Aurora state lawmakers see a session with big wins, and bigger losses
GOP-controlled House steals the show as party leaders let the clock run out on controversial measures
By SARA CASTELLANOS Staff Writer
Jay Corbett can hardly wait for the day his car will finally be sporting a license plate that lets everyone know he’s a veteran of Operation Desert Storm.
After three years of soliciting state Rep. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, the 57-year-old Aurora resident attended a ceremony on May 3 to watch Gov. John Hickenlooper sign a bill into law that would create the Operation Desert Storm license plate.
“We’re the missing few,” Corbett said.
He said the intention of House Bill 1162 was to recognize the dozens of Colorado residents that were involved in the war. Operation Desert Storm, in which the United States invaded Iraq in response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, officially only lasted from January 17 to February 28, 1991.
“Although it was America’s shortest war in history, I felt like we needed some recognition,” Corbett said.
Another bill sponsored by Todd would have benefited veterans, but it did not pass. It would have created a lottery ticket system with proceeds going toward veterans’ programs. Still, veterans benefited from this year’s Legislative session. Lawmakers found about $1 million in the budget for veterans services and about $375,000 for veterans court.
“Sometimes when a bill doesn’t go through, an idea or an intention of the bill can oftentimes be approached in a different way, and the same end result is achieved,” Todd said.
Todd also sponsored House Bill 1146, that will allow students to enroll in postsecondary institutions to complete high school graduation requirements, and House Bill 1286, that modifies provisions in the Colorado office of film, television and media office, both of which passed this year.
Todd’s bill that would have created a certification process for music therapists died this year. But she said she was particularly proud of passing the bill that benefits Operation Desert Storm veterans.
“I’ve been able to do a lot of different things for people, but this is very special, and it calls attention to people who have served our nation and have given their service,” she said.
Some Aurora lawmakers were divided on whether the Legislature actually passed bills that helped boost the economy.
The Legislature this year was mostly focused on removing cumbersome barriers for the private sector and boosting job creation, said state Rep. Cindy Acree, R-Aurora.
“It was about how we identify and act on the things that get in the way of businesses being able to be productive and grow so we can hire employees,” she said. “That was by far the biggest challenge this year.” State Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, agreed that the focus of the session was job creation. But she said there were some instances where partisan politics prevented bills from getting passed.
“There’s no doubt that everybody came to the session talking about trying to kick-start our local economy and get people back to work, but the follow-through on that was a bit disappointing,” Carroll said.
Acree said she was glad that there were no new cuts to education in the budget this year.
“That’s huge,” she said.
Acree’s proudest accomplishment this year was passing what she calls “the biggest regulatory reform bill in decades,” House Bill 1008. The bill requires executive branch agencies to notify members of the Legislature of any rules that result in increases in fees or fines. It also gives people the opportunity to attend a public hearing to give comment on the proposed rules. These range from rules governing state-based organizations like the Department of Motor Vehicles and the Department of Energy.
“They have to show that they involved stakeholders in the process of developing those rules,” she said.
She also passed House Bill 1326 that would encourage the state board to raise the monthly standard assistance for the old age pension from $699 to $725. It also funds a program for dental care for those who are eligible under old age pension, and expands the program to cover people 60 years of age or older with a family income that doesn’t exceed 135 percent of the federal poverty level.
A couple of bills that Carroll claimed would stimulate economic development failed this year. Those included a bill that would limit the use of credit scoring in hiring and employment decisions, and the bill that would create a local database and smart phone application through the Office of Economic Development that culls locally owned businesses that offer goods and services. That bill would have made it easier for customers to search for and purchase from locally owned businesses. Carroll did pass a few bills in the civil justice arena, including Senate Bill 56 that will ensure that court-appointees in cases involving children’s best interests are independent, neutral and do not have conflicts of interest or existing relationships with any of the parties.
Carroll was a co-sponsor of a second civil justice bill, House Bill 1233, that was recently signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper. It extends the option of parties completing a legal separation without the need for a court appearance if no children are involved. That will save about 1,000 hearings per year, as well as time and money for the parties involved, she said.
A bill sponsored by Carroll that would make stricter regulations on hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas drilling was pending as of May 9 and will most likely be postponed indefinitely.
State Rep. Su Ryden also tried to pass a bill that would have increased the distance allowed from oil and gas wells to schools and homes. That bill failed, but Ryden said the outcome wasn’t all that bad.
“We got the ball rolling and got the attention of the state’s Oil and Gas Conservation Commission,” Ryden said. “They are now holding hearings on the issues and hopefully they’ll come up with better alternatives.”
Ryden helped pass House Bill 1270 this year that will affect about 8,000 small businesses in the state. The bill allows business owners to purchase $2,000 worth of alcoholic beverages from a retailer rather than a licensed alcohol beverage wholesaler, instead of the current $1,000 cap.
Another license plate bill similar to Todd’s that was passed out of the Capitol this year was one sponsored by state Rep. Kevin Priola, R-Aurora. House Bill 1295 will allow people to purchase a Colorado Rockies license plate, with the proceeds going toward the two charities the baseball team supports. The bill was signed in early April, on the Rockies’ opening day at Coors Field. Priola also helped pass a bill this year that strengthens laws on roofing contractors who often solicit business from homeowners whose roofs have been damaged by storms. Senate Bill 038 requires a roofing contractor to sign a written contract with the customer with details including: the cost of services, the scope of roofing services and materials to be provided, the date of service, and the roofer’s policy regarding cancellation of services.
“This helps reign in storm chasing roofers that rip off consumers and drive up insurance rates,” Priola said.
Another proposal that Priola was proud of passing was House Joint Resolution 1017, that will rename a portion of Highway 36 as the “Buffalo Highway.”
There were a few bills that Priola sponsored that didn’t make it out of both chambers, including a bill that would have allowed all-terrain vehicles on dirt roads and one that would give financial incentives in the form of property tax breaks to companies who promise to bring significant, increased economic activity.
Priola said lawmakers this year focused on how they were spending money.
“We looked to be good stewards of the Colorado taxpayers’ money,” he said. “Where we could, we streamlined regulation and created a better environment for job creation.”
State legislators this year spent less money on corrections because crime statistics are decreasing steadily, Priola said.
State Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, said this year, lawmakers worked on a bipartisan level on boosting the state’s economy.
“The theme, as it was last year and since the recession hit Colorado, has been about jobs and creating jobs in a positive climate for new companies to locate in Colorado,” she said.
Spence, who is term-limited in both the House and Senate, spent much of her time at the Capitol pushing education bills.
She said the most significant one that passed was House Bill 1238, the Colorado Early Literacy Act. It states that when a student with a significant reading deficiency is identified in kindergarten or first through third grade, teachers and parents are required to create an academic development plan. The plan could include summer school or private tutoring.
“It ensures that every child is on track to be able to read by the time they reach fourth grade,” Spence said.
Another bill, Senate Bill 099, would allow the Department of Human Services to refer boys ages 14 to 18 to Ridge View Academy Charter School in Watkins, a school that focuses on educating and improving the lives of troubled teenaged boys.
State Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, also sponsored an education bill that passed this year that would allow students to complete an associate degree while starting their first-year college degree.
“I wanted to improve education and literacy,” Fields said of Senate Bill 045. She also passed a bill that would simplify the procurement process for providers who have previously been approved to participate in health care programs administered by the Department of Health Care Policy and Financing.
Fields, the mother of Javad Marshall-Fields who was killed about five years ago before he was set to testify about a murder he witnessed, also sponsored a bill that would strengthen the penalty for people who leave the scene of an accident.
House Bill 1084 increases the penalty for leaving the scene of an accident resulting in serious bodily injury from a class 5 felony to a class 4 felony.
She also passed a bill that would lessen the punishment for transgressors who escape from halfway houses or community corrections facilities.
The bill, House Bill 1213, is a measure to reform sentencing, Fields said. Currently, if someone escapes from a jail, halfway house or community corrections center and it’s the person’s third felony offense within the last 10 years, the judge is required to give the person three times the sentence. Therefore, if a prisoner tries to escape, his or her sentence could amount to up to 36 years, Fields said. For those inmates who may have committed drug-related crimes instead of more serious, violent crimes, that’s not fair, she said. “That kind of punishment is like using an atom bomb to try to address the killing of a fruit fly,” she said in March. “It’s just a little bit too extreme.”
She said she was frustrated and disappointed this year with the amount of time spent at the Legislature debating bills related to guns.
Two pro-gun bills were introduced early this year that were backed by the National Rifle Association, both of which were postponed indefinitely.
State Rep. David Balmer, R-Centennial, passed House Bill 1117 that allows a local government to permit the collection of charitable donations from motorists on a certain number of days per calendar year. He also passed House Resolution 1003 that calls a convention for proposing an amendment to repeal the federal “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.”
Another bill, House Bill 1332, would prohibit people from being an anesthesiologist assistant without a license issued by the Colorado medical board. The bill was still going through the Legislative process at press time. Balmer did not return calls for comment.
State Sen. Suzanne Williams, D-Aurora, passed a bill that would allow Indian tribal elders to work in public schools as teachers of their native languages.
“As a Native American legislator myself, I’ve learned that across the country, Native American legislators are concerned about losing the native languages of their states,” Williams told the Aurora Sentinel in February. Senate Bill 057 also allows schools to hire people fluent in native languages to teach those languages, even if they don’t have teaching licenses.
The Colorado Department of Education would grant them a waiver to teach languages from federally recognized tribes as long as they are supervised by a qualified teacher. Williams’ House Bill 1127 also passed, and it will eliminate the increase in the unemployment insurance premium rate for new employers. Some of Williams’ failed bills included one that would have funded emerging medical discoveries and another that would have given tax incentives to “creative districts.”
State Sen. Mary Hodge, D-Brighton, passed House Bill 1177 that would provide home care allowance benefits to those who are eligible, and House Bill 1222, which would create a Department of Transportation Renovation fund to be used for transportation-related purposes.
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