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Gazette Premium Content As Colorado legislative session comes to close, still many loose ends

By Megan Schrader Updated: April 28, 2014 at 12:51 pm

DENVER - Ten days remain in the 2014 General Assembly, but more than 200 bills are pending, including some of both parties' top priorities that deal with education funding, an aerial firefighting fleet, telecommunications reform, and a few unexpected bipartisan efforts to enhance privacy and civil liberties.

"Honestly, we would work Saturday and Sunday if we had to before we would let good policy die on the clock," said Senate President Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora.

Everyone seems hopeful that won't occur, although late nights are inevitable as lawmakers try to wrap up the five-month session. Of the 593 bills that had been introduced by April 21, 151 killed or postponed indefinitely; 182 bills have been sent to the governor and 260 bills are pending action, according to a Monday report from the Office of Legislative Services. "They'll all get resolved," Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs said. "But there are going to be a lot of late nights here. The problem with this many and this many serious bills, is some of them could come down to a roll of the dice."

Democrats and Republicans alike are rapidly pushing through a $20 million firefighting fleet, multiple bills to both increase and reform K-12 and higher education funding and five bills that will help bring broadband Internet access to rural areas while rewriting an antiquated telecommunications bill.

And a slew of bipartisan flood and fire recovery and prevention bills are working their way through the process.

"This is significant to the entire state," Cadman said. "Flood and fire mitigation is protection for the future of Colorado and water for millions of people."

Among the legislation that the two most powerful Democrats in the Legislature, Carroll and House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, are championing through the final days of the session are Republican-sponsored bills dealing with privacy and civil liberty issues.

"I tend to have a libertarian streak in me," Ferrandino said who is the second Democrat sponsor of a Republican originated bill to ban the use of cameras for issuing traffic tickets. Ferrandino, of Denver, said he also worked behind the scenes to count votes and ultimately get approved Rep. Polly Lawrence's limit on how long the government could maintain passive surveillance data.

Carroll is sponsoring two privacy bills with Republicans that deal with warrantless searches of electronic devices, including a concurrent resolution she said was Republican Sen. Greg Brophy's idea that requires a supermajority in both houses and would put a constitutional amendment on the ballot for voters in November.

"For some people this isn't the issue that wakes them up in the morning, but for me this is a question of why I would even run for office," Carroll said. "I hate the trend of warrantless searches."

House Minority Leader Brian DelGrosso, R-Loveland, said while they appreciated the Democrat's support on these and other bills, at times bipartisanship feels like a takeover of ideas.

"Quite frankly when one party has the ability to take another parties' idea and make the bill their own, you have that option, or putting a Democrat sponsor on a bill, sometimes it's easier to just take the Democrat sponsor," DelGrosso said.

"Republicans had some great ideas and were basically twisted to put a Democrat sponsor on the bill and gosh, now everything looks bipartisan."

 

Criminal justice and public safety bills

Among those bills that were subject to hostile takeover was the perennial Republican effort to enact a version of Jessica's law that increases the minimum sentencing for sex offenders when the victim is under the age of 12.

Colorado Springs freshman lawmaker Sen. Bernie Herpin, a Republican, introduced a version of Jessica's law, intended to stop repeat sex offenders, this year, but it died in committee. A Democratic version of the bill has passed the House and the Senate and if the representatives agree with Senate amendments, it will head to the governor's desk.

The biggest difference between the two bills is Democrats added protections for young offenders who aren't more than 10 years older than the victim and a requirement the infraction must actually involve penetration not simply fondling or groping. That's an important distinction, the bill's authors have said, that will prevent instances of harsh penalties for inadvertent offenders.

Justice and public safety laws dominate Republican's list of priorities in the last eight days.

In addition to Jessica's law, DelGrosso said they are closely watching Rep. Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs', felony drunken driving bill.

"That one has also been on sort of a topsy-turvy roller-coaster ride," DelGrosso said. "It makes me very nervous and it's not just because it's important to us, I think it should be a bill that's important to the entire state of Colorado. This is a big-time public safety issue."

The bill, as written, would make driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs a felony if the violation occurs within seven years of two prior DUI convictions or if it is the fourth conviction in a lifetime.

Waller said the bill has been assigned to the Senate State, Military and Veteran's Affairs Committee - a committee historically stacked with safe members of the majority party to kill legislation.

"That is a little bit of a red flag to me, that they may be looking to kill it," Waller said. "It's incredibly frustrating. It was one of the first bills read across this legislative session, and here we are in the last week and a half of the session and it's stalled. This should have been a priority."

Last year, Waller looked primed to have an almost identical bill reach the governor's desk, but it never was brought up in the Senate despite being co-sponsored by the former Senate president, John Morse.

Carroll said the bill has a huge fiscal note - $15 million in the second year - and will likely get amended in the Senate if it passes.

"We're still having a debate about how much of the right response is incarceration versus treatment," Carroll said, adding that a compromise might be further limiting the time span for when DUI's are counted as repeat offenses. "When are you dealing with alcoholism as a disease and when are you better served putting people in prison?"

 

Affordable child care

Democrats still have a number of bills hanging out there that they need to pass as well.

During the opening of the state Legislature, Carroll, Ferrandino, and Gov. John Hickenlooper highlighted the importance of creating more affordable child care in Colorado.

"There are three bills, one from the Senate and two from the House, that both reform the way we do the child care assistance program to I think get better results from it, and also put more money into assisting people with child care especially those who are at the margins who are really struggling," Ferrandino said.

Will the bills systematically change child care overnight?

"No, but it moves the ball forward to help people who are struggling and families who want to work their way into the middle class," he said.

One of those bills, Senate Bill 3, passed on third reading Friday in the Senate, which leaves the bill having to work its way through the House in eight days.

Logistically, it only takes three days to pass a bill. The bill would fund an existing pilot program that allows counties to extend child care assistance payments to families who have wage increases that ordinarily would preclude them from the program.

The two other bills are much closer to becoming law, needing only to pass through the Senate on second and final readings.

 

Still pending

Lawmakers were flush in cash this year, making it possible to fund not only pet projects like child care and affordable housing, but lawmakers also hope to infuse millions into higher education.

Most of those bills, however, are still working their way through the process.

"Of all the years I've been here this is probably the session we've done more on higher education than I've seen in a long time, which is good because it's been something that has been needed," said Ferrandino, who thinks his reform of higher education funding has a good chance of making it to the governor's desk.

The most likely candidate, is a bill that deals with local control of oil and gas operations, something that would resolve a pending lawsuit between the state and communities that have attempted to ban or regulate hydraulic fracturing.

"The sheer volume of these issues that are going to hit the ballot is a sign of the fact that frankly there are a lot of people who don't think that we've got this figured out yet," Carroll said.

"I still think with the amount of oil and gas activity that is going on in this state that has to have a cease-fire, where people are comfortable with what's going on in this state."

Carroll and Ferrandino were skeptical a bill would be introduced.

"I think it will be a conversation for a long time until that gets resolved," Ferrandino said. "You need three days to pass a bill. Anything is possible in this building, but I wouldn't hold my breath."

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Contact Megan Schrader

719-286-0644

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