce future severance tax collections by 12.5% each year. Whether this constitutes a crisis or just the taxes we should have been collecting all along depends on who you ask. A very late bill from the JBC dealt with the immediate problem of paying refunds in the current and upcoming budget year. A larger conversation about severance tax policy will be necessitated by the magnitude of these numbers. Is summer of 2016 too soon?
The Colorado Constitution gives the Governor the power to call the legislature into Special Session to address limited, specified issues. Before the 120th day of the Second Regular Session was complete the rumor mill was already churning out talk of Special Session. Is there the political will and sufficient time remaining on the clock for a deal on any or all of these outstanding issues? Two milestones on the calendar in June: the “30-day clock” expires on June 10, which is the deadline for the Governor to sign or veto bills; and June 28, the date of the Primary Election. Many sitting members are facing contested primary races between now and then, after which some could become lame ducks…
Any Appetite for Do-Overs?
SB 197 has the newspaper calling for a veto (see below). And it wouldn’t be the only bill headed for this fate. A split legislature doesn’t produce many bills in need of vetoes, although at least one other such bill sits on the Governor’s desk: HB 1231 on red light cameras. Tossing a couple of vetoed bills (or three or four) onto the agenda for a Special Session may give it some needed padding, and increase the likelihood that at least some good will come from a Special Session that could otherwise end in a miserable stalemate on higher profile issues.
And Just For Fun
Timing is everything in politics. A Special Session would have to take place after the Primary but well in advance of the General Election. As negotiations for agenda items are undertaken it would be fun to include certain topics lost in the partisan crossfire that deserve a repeat performance. The ability to control the timing and the agenda for a Special Session can create a lot of leverage.
It’s His Call
The Governor sets the agenda for a Special Session. It’s his decision to call us back to the Capitol and our actions are limited to topics he wants us to address. Be advised, however: you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. Being called back into Special Session and being given a list of assignments doesn’t obligate the legislature to take any action it doesn’t want to take. Lots of intrigue, lots to weigh in the balance, some deadlines looming sooner than others. It’s up to the Governor, but if I were a betting man…
Here’s what others are saying:
LIQUOR SALES & BEER WARS
SB 197 has turned into one of the more controversial bills of the year, that is if you let the newspaper editorial page define controversy. And why shouldn’t they? They buy ink by the barrel and they’re in the business of selling us controversy. This same editorial page called out for a solution just a few short weeks ago (“time for a deal“), but last week they turned againstcompromise and called for a veto. They prefer a status quo that may not be with us much longer.
SB 197 is the product of hours upon hours of negotiation between many of the interests in disputes over retail package liquor sales. Several of the participants have filed proposed ballot initiatives for this November, and some of them now agree that a legislative solution is preferable to a high-stakes, winners-n-losers showdown at the ballot. Not everyone agrees, and certain grocery store chains headquartered out of state continue to press forward with petitions and ballot warfare. They stand to gain a great deal.
On the other side of the equation are retail liquor stores, all locally-owned, independent small businesses as required by current Colorado law. Siding with them are local and craft brewers and distillers, and spirits manufacturers and distributors. They worry the primary outlets for their products in our state would suffer from chain store competition, even though the large chains may not have many diverse, local and craft offerings. They want a balanced system of retail sales to ensure access to broad markets.
SB 197 modernizes retail liquor sales over the course of the next 20 years by slowly allowing multiple ownership of liquor licenses, ultimately small chains of retail liquor stores and larger chains of liquor-licensed drugstores. Existing businesses are protected from new competition within a proximity radius of 1,500 feet (larger in smaller towns). Grocery stores wishing to acquire multiple licensed locations will do so over time, and they’ll be required to buy out nearby competitors as they grow. In the meantime, liquor stores will be able to sell food or other products as the marketplace shifts and evolves over time. Small liquor stores are protected from chain competitors in too-close proximity, and then can adapt their business plan or make their exit strategy as the marketplace transitions to these new business models.
That’s the idea, anyway. I describe it by saying the small retailers got a chance to sit down and pick their poison, and in exchange they bought some time to gracefully plan their future, or their future demise, whichever the case may be. It was a difficult bargain. I didn’t name the terms. I’m just honoring the work that was done to come this close to compromise. And I bet it would work. SB 197 sits on the Governor’s desk awaiting his decision to sign or veto the bill. Now, if I were a betting man…
ALL OF MY BILLS
As always, you can visit my website for a complete list of all the legislation I sponsored in 2016, including the status of each bill and links to the full text. Already 15 of my bills have been signed into law by the governor this year and 14 more are sitting on his desk right now. Click here for all the details.
2016 GRADUATING CLASS
I’m pictured here on the Senate floor on the final day of session, May 11, 2016, together with my colleagues from the Senate Democratic Caucus that like me, won’t be returning next year. Six of us are term-limited, and a 7th has chosen to not seek a second term.
A QUIETLY OBSERVED ANNIVERSARY
Last Friday, May 20, was the 20th anniversary of one of the watershed moments in my life: the day the United States Supreme Court sided with me, my friends and my community and blocked discrimination aimed directly at us. For the first time the Court acknowledged and affirmed that laws targeting Gays and Lesbians could violate the US Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection of the law. Romer v. Evans was a landmark victory. Amendment 2 was an unprecedented affront. I still have vivid memories of the chaos of the morning the case was announced – I thought it was going to be later in June – and the certainty that has flowed from it ever since. From Romer to Lawrence to Windsor to Obergefell, the evolution of the law was breathtaking to behold.
“A State cannot so deem a class of persons
a stranger to its laws.”
– Justice Anthony Kennedy in Romer v. Evans,
517 U.S. 620, 635 (1996).
IN THE NEWS
by Susan Casey, The Denver Post, May 22, 2016
“Twenty years ago this month…”
(with sincere gratitude to Susan Casey)
Thursday, May 26, 2016, 7:00 pm
Larimer County League of Women Voters & City of Fort Collins present CrossCurrents: Presidential Primary Election
Channel 14 on local cable
City Council Chambers
300 LaPorte Ave., Fort Collins, CO 80526
State Sen. Kevin Lundberg and I will be part of a panel at this monthly television program sponsored by the local LWV chapter and the City’s community access programming. There will be 5 of us on the panel and we’ll be taking audience questions about the caucus process, a primary election, and the pluses and minuses of who gets to participate in which. Sen. Lundberg was the sponsor of SB 216 (together with Sen. Lucia Guzman) and will likely be getting a few questions about it.
Monday, May 30, 2016
It will be day three of a 3-day weekend. And you won’t be getting a newsletter from me in your inbox. Mark your calendars now. It’s the beginning of a transition to a very different newsletter schedule…
Saturday, June 4, 2016, 3:00 to 6:00 pm
HD 9 Democrats Annual Margarita Mixer
5598 E. Mansfield Ave., Denver CO 80237
Please join us for this annual event that’s always a lot of fun and features lots of fun food and drink. It’s a fundraiser for the local HD 9 Dems, so bring something to share and something to leave behind. Tickets are $20 at the door – let’s celebrate!
STAY IN TOUCH
Thanks for reading this update, and please don’t hesitate to drop me a line with any questions or concerns you may have. You can use the links below to follow me on Twitter or like my page on that other social media site. Let’s stay in touch!