Updated: December 17, 2012 at 12:00 am
Members of the state Legislature will consider hundreds of bills between January and May.
Most of the bills are fairly mundane, but four will likely draw close attention in Colorado Springs: — civil unions, recreational marijuana regulation, homeowners insurance regulation, and an expected budget increase for K-12 education. Those four should have the most local tongues wagging in Denver.
Some of the big four measures could create dissension within party ranks.
Civil unions will pit majority Democrats and a handful of Republicans against more conservative legislators, who see the bill, which would essentially allow gay marriage, as a social problem and as circumventing the will of Colorado voters.
Regulations for recreational marijuana sales bring arguments, some strictly partisan and some not, to deal with issues from business procedures to security measures.
A bill that would increase some insurance payouts to wildfire victims who lost their homes will almost certainly raise hackles at the Capitol.
And a proposed increase in education funding looks to be a sign of hope for state schools, but more than one lawmaker has cautioned that the state’s financial situation is tenuous.
The Gazette spoke with several Colorado Springs residents about what these issues will mean to them, and how their lives could be changed by legislation.
CIVIL UNIONS: SARAH AND ERIKA
Sarah Musick and Erika Highstead were married May 26, at a downtown Colorado Springs restaurant.
Erika is getting her last name changed to match. Together, they’re raising 9-year-old Jack. They’ve been together for six years. They hold hands and smile at each other constantly.
But their Spring marriage was symbolic. It is not binding in any legal sense, as marriages for heterosexual couples are, and they don’t get the same rights as straight couples.
A bill to establish civil unions for gay couples will be introduced Jan. 9, the first day of the session, its sponsors have said.
Republican leaders narrowly defeated a similar measure in 2012, killing it in committee. But with Democrats holding both General Assembly chambers, backers say 2013’s outcome will be different.
“Civil unions could pass before I get clearance from the FBI to get my name changed,” Highstead said.
Civil unions are similar, but not the same as marriages. Colorado voters banned gay marriage in 2006.
Musick and Highstead said getting civil unions through the Legislature strikes a blow for gay rights, and they’ll file legal papers for a civil union the day after the bill is signed into law.
“People are fairly shocked when they find out that we don’t have the same rights as them and their spouses,” Highstead said. “What matters a lot is equality. This is a steppingstone.”
They say it will make it far easier for Musick to adopt Jack. The boy calls both women “mom.”
“This is about taking care of each other,” Musick said .
Civil unions won’t sail through the General Assembly without a fight.
Rep. Amy Stephens, R-Monument, said that with civil unions legislation, the General Assembly is “sidestepping the will of the voters,” because of the 2006 ballot measure that defined marriage as being between one man and one woman.
MARIJUANA LAWS: ALI HILLERY
In 2012, Ali Hillery, who owns a Colorado Springs medical marijuana dispensary, was arrested for two marijuana-related felonies. She was acquitted in a case that shows the fine line between legality and felony in the marijuana world.
Hillery fears more marijuana business owners could wind up behind bars unless the 2013 General Assembly comes up with a solid way to regulate the sale of recreational marijuana.
“It’ll be like it is now — you never know how things will change from day to day,” Hillery said.
Amendment 64 made it legal for people over 21 to possess marijuana in small amounts but left business regulation to lawmakers. And the business end of recreational marijuana is coming quickly — the amendment said people can apply for licenses to enter the recreational marijuana industry in January 2014.
The state in 2010 jumped into medical marijuana regulation, building the framework that led to the explosion of dispensaries.
Hillery, who owns Rocky Mountain Miracles, ran afoul of the law in March when her staff gave law enforcement officials an old patient list. The number of patients didn’t match the legal number of pot plants the shop was allowed to have.
Hillery said she was updating the patient list to comply with the medical marijuana regulations. She was arrested.
Hillery was acquitted in early November.
Incoming House Minority Leader Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, who will be intimately involved in many of the negotiations, said he’ll support what he calls “appropriate regulation,” including laws that will protect small-business owners. He’ll also run a bill he’s sponsored that would establish a DUI blood-limit standard for drivers under the influence of marijuana, just as the state has one for drunken drivers.
What else marijuana regulations would entail, Waller said, is to be determined. But he said he won’t drive hard right on the subject as some lawmakers will do.
HOMEOWNERS’ INSURANCE: JENNIFER RIESE
Jennifer Riese, whose Mountain Shadows home was among the 346 destroyed in the Waldo Canyon fire, has been fighting her insurance company for months. Riese said the company is shorting her by at least $30,000 on the value of her home, which she initially bought for $200,000, as well as for the contents.
More than one victim of the Waldo Canyon fire this summer might not be able to rebuild because they were underinsured. A measure this legislative session would change that.
The bill, being crafted by Rep. Claire Levy, would ensure that homeowners who rebuild their houses would be compensated for rebuilding costs, not just for the home’s value stated on their insurance policy.
Levy, a Boulder Democrat, also wants to make it easier for fire victims to catalog how much their possessions are worth, without having to fill out an itemized list of their belongings.
The measure was inspired by the High Park fire in Larimer County, which destroyed 259 homes in June, but Levy said Waldo Canyon is another example of why her measure is necessary.
Riese said Levy’s bill would have made her life a lot easier. “If there’s a different way of doing things, that needs to happen.” Riese said.
Riese now lives on the east side of Colorado Springs and is contemplating a lawsuit against her insurance company. She hasn’t decided whether she’ll rebuild her home, because she’s not sure she’ll be able to afford it. The company is giving her $133,000 in compensation for her belongings and $178,000 for her home.
“It’ll be really close,” Riese said.
Insurance issues can be thorny, warned Rep. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs. He said the danger the Legislature faces under Levy’s approach is how to further regulate the industry without driving insurance premiums so high that homeowners can’t afford them. Gardner said he wants to help protect homeowners like Riese, but that it’s easy to overstep regulatory boundaries.
“It’s about a cost-benefit analysis rather than automatic regulation,” Gardner said.
SCHOOL FUNDING: EMILIE RUDOLPH
Emilie Rudolph pays for her 5-year-old, Eddie, to attend kindergarten at Skyway Elementary School in Cheyenne Mountain School District 12, and Rudolph said the benefits of early schooling have been obvious.
“I see a totally different child with one who’s in kindergarten all day than with the others who aren’t,” Rudolph said. “I can honestly say that Eddie needed all-day kindergarten. He was not a very social toddler, and this has really brought him out of his shell.”
Full-day kindergarten in District 12 costs parents $200 a month, and for many families, that is a lot of money. That could change if lawmakers approve Gov. John Hickenlooper’s proposed budget.
Thanks to an upswing in state income, Hickenlooper wants to increase state funding for K-12 education by $201.6 million.
The governor’s budget likely would benefit every school district in El Paso County. Many, though, say the extra cash would only stop financial bleeding, and not boost day-to-day operations.
Walt Cooper, Cheyenne Mountain’s superintendent, estimated his district could get an extra $760,000 under the governor’s plan. And one of District 12’s top priorities will be free all-day kindergarten.
“I don’t care who you are, that’s a lot of money,” Rudolph said.
But the budget is far from finished, and the state isn’t the sole determinant of Colorado’s economy and income, said Rep. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, who sits on the state’s Joint Budget Committee. He said even if President Barack Obama and Congress reach a deal on the “fiscal cliff,” Colorado and the rest of the country will probably be worse off anyway. Which means that the state’s projected upswing in income could disappear, and District 12’s free full-day kindergarten may be just a pipe dream.
“We’re sort of different shades of bad, because even if the fiscal cliff is resolved, it could affect the state. We just don’t know,” Lambert said. “Deal or not, I think we’re at least moderately going to be worse.”
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