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Colorado's 2014 legislative session ends with tax rebate for disaster victims

May 7, 2014 Updated: October 26, 2014 at 3:31 pm

DENVER - Lawmakers wrapped up the 120-day legislative session Wednesday - a chance to tearfully saying goodbye to those who won't be returning next year and, of course, a chance to bicker over last minute changes to bills.

A showdown over a proposal to reimburse natural disaster victims for a full year of property taxes held up things for most of the day.

Ultimately the House rejected the Senate's significantly scaled down version of the bill and forced the bill to be reconsidered in the Senate.

The original version of the bill, which means more than a million dollars for fire victims in El Paso County, passed in the Senate 21-14. Three Republicans supported the measure including Sen. Bernie Herpin, R-Colorado Springs.

House Bill 1001 would reimburse homeowners whose properties were completely destroyed in a natural disaster for an entire years' worth of property taxes. Now those property taxes are prorated from the date the disaster occurs.

The Senate versions would have kept the status quo for homeowners.

"The senate version of House Bill 1001 is a second punch in the gut to my constituents who came here to testify," said Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Longmont, whose district was devastated by floods in September. "These are people that have very little, and now they have even less and this bill takes away even more."

Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley, said that's an unfair characterization of the issue.

"I really think those comments were inappropriate," Renfroe said, whose district also was hit by floods. "The assessors already had the power to grant the break of property taxes from the point of disaster forward. If that occurs in September or December a person was going to get a tax break for living in their home for the entire year. Is that a proper use of a tax break or a tax credit for people when they had the house up until that emergency occurred?"

It was a tough vote for El Paso County Republican senators, one of whom crossed party lines to vote in favor of the bill.

The fiscal note on the bill promised almost $1.6 million would come to El Paso County homeowners who lost everything in the Black Forest Fire last July.

Rep. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, said he knows for the 350 families who lost everything in the 2012 Waldo Canyon fire they were never made whole through insurance and federal aid.

And while it's too late for those homeowners to cash-in on the property tax rebate, it's not too late for the more than 400 homes destroyed in the Black Forest Fire last July.

"Of all the things that have been budgeted that I thought were inappropriate and were made a priority, it seems to me that this ought to be made a priority," Gardner said. "It could be me, it could be your district, this will be, going forward, someone's constituents."

Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, one of the 14 votes against the bill in the Senate said it was a political ploy in an election year.

"I don't think the county commissioners, the assessors would agree that this thing would be retroactive, prior to the date of an emergency," Lambert said. "This is not a good precedent to set."

Lambert said no one has fought harder than he has to secure emergency funding not only for El Paso County but for future disasters in the state, but that a retroactive tax break is just not good policy.

Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, and Senate President Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, also voted against the bill.

Despite the last minute shuffling over the property tax breaks for disaster victims, 2014 was a comparatively cordial session.

Senate President Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, said 97 percent of the bills that made it through the process, did so with at least some level of bipartisan support.

"That's not an accident," Carroll said.

It was the result of a conscious effort on both sides to reach across party lines, she said.

The week began with 113 bills still pending in the session and 226 bills already at the governor's desk - a majority of which he's already signed. Another 183 bills had been killed.

Also among the last minute bills that got ushered through the process in three days, was Senate Bill 223, the last bill introduced in the Senate. That bill, which is headed to the governor's desk, sets aside an additional $6.5 million for victims of the North Fork fire.

If the bill is signed into law it will make the total set aside for those who lost property and loved ones in the fire to $17.6 million. The fire was started following a state run controlled burn and residents impacted by the fire have filed claims for damages.

The figure is close to what was recommended by an independent panel that arbitrated the claims.

But Wednesday was also a day of commemoration and fun.

At one point a slew of colorful rubber bands were dropped from a ceiling tile in the Senate on Carroll who was overseeing the proceedings at the moment.

And there were plenty of tearful and heartfelt goodbyes.

Gardner has reached his term limit in the House after first being elected to House District 21 in 200 and then House District 20 after redistricting.

Rep. Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, also said his goodbyes. Waller was first elected to House District 15 in 2008. He decided to run for attorney general but recently dropped out of the race to apply for a superintendent position in Jefferson County.

Rep. Amy Stephens, R-Monument, also reached her term limits Wednesday leaving House District 19. She was first elected to House District 20 in 2006, but switched districts due to redistricting like Gardner did. Stephens was running for U.S. Senate but withdrew to clear the field for Congressman Cory Gardner to challenge Sen.Mark Udall.

Finally Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock, also is leaving the House after electing not to serve her fourth and final term for House District 45.

House majority leader and Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, has also reached his term limits after leading the House for the past two years.

Contact Megan Schrader


Twitter: @CapitolSchrader

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