The machinery of Colorado government ground out big changes over the past four months. Now that the legislative session is over, the gears are beginning to turn on education, transportation, taxation and health care as new laws and ballot questions fall into place.
Gov. Jared Polis can point to big wins on the promises he made on the campaign trail last year, including passage of state-paid all-day kindergarten for public schools. Whether the legislature can find another $175 million next year to keep it going remains to be seen.
“Unlike a lot of things in government that seem slow, we’re talking about a few months from now,” Polis said of the kindergarten law.
At a pep rally-style event at the Capitol in early May, Polis told cheering supporters about the Democrats’ accomplishments on education, health care and justice reform, and he even mentioned tax cuts for homeowners and small businesses.
Democratic majorities in the House and Senate passed liberal legislation with legs. They rewrote the rules around the environment and plan to ask voters about taxes, including legalizing sports betting.
Democrats also are testing the public’s willingness to accept gun-control legislation with a “red flag” law that will allow law enforcement to at least temporarily seize guns if a person is deemed a threat to themselves or others — a bill that gun-rights advocates are challenging in court.
“These are going to go into (Polis’) political biography,” said Curtis Hubbard of Denver-based Onsight Public Affairs.
“When he talked about bold ideas, it wasn’t just a campaign slogan,” said Hubbard, a consultant for Polis opponent Donna Lynne in last year’s race.
A new era for oil and gas
In 2014, when Polis was a congressman, he flirted with a ballot initiative to provide more local control over oil and gas operations. This year, he signed Senate Bill 181 to provide it.
Heated opponents say the law could cost the state jobs and massive amounts of tax revenue.
“For years, bill after bill to move Colorado forward [on] reasonable oil and gas reform was blocked at the legislature, and the voices of our communities were ignored,” said House Speaker KC Becker, a sponsor of the measure. “This year we stood up and refused to ignore the growing health and environmental impacts of oil and gas drilling hear homes and schools.”
Now the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and the Air Quality Control Commission will make new rules for how oil and gas companies operate.
That will require a lot of complicated rulemaking that could take a couple of years, said Eric Waeckerlin, a partner with Denver-based law firm Holland & Hart who often represents oil and gas clients.
Government boards and commissions, including local governments, will need time to sort out the vague definitions and guidelines laid out in SB 181, Waeckerlin said.
Local governments already are throwing up temporary moratoriums on oil and gas development, while officials in energy-rich Weld County are looking for ways to exempt their county or use the 2020 ballot to effectively repeal parts of the law they deem onerous.
If that happens, the new rules will hardly be in place before there’s a strong push to end or amend them. Or, Waeckerlin said, companies could look to do business where there’s less political resistance, in states such as North Dakota and Texas.
The deep-pocketed oil and gas industry so far has taken a cooperative posture in crafting some parts of Polis’ agenda, but they’re still very much on the outside looking in. At some point, if Colorado history serves, the issues will spill over into the courts and onto the ballot.
“There are at least 12 different rulemakings, some of them are a much heavier lift than others,” Waeckerlin said. “... There’s a rulemaking to have the commission look at cumulative impacts. What does that mean, and how far does that go? How far does the ripple effect go? Are you talking about a project that sends natural gas in a pipeline to the West Coast? Are you talking about a project that supplies the world, so you have to look at greenhouse gas if they’re burning that gas in Japan?
“Yeah, there’s going to be litigation over all of this.”
A change in climate
Becker, a Boulder Democrat, sponsored many of the session’s most effective environmental bills: the Climate Action Plan, curbs on utilities’ carbon dioxide emissions, boosts to electric vehicles and a measure to smooth the economic transition from coal to renewable energy.
Time is running out for the planet, and especially the state’s winter sports economy, so doing nothing was not an option, say supporters of the Democrats’ work on climate change.
But the Democratic Climate Action Plan merely set aspirational goals. No mandates were in House Bill 1261, only goals to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 26% by 2025, at least 50% by 2030 and 90% by 2050, based on 2005 levels.
The tension between Democrats and Republicans over the state’s energy future was evident as the General Assembly sought to reauthorize the state Public Utilities Commission, which provides regulatory oversight of public utilities.
Republicans saw the potential for higher rates for consumers in the Democrats’ hasty retreat from fossil fuels.
Democrats have instructed the PUC to consider and evaluate the cost of carbon pollution emissions when ruling on future energy projects by utilities it regulates, including Xcel Energy and Black Hills Energy.
And they placed the wholesale rural power provider Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, which generates about half of its power from coal, under PUC oversight.
The legislature also told major utilities to speed their conversion from coal to renewables and authorized them to provide more charging stations for electric vehicles.
Bill Levis, Colorado’s consumer counsel from 2009 through 2013, said despite assurances from legislative leaders that green energy eventually will save ratepayers money, there are no guarantees. And he sees more cost and surcharges that ultimately will wind up on people’s monthly utility bills.
“They keep saying rates are going to go down, but I’m concerned they’re more likely to go up,” Levis said.
Big electricity users and residential customers who can afford green energy systems might opt off the grid to collect, store, use or sell back their own renewable energy.
“The only people who will be left on the grid are going to be low-income customers and older customers,” said Levis, who often testifies on bills on behalf of AARP Colorado. “I don’t think this was well thought out.”
The legislature effectively killed competition on electric vehicle charging stations, Levis said, by allowing Xcel and Black Hills to pass the cost of installing those outlets to all their customers in their rates, though only a small minority drive electric vehicles. Other private entities to provide charging stations won’t have that competitive advantage.
Boulder-based conservation think tank Western Resource Advocates backed the reauthorization of the PUC and to bend its mission to the left.
“By modernizing our electricity grid, helping utilities leverage more affordable renewable energy, and strengthening oversight and consumer protection, Colorado will be better equipped to meet its rapidly changing energy needs,” said Erin Overturf, deputy director of the group’s Clean Energy Program, in a statement.
“I think the response from the market and the future of the Colorado economy will possibly dictate that,” said Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, R-Parker. “Certainly not for some. The true believers on climate change and those who want 100 percent renewable by 2040 or whatever date, I think those legislators, those advocates, will be back for more.”
Tackling health, education
Reducing the cost of insurance, prescriptions and other health care burdens was high on the agenda. Lawmakers chiseled away by passing at least a dozen bills.
A new reinsurance pool is to help insurers cover the cost of those prone to costly claims, ideally reducing premiums for others. Legislation will force hospitals to be more transparent in pricing, including an end to surprise out-of-network charges.
Patients can buy some prescription drugs from Canada, where they often cost a fraction of U.S. prices. Colorado soon will have a $100 monthly price cap on out-of-pocket costs for insulin while the state investigates why drugmakers are raising the price so high so quickly.
Individuals also will have more options to form coops to negotiate group premiums with insurers.
“I’m proud to say we delivered on our promise to make sure health care was more affordable for Coloradans,” said state Senate President Leroy Garcia.
The legislature also provided money so colleges and universities can keep tuition rates flat next year. “We all know that we need to do more to make college and higher education more affordable, but freezing tuition is a very important figures step,” Polis said.
While paying to freeze tuition rates and provide all-day kindergarten topped Polis’ agenda, lawmakers had other interests as well.
Colorado students could get the chance to learn about fake news and credible reporting because of a task force in the Department of Education created by House Bill 1110.
The panel will come up with curriculum standards for media literacy, an optional course. The 13-member committee will include teachers from rural and large school districts, a librarian and media members, all appointed by the commissioner of education.
Republicans arguing in vain to include only teachers who aren’t union members lest it lead to left-wing bias.
Going to the voters
Some issues addressed in legislation will be decided by voters this fall.
Because of the state Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, voters make most of the state’s big money decisions. In some years, when the state brings in more revenue than a constitutional spending cap allows, the excess money is returned to taxpayers.
Voters this fall will decide whether to forgo those returns. One-third of the money would go to K-12 education, one third to higher education and one-third to transportation.
Voters also will decide whether to legalize sports betting with a 10 percent tax.
A U.S. Supreme Court decision last year gave states the power to legalize, regulate and tax the games. Colorado’s benefit would support the state water plan and behavioral health programs, including gambling addiction.
Pot, justice and more
Colorado’s recreational marijuana industry has in business since 2014, but this year the legislature added transformative legislation.
New laws allow “hospitality” options such as “tasting rooms” to sample goods at dispensaries, as well as authorizing social club consumption and the ability to buy small amounts at entertainment venues.
The legislature also expanded out-of-state investment and ownership opportunities in the cannabis industry. And it made autism a condition to qualify for medical marijuana and made it clear that any condition for which an opiate painkiller might be prescribed qualifies for medical marijuana.
The criminal justice system got attention too as legislators pecked away at the social problems and broken safety nets that often land people there.
Coloradans arrested for minor crimes won’t have to pay cash bail, “because poverty is not a crime,” Becker said.
Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, sponsored a dozen bipartisan criminal justice bills. Besides waiving bail, her bills lowered drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor, allowed parolees to vote and will keep some past crimes off job and college applications.
“Thousands of Coloradans awaiting trial for minor offenses have languished in jail simply because they couldn’t afford to get out,” Herod said about the bail bill. “We were caging the poor and the homeless, not for their crimes, but for their poverty.”
The General Assembly also made it easier to seal criminal records after three or five years, depending on the circumstance.