That's A Wrap! CO Legislators Leave for the Year with Loads of Unfinished Business

Today was the last day of Colorado's 2014 legislative session — that is unless lawmakers convene for a special session to hammer out a fracking local control bill. Unlikely, according to Senate President Morgan Carroll, who said that if months of discussion couldn’t lead to a consensus bill by now, she doubts a special session — which would cost taxpayers $23,000 a day — is the answer.

So today’s will be be the end-all, be-all adjournment — a.k.a sine die as latinate legislative pomp would have it. You may be asking, what just happened?

In a marked departure from last session’s headline-grabbing, highly-partisan policies like civil unions, gun-control and in-state college tuition for undocumented students, this election year session focused mostly on consensus issues like flood and fire recovery, as well as funding for child care and education. Here are some highlights from this year’s roughly 450 bills, 97 percent of which were passed with bipartisan support.

This year was virtually the first since the Great Recession when lawmakers had some serious cash to invest, both from general tax revenue and from legalized marijuana. As our stellar finance blogger Carol Hedges noted, this lead to the “Oprah Effect,” wherein lawmakers supported some pretty huge future expenditures through tax credits.

The first bill introduced in the House this session, a property tax reimbursement for folks who lost their homes due to natural disasters like flood or fire, may be the last to pass. HB 1001 hit a snag in the Senate when some questioned whether it was the right policy decision because the tax credit would in effect reimburse disaster victims even for the months of a year they spent living in their house prior to its destruction.

In the waning hours of the session the two chambers have formed a conference committee to hash out this issue. While the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Longmont, has called the paired-back version of the bill an insult to victims, it would likely save the state about 50 percent on what would otherwise be a $2 million price tag for fiscal year 13-14 alone.

Some of that saved money, Carroll pointed out, would be used to reimburse the victims of the Lower North Fork Fire to the tune of $17.6 million. The 20 claimants are suing the state for damages resulting from a controlled burn gone wrong.

The state also invested nearly $20 million in an aerial firefighting fleet to catch wildfires before they spin out of control. Another prevention measure, a tax credit to encourage homeowners near wild lands to do fire mitigation, didn’t end up passing.

Yet another major policy issue tackled in the form of a tax credit was the astonishing cost of child care in Colorado. Averaging in around $12,000 a year, the cost of child care — especially for infants — often exceeds the annual college tuition at some institutions. Through HB 1072, which closes a loophole that excluded Colorado’s poorest working families from the state’s child care assistance tax credit, the state has committed roughly $8 million a year until 2017 to giving working families making less than $25,000 a credit of up to $500 per child for up to two children.

The child care tax credit comes as part of a slew of measures that will support and protect women across Colorado. You can read our feature on those policies here.

Clocking in at the lower end of the tax credit cost spectrum, bipartisan HB 1119 encourages Colorado’s farmers and ranchers to donate their unsold produce to local food pantries. The credit is good for 25 percent of the value of the crop up to $5,000 and is partially intended to cover some of the costs of harvesting the unsold food.

The biggest tax credits will likely go to businesses, with a major emphasis on advanced industries and venture capitalists. Under bipartisan HB 1012, for example, sizable investors in new companies in industries like aerospace and information technology can get tax credits of up to $50,000 until 2017.  Many pro-business lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, including Sen. Majority Leader Rollie Heath, credit a recent history of these business-oriented tax credits with Colorado’s current position as fourth in the nation for job growth.

Not all the legislature’s major investments were done through tax credits. Hundreds of millions of dollars went into restoring an era of cuts to both public K-12 and higher education.

After earning an “F” in college affordability back in 2008, sponsors of the Senate’s first bill to make post-secondary education financially accessible to all Coloradans acknowledged that in many cases tuition continued to rise by as much as 68 percent during these last lean recession years. The passage of SB 1 marks a $100 million investment in public higher education in Colorado as well as the institution of a six percent annual cap on how much universities can raise tuition.

As Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, noted on the floor today before the School Finance Act got final passage in the House, between that annual bill and this year’s Student Success Act, the state will be investing $110 million into restoring recession-era cuts to K-12. In addition to that broader restoration, the two education bills also put $18 million into the READ Act, which funds literacy interventions for K-3 students; $13 million into facilities for charter schools; $17 million into preschool for at-risk kids; and $5 million into English Language Learning. This is on top of the maximum $40 million in weed-tax money that will go towards school construction and maintenance.

Lawmakers also passed SB 215, which dishes out this year’s $24 million in non-school destined weed-tax revenue. That spending falls under three broad categories: regulation and law enforcement, addiction treatment and most of all youth education and use prevention.

Though the session was certainly investment focused, it wasn’t all about spending state dollars all the time. Lawmakers passed SB 5, which is less about how the state spends its money and more about employers that short their staff on wages. The bill creates a process for complaint, investigation and restitution of stolen wages without forcing employees to result to small claims court.

In addition to protecting Colorado’s workers, the state also made some tremendous strides on policies regarding civil liberties.

The hugely popular HB 1061 ended what turned out to be the ongoing, albeit unconstitutional, practice in some Colorado towns of jailing people who couldn’t afford to pay court-ordered fines for violations such as stealing a can of fish.

Acknowledging that nearly half of Colorado’s juvenile defenders go through the courts entirely without legal representation, lawmakers passed HB 1032 which adds 20 full time public defenders to ensure that kids aren’t making plea bargains and the like without a lawyer.

In an effort to protect Colorado citizens on the internet, HB 1047 makes it illegal, and fineable, to post a mugshot online and force people to pay for it to be removed. In a similar vein HB 1378, sponsored by Rep. Amy Stephens, R-Monument, outlaws the practice known as “revenge porn” where folks post naked pictures of their exes online. The misdemeanor can be accompanied by a fine of up to $10,000. The bill also allows for victims of revenge porn to pursue civil damages by giving copyright to the subjects of intimate photographs.

Other efforts focused on digital civil liberties met with mixed results. Senate President Morgan Carroll introduced several measures, including one which would have ended up on the ballots this fall, aimed at clarifying Fourth Amendment privacy rights in the digital age. At least one of those efforts does look like it will be successful. SB 193 codifies a U.S. Supreme Court decision that it is illegal for police to use unwarranted GPS tracking.

Last, but certainly not least, in the civil liberties camp, lawmakers passed SB 64 prohibiting the use of solitary confinement on mentally ill prisoners. With our focus on criminal justice, The Independent followed this bill closely and you can read our feature “Solitary by any other name…” which details the bill’s strengths, and weaknesses, here.

Accompanying solitary confinement among the session’s most talked about bills, HB 1281, affectionately known as the “Dallas buyer’s club bill,” entitled terminally ill patients to use experimental drugs, just like in that movie we all saw this year.

The tricky SB 125 also racked up the headlines. While it didn’t necessarily leave either taxi companies or mobile transit apps like Lyft and UberX jumping for joy, the bill did finagle a way for the new companies to operate legally in the state.

And those of you in rural Colorado not reading this fantastic 2014 legislative session roundup because you don’t have the internet in the hinterlands would be glad to hear that a slew of telecommunications bills also made it through the statehouse. They’re specifically designed to push high-speed broadband out to rural Colorado in exchange for looser telecomm regulations.

Speaking of rural Colorado, turns out rural residents pay way more for healthcare and on the eastern plains the ratio of doctors to patients is the same as in Afghanistan in 2007. You can read our feature on those issues and possible solutions, here.

Lawmakers agree rural health is a critical issue. They passed a bill to ramp-up rural medical residencies in the hopes of increasing the number of doctors in rural communities and also formed a commission to investigate what’s driving those higher rural care costs.

The session wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, some bills passed without bipartisan support and even with strong objections from the minority party. A good example of such acrimonious legislation would be the Democratic election reform bills which some Republican’s called “sore losers’” policy in response to the gun-control motivated recalls that unseated two Senate Democrats last fall and caused a third to voluntarily resign. Despite those fighting words, the policies are fairly basic. SB 158 makes it possible to use mail ballots in a recall election and SB 161, a.k.a. the Jon Caldara “I told you so” bill, makes it way harder to vote in a district you don’t really live in.

Also contentious was the Democratic appropriation of what is generally considered a Republican movement — mandatory minimums for child sex offenders. When the legislation known as Jessica’s Law after a young Florida victim was deemed too punitive for Colorado earlier in the session, Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, came back with a tiered version by the same name. Republicans at first decried the bill. Later many voted for it when Jessica’s father put his support behind the modified legislation, which starts the mandatory minimums at 10 years in prison for the sexual assault of a child.

Behind the bills that had a bumpy ride, there are of course many that never made it. A few of those were particular die hards, measures that left some furious and others busily coalition building for renewed efforts next session.

Bipartisan HB 1036 may take the prize for most resented unpassed bill. The measure, which passed 56-6 in the House but died in a Senate committee, would have created a felony for repeat DUI’s. Opponents of the bill said the policy was too expensive and that the focus should be on treating the disease of alcoholism, not on sending more people to prison.

A highly controversial proposal to study the human health impacts of front range fracking also died in a Senate committee. Opponents who argued the bill had an in-built bias against oil and gas development were relieved. The fractivists already signing petitions to gain local control over O&G development, however, saw the bill’s fizzling-out as an election year cop-out — particularly as the media focuses on fracking as a potential source of division in the Democratic party.

Another dead measure popular among a certain set of voters, SB 181, would have prohibited the use of those pesky red light cameras and autonomous photo radars that send you traffic tickets in the mail. Some lawmakers see these tools as a violation of due process, others see them as a critical way to encourage safer driving and maintain revenues in cash-strapped cities. The latter group won.

Winning the award for most protesters on the Capitol steps was the reproductive rights protection bill SB 175. It read a bit like a declaration and was intended to protect Colorado women from the nationwide trend of state laws that erode Roe vs. Wade. Instead the bill turned out hundreds of pro-life protestors and had Republicans threatening to filibuster the rest of the session. The sponsors aborted it.

Not every bill died simply because it was too contentious. Some where just too complicated and too expensive to get done this session. The state FAMLI Act was such a bill. The aim was to create a program workers could pay into in case they ever needed to take time off to care for themselves or a loved one who is sick. The bill had solid buy-in from both workers’ rights groups and the business community. In the end, however, establishing such a large program in the last few weeks of the session just wasn’t possible, but this is a policy proposal you can count on seeing again in 2015.

That’s the wrap from your faithful #coleg notebook. For the retroactively curious, or the true lover of .gifs, our archive of notebooks is always available here. We also encourage you to stop by Denver Open Media at 2pm on May 8th to hear our columnist Mike Littwin recap the session with House Speaker Mark Ferrandino.

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