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Liar liar 

In the heated primary for House District 19, we see just how far the truth can stretch

Former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo once likened campaigning to poetry. How right he was.

A campaign doesn't get mired down in the rigor of facts. It aims at a more ineffable ambition, expressing an ideological foundation that comforts voters while casting for the heights to which they can soar with the right representation ... all while painting the opposition in the most negative light possible.

This is the trick of shrewd campaigning: Push the truth as far as possible without flat-out lying.

You can take a bill, for example, that establishes a failed guest-worker program and say that it's a back door to amnesty for illegal immigrants because, well, how do you prove it's not? Or you can claim that a ridiculously unpopular health care exchange will provide abortions on the taxpayer dime and, with enough gymnastics, create the impression that this is true.

And it doesn't matter, not on the campaign trail. If you're a Republican candidate forced to defend either charge, a certain amount of damage has already been done.

Below, we examine the claims of Rep. Marsha Looper and House Majority Leader Amy Stephens in House District 19, which spreads over eastern El Paso County. Drawn into this primary via recent redistricting, they're among the most-watched competitors in the state and, along with their supporters, have succeeded in providing quite a show.

Without a Democrat awaiting the winner, the GOP candidates in HD 19 — both seasoned veterans of the Legislature — are barreling toward the outskirts of the Republican Party, pinpointing where they believe their competitor has fallen short of a pristine conservatism.

At play are some of the usual tropes: government prying and overreach, illegal immigration, abortion and gay rights. But what's struck Joshua Dunn, associate professor of political science at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, is the role of national politics.

"It's not as though El Paso County is a bellwether for the country," Dunn notes. "But the fact that Barack Obama is the issue in this local race is telling. 'Cause, normally, the stuff that state legislative races are decided on is not national politics."

The focal point is Senate Bill 200, Stephens' 2011 legislation to create a health care exchange in Colorado, seen by many conservatives as capitulation to a health care overhaul headed by the president.

"A vote for Amy Stephens is a vote for Obama," he says. "That's not really good for a Republican. Even if it's not the truth, or if it's just close enough to true that voters buy it, that's all that matters."

Jeff Hays, from the Stephens campaign, complains that the Looper folks "try to distract and confuse the unknowing electorate, hope the lie will stick, and hope we will spend time, money and energy refuting charges instead of putting out a positive campaign message."

Lana Fore-Warkocz, with Looper's campaign, shoots back: "Our campaign runs strictly on facts — unlike Marsha's opponent. We want to inform the constituents of HD 19 with the truth."

What follows is a look at some of the larger claims from both campaigns and supporters. We've also included two organizations that have targeted Looper: the Colorado Liberty Alliance, a nonprofit; and the Truth Squad, a 527 political group whose contribution to the cacophony is a website called looperscooper.com.

While staff for both campaigns have spoken with us, to her credit Looper has also been extremely accommodating. The former systems engineer, realty professional and rancher has answered numerous requests to back up her claims, provide documentation, and so on. This stands in stark contrast to Stephens, a business owner and former Focus on the Family public policy manager, who has ignored multiple requests for information and comment.

Back-door amnesty

Let's start with a claim made by the nonprofit Colorado Liberty Alliance.

Patrick Davis, a prominent local political consultant, is responsible for CLA. While not affiliated with the Stephens campaign, CLA's certainly seen as carrying its water.

In February, the alliance launched an ad campaign focusing on a piece of legislation Looper sponsored in 2008. House Bill 1325, which won bipartisan support and was signed by then-Gov. Bill Ritter, established a seasonal guest-worker program for non-citizens in Colorado; the ad campaign paints it as an effort to open a back door to amnesty for illegal immigrants.

This claim is laid out at CLA's looperforamnesty.com.

Neither the site nor the ad offers substantial proof that this seasonal worker program has led to amnesty efforts; nor does it offer critical analysis of the impact of the legislation. It does, however, feature a quote from former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo, the Colorado Republican famous for his militant stance on immigration:

"Guest worker programs is [sic] an insult to every American: that they are only coming for jobs no American will take. Right? Well, really what they are saying is — they are coming for jobs that no American will take for the price I can get an illegal alien to perform the job for. That's the real issue. So, no more guest worker. We don't need it. We certainly don't need amnesty."

But citing Tancredo is curious, as he has endorsed Looper in this race.

Looperscooper.com ups the ante by claiming that Looper's bill mandated "a recruiting office in Mexico," paid for by Colorado taxpayers who would also fund the "importing" of the guest workers at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Neither claim, according to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, is true.

The language in HB 1325 noted that Colorado's multibillion-dollar agriculture industry relies on "an estimated nine thousand seasonal workers annually, and the agriculture industry faces critical shortages of seasonal workers."

So the state attempted "to provide for a timely, efficient, and effective process for workers participating in the Colorado nonimmigrant agricultural seasonal worker pilot program and the H-2A visa certification process."

Numerous safeguards in the bill aim to ensure that the seasonal workers are vetted, and monitored. Companies in the program are responsible for adequate lodging and pay, and would be held liable, to the tune of up to $200 a day per violation, for failing to alert the CDLE if a worker goes missing. The bill also states that no seasonal worker can be given a job for which an American citizen is qualified and willing.

Notably, according to the CDLE, not a single worker has arrived via the program.

Big Medicine is watching

A mailer from the Looper campaign claims that Stephens supported a bill establishing "the 'All-Payer Claims Database' giving a private company legal authority to pry into your private medical records without your knowledge, much less your consent!"

While it's true that Stephens supported the 2010 bipartisan bill establishing the All Payer Claims Database, to insinuate that a company will obtain identifying medical records from it is misleading.

The database established by House Bill 1330 will act as a publicly accessible repository of data collected from medical claims gathered from across the state. The data itself will be collated by a private vendor, Treo Solutions, with project implementation and oversight supplied by the public-private Center for Improving Value in Health Care. Funding for the initial three years is coming from the Colorado Health Foundation and the Colorado Trust, both private foundations.

The long-term goal is to use the data to answer questions like: "Which procedures cost the most? Which hospitals have the lowest prices? What are the variations in cost for common procedures?" In the short term, only treatment costs will be addressed.

HB 1330 did not authorize the state to release personal identifying information to anyone, says Cari Frank of CIVHC. Like any state program, CIVHC must operate under the federal HIPAA Privacy Rule, which articulates the appropriate release of private medical information.

Further, there are a number of protections to ensure anonymity. When insurance carriers submit the claims to Treo, the data is encrypted and sent over dedicated, secure connections, Frank says. Once that data reaches Treo, an automated process immediately strips out all personal identifiers.

Eleven providers, such as Cigna and Humana, plus Medicaid, are involved in the initial round of data collection, says Frank. The data will be free to the public, and rolled out this fall.

AmyCare and abortions

Looper has made Senate Bill 200 a centerpiece of her campaign, and it's no secret why: No one bill has so ignited and frustrated conservative activists. At the recent state assembly of Republican delegates, a resolution calling for its repeal passed 2,667 to 452. Conservatives have even dubbed it "AmyCare" — a disparaging homage to "ObamaCare."

SB 200 established a Colorado health care exchange in response to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Stephens argues, rightly, that the exchange is essentially a marketplace for health insurance providers to connect with customers — a Travelocity of health care coverage. She also points out, rightly, that it "takes no money from the general fund and levies no taxes," and that "it does NOT mandate coverage."

Stephens argues that SB 200 was a pre-emptive measure to guard against federal meddling in Colorado's health care, since the Affordable Care Act calls for states to either establish a health care exchange by 2013, or have the federal government step in and do it for them.

All that said, here's the most controversial claim that Looper and her campaign have made about the exchange: It paved the way for taxpayer-funded abortions.

Nothing in the text of SB 200 authorizes state or federal dollars to fund abortions; to do so would cross the Colorado constitution, which forbids the use of public money to pay for abortions. However, critics such as Looper argue that government-funded abortions are indeed an end goal of ACA. And these state exchanges are accomplices, witting or otherwise.

This theory's also widely circulated among conservative media. As Ashley Horne of Focus on the Family Action wrote in 2010, when a "person enrolls in a state-based private health insurance exchange that offers abortion coverage, the federal government will send tax dollars to that insurance provider to help offset the cost of the insurance coverage — coverage that includes abortion. If you enroll in a taxpayer-subsidized health plan that covers abortion, the law requires you to make a separate payment of no less than $1 per month (an 'abortion premium') to the insurance company for abortion services."

The argument appears to reduce to this: Since the government subsidizes these plans, it also subsidizes the abortions.

Yet there are a number of barriers that will prevent this from happening, as detailed by PolitiFact, a project of the Tampa, Fla.-based Tampa Bay Times.

No one will be forced to sign up for an insurance policy that covers abortions, as ACA mandates that states offer at least one health care plan that does not.

For policies that do offer abortions, providers will have to collect two payments. One will cover the broad scope of the policy, and may accept federal subsidies. The second will go to an account dedicated to covering abortion costs, and will not contain any federal dollars. This condition, set by Sen. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, in fact angered pro-choice organizations.

Nelson also ensured that any state can opt to ban health insurance policies that provide for abortions from participating in its exchange. More than a dozen states have chosen to do so.

And finally, the Hyde Amendment, a federal "rider" that's been intact since 1976, bans federal dollars, such as Medicaid, from funding abortions except in cases of incest, rape or possible loss of the mother's life.

'Marsha's Mandate'

There's a lot of smoke with this one.

In an apparent attempt to deaden the "AmyCare" controversy, the Stephens campaign has focused on a bill Looper supported in 2008. Though Senate Bill 217 passed through the Legislature with bipartisan approval before being signed by Ritter, Stephens calls it "the most oppressive healthcare mandate in Colorado history."

On her website, Stephens claims the bill "Calls for Individual Mandate in Colorado forcing people to buy health insurance; Increased Spending by subsidizing health insurance up to 300% of the poverty level, which means a family of four making $67,050 would have other taxpayers subsidizing their health coverage; Creating a New Tax to force people to comply and help pay for it."

You can find similar claims at looperscooper.com.

While the bill's language does contain discussion of poverty, subsidies and an individual mandate, all it actually did was establish a commission to explore "the current problems related to the delivery of affordable health care to residents of the state, and ... to start the process toward developing a balanced partnership between private and public sectors in Colorado to begin to provide affordable health insurance to those who are uninsured."

That commission was charged with gathering information from providers, insurers and other sources within health care. The respondents were informed that they were exploring a possible state response to the uninsured, known as a value benefit plan. At a minimum, according to the bill's language, a VBP would "allow for the payment of all or a portion of the covered person's premium from a state-paid premium subsidy."

The respondents were also to assume "that the state may impose a requirement that all Coloradans obtain creditable coverage," and that "the state will create a dedicated source of revenue, if necessary, to fund the premium subsidy program."

The commission collected the information, prepared a study and that was that. Nothing came of it.

Civil unions flip-flop

Stephens rode the mystery of whether or not Looper would support a civil unions bill as long as she could.

On her site, Stephens highlights Looper's history on the issue: "[O]ur opponent currently claims that she strongly stands against civil unions. ... However, we have three separate sources that have reported her as supporting civil unions in the past."

Last year, in summarizing where Republicans from El Paso County stood on the issue of civil unions, the Gazette's John Schroyer wrote that Looper was supportive, "as long as the definition of marriage remains between a man and a woman."

Looper never corrected Schroyer, nor stated in print that he mischaracterized her position.

Just this year, the Denver Post quoted the sponsor of Senate Bill 2, Democratic Rep. Mark Ferrandino of Denver, as saying, "Rep. Looper and I had several conversations about it. ... She said she was open to it."

However, Looper had never voted for or against civil unions until this year's legislative session. In its waning days, she finally laid the mystery to rest by sending out a press release calling civil unions a threat to society. And when SB 2 came before her in committee, she voted to kill the bill.

Capped, but not traded

"The Colorado General Assembly is moving forward with a homegrown version of Carbon Cap and Trade," writes Looper. "HB1365 in it's [sic] current form will cost jobs at coal based utility companies, coal mining jobs, railroad workers jobs and increase energy costs for families throughout the state."

In 2010, with bipartisan support, the state Legislature passed House Bill 1365, the Clean Air-Clean Jobs Act. Essentially, the law placed strict new emissions controls on some coal-fired power plants, and mandated that others shut down or convert to natural gas. Ritter signed it into law.

On Gov. John Hickenlooper's first day, the Governor's Energy Office hailed the law in a white paper as a "unique and historic opportunity to begin the transition from reliance on aging, high-emitting coal-fired power plants to a cleaner, more sustainable electric system."

Critics, such as Amy Oliver Cooke with the Independence Institute, complained it was rushed through the Legislature, a product of collusion between energy interests, Ritter and the Public Utilities Commission. They argue the rationale for HB 1365 — that if the state didn't deal with the pollution coming out of its coal plants, then the Environmental Protection Agency would — was invented out of whole cloth.

From an article co-written by Cooke: "In all states, the executive branch of government is responsible for implementing the federal Clean Air Act, so it stands to reason that the legislature would rely on the Ritter administration for information ... Quite simply, the Ritter administration grossly exaggerated the EPA regulatory threat."

However, this is one of the main arguments Stephens makes to this day for supporting HB 1365. On her website, she writes, "If the Colorado [sic] had not acted, their power plants would now be under the control of the Obama EPA. Or our power plants would have been shut down making us dependent on outside energy sources and loosing [sic] valueable [sic] jobs in Colorado."

The Looper campaign argues that, in fact, it's HB 1365 itself that has cost jobs. Her website hosts a video produced by the pro-oil and -coal outfit, American Energy Alliance, as well as Americans for Prosperity, that chronicles the struggles of the small northwest Colorado town of Craig, whose economy revolves around the coal industry. The message: Onerous state and federal regulations are crushing it.

There's a lot to HB 1365 that conservatives can battle over: the impacts on the coal industry, the alleged collusion, the government's use of its laws to pick winners, the effects on rate-payers. There's even a lawsuit in Denver District Court in which the Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado allege the bill will devastate their coal-dependent economies.

What we cannot find evidence of is it being a cap-and-trade policy, as Looper refers to it. For it to be a cap-and-trade policy, there has to be something traded.

chet@csindy.com

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