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Progress for Colorado businesses in a house divided

May 18, 2018 Updated: May 18, 2018 at 11:59 am
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FILE - In this Nov. 3, 2015, file photo, the gold-covered dome on the State Capitol shines in the late afternoon sun in downtown Denver. A politically divided legislature, which ends its session Wednesday, May 11, 2016, in an election year to boot has proven to be a recipe for Colorado lawmakers to do just short of nothing about the state's most urgent priorities: a scarcity of affordable housing and near-stagnant funding for underfunded K-12 schools, roads and higher education. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski, file)

They say a house divided cannot stand, yet a divided Legislature seemed to serve Colorado's business community just fine by the time the gavel came down on the 2018 session.

As in previous years, the oft-bemoaned gridlock that frequently derails major initiatives in the General Assembly - split between a Republican-ruled Senate and a Democratic-controlled House - also put the brakes on policy proposals viewed as burdensome to business. An array of less-than-business-friendly legislation had in fact been sidelined by session's end this month. And while leaders of both major political parties will tell you they're pro-business, it was once again the Republicans in the upper chamber who did most of the sidelining.

Which isn't to say that business only wanted to see legislation fail at the statehouse. They supported a number of bills, too, and, despite split control, garnered some successes.

One big-ticket policy initiative important to business - more transportation funding - managed to win the approval of both chambers even if the final version was whittled down to an amount both parties could live with amid the perennial highways-vs.-school-funding face-off. The relatively modest amount appropriated to highways and other transportation by Senate Bill 1 - an additional $60 million a year, over and above a transportation funding stream approved by the Legislature last year - is viewed as a first step if nothing else.

The upshot was to leave leading business groups feeling pleased, or at least relieved, even if they didn't necessarily get all of what they had wanted.

"All of the employer-mandate bills that were adverse to the growth and operational interests of Colorado businesses were soundly defeated," said Loren Furman, senior vice president of state and federal relations for the Colorado Association of Commerce & Industry, or CACI.

Furman, whose organization serves as Colorado's statewide chamber of commerce, credited the partisan divide.

"We can attribute that to the current balance of the two parties at the state Capitol which helps ensure that legislation from both the extreme left and right do not become law," she said.

It was a recurring theme throughout the session, and it prevailed against legislative attempts to further regulate some key industries, like oil and gas, as well as other efforts to establish new mandates for employers across the board.

Employment law

Businesses of almost all kinds arguably dodged a few bullets with the demise of bills that business lobbies said would have increased operating costs and exposed employers to the risk of greater liability over their employment policies. That would make it harder to create new jobs, employer groups say. Among the proposals were:

- Creating a statewide system of paid family and medical leave for private-sector employees;

- Restricting inquiries by prospective employers into the salary histories of job applicants;

- Letting local governments raise their minimum wage above that set by the state;

- Discouraging arbitration between employers and employees; bill critics say arbitration is an effective tool for dispute resolution that saves time and expense for consumers and businesses;

- Removing the authority of the state Department of Labor and Employment to penalize employers that pay women less than men for performing the same job - instead turning enforcement over to civil litigation in court.

All were jettisoned by the Republican Senate. Former state Senate GOP Majority Leader Mark Hillman, now head of the Colorado Civil Justice League, was among the business-community advocates opposing the measures. In a recent blog post, he singled out several of the bills for what he said was their potential to make employers a more fetching target for lawsuits:

"At a time when Colorado's lawsuit climate has fallen into the bottom one-third in the United States and when Denver ranks eighth nationally for the number of trial lawyer commercials on television, it's hard to imagine that creating even more litigation is the best remedy to any public policy problem," Hillman wrote.

A residential neighborhood is pictured several hundred yards beyond the Wooley Becky Sosa oil and gas well located in Weld County near Erie on Feb. 7, 2018. The site, operated by Crestone Peak Resources, received some of the 1,000-plus complaints lodged in Weld County by the public during the devolopment of the wells in 2017. Photo by Andy Colwell for the Gazette 

Oil and gas development

Colorado's booming natural gas production, coupled with its old mainstay oil, directly generates by one estimate more than $25 billion a year. That's over 9 percent of the state's economy. Roundly lauded by Republicans, the oil and gas sector evokes mixed emotions among legislative Democrats and reliably rouses the ire of the party's green wing.

Though some factions of the environmental movement view natural gas as a "bridge fuel" to eventual alternative-energy dominance, others seek more aggressive action to shut down what they see as just another carbon-belching fossil fuel that they contend also poses a hazard to ground water through fracking.

Yet, Republicans and some Democrats shut down legislation that would have curbed oil and gas. They stopped, for example, a bill that required production facilities to be at least 1,000 feet from school property lines. Regulations currently allow production no closer than 1,000 feet from a school building itself. Industry representatives said the legislation would have had a big impact on energy development.

At the same time, the oil and gas industry supported some legislation upgrading regulations that industry reps said were reasonable - like more rigorous requirements for excavation; expansion of waste disposal rules, and updates to old oil and gas pooling laws with more transparency for public-notification requirements.

Yet again, split control of the Legislature is getting credit from the industry not only for halting the bills it didn't like but for advancing those it supported. As the Colorado Oil and Gas Association's Scott Prestidge put it recently, "A blessing of divided government, with both Republicans and Democrats controlling different chambers of our Colorado General Assembly, is the inherent requirement to work together if you want to move an idea or policy forward."

Construction is underway on a home in the Indigo Ranch development on Colorado Springs' northeast side. The pace of homebuilding in February jumped by a little more than one-third from the same time last year, according to a new Pikes Peak Regional Building Department report. RICH LADEN, THE GAZETTE 

Housing

Builders, developers and Realtors as well as affordable-housing advocates, among others, closely watched a number of bills that stood to affect the housing market along with basic property rights. You guessed it: Two legislative chambers run by opposing parties put the kibosh on some proposals those stakeholders opposed while forging compromise to advance some policies they supported.

An example of the latter was the unanimous passage of a bill to prevent the unauthorized occupation of property - squatting - by creating an emergency civil court process a property owner can invoke when a squatter takes up residence in a home. And it provides law enforcement the mechanism to remove squatters. Clarissa Arellano Thomas, vice president of public policy and communications for the Pikes Peak Association of Realtors in Colorado Springs, called it a "victory for property rights and property owners."

Among proposals the Realtors opposed that were defeated were a couple of bills housing industry advocates say would have rolled back last year's successful construction-liability reform.

Says Arellano Thomas: "Overall, the legislative session was good for homeowners and private property rights. However, our work advocating for homeowners and advancing good public policy that provides attainable and affordable housing options will continue next year."

A place at the table

Routine legislation to renew the mandate of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission sparked protracted debate over the commission's mission and its role in the controversial Masterpiece Cakeshop discrimination case now before the U.S. Supreme Court. For a time, Senate Republicans held up the legislation, raising doubts about the commission's future, unless changes were made to its makeup. GOP lawmakers wanted more employer representation on the panel, which adjudicates discrimination complaints.

The logjam was broken when majority House Democratic majority agreed to let three people with business backgrounds - a small-business owner, a mid-size business owner and a member of a business organization - have seats on its seven-member board.

Tony Gagliardi, longtime Colorado director for the National Federation of Independent Business - the state's go-to for small-business advocacy - welcomed the change:

"We're hoping it will allow a little more input from those facing the charges of employment violations," he said.

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