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January 22, 2020 News » Cover Story

Transportation, education and justice on the legislative agenda 

AND THEY'RE OFF

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Don’t expect Democrats to back away from their progressive agenda during this legislative session, despite some backlash stemming from the long list of bills that their trifecta of power — controlling the state House, Senate and governor’s office — enabled them to push through last year.

One prominent example: the controversial red-flag bill.

While some sheriffs have said they’d refuse to enforce the red-flag law, which enables someone to petition a court to remove guns from owners seen as a danger to themselves or others, Sen. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs, argues most people favor it. (On Jan. 9, El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder issued a statement outlining how deputies would comply with the law but noted they would not conduct searches for firearms without probable cause and a search warrant.) 

“There was a groundswell of support for the red-flag law,” Lee says. “I had a lot of people urging me to support that bill, and it’s wildly popular around the country. It’s a mainstream measure that people like.”

Hence, Democrats will push this year for a gun storage bill, which Lee says “increases gun safety.”

Meanwhile, conservative groups working to gain back the majority in the Colorado Assembly this fall are likely to stick with the message that Democrats have overreached, pushing through their own extreme priorities while ignoring their constituents’ desires.

And Republicans have said they will continue using a strategy that helped them slow down some Democratic bills last year: having bills read at length.

“Yes, the state Constitution allows the Majority to pass any bill it wishes and there is nothing at all that the Minority can do to stop it,” Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert pointed out in his Jan. 8 opening speech. “However, the state constitution doesn’t necessarily grant the Majority the authority to pass an unlimited number of bills during each limited session time frame. Thus, prioritization and communication become important factors in this unique environment in which we work.”

This session, lawmakers will tackle various issues involving health care, education, criminal justice, business, housing and transportation.

We’ve gathered a selection of bills that represent some of the new laws legislators have proposed this session. Though not comprehensive, the overview gives a sense of priorities expected to take center stage in coming months.

Health care

State lawmakers have already introduced several bills on health care, but the most polarizing are likely still to come.

A good example of the latter: legislation creating a public option for health insurance that would compete with private plans on the individual market.

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Last year, lawmakers took the first step by directing the state Division of Insurance and the Department of Health Care Policy and Financing to come up with a recommended plan for a public option. In November, staff proposed a public-private partnership that would be available as an individual plan option on the state-run exchange, Connect for Health Colorado.

Some political groups have already poured money into opposing the yet-to-be-introduced legislation that would implement the plan. A mailer funded by a group called Colorado’s Health Care Future, for example, calls a state option “bad for patients” and “bad for Colorado.”

The mailer also says people with private insurance could pay more to subsidize a government-run plan.

Adam Fox, director of strategic engagement for the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative (CCHI), calls that statement a “bald-faced lie.”

“This is a frequent scare tactic used by the health care industry to scare states and consumers away from anything that starts reducing or controlling the excess profits in the health care industry,” he says. Rather, Fox says, a public option would cut down  on the “excessive rates” imposed by hospitals for care.

(To learn more about the public option and form your own opinions, view the state’s recommended plan at tinyurl.com/public_option.)

Another still-to-be-drafted bill that could lead to extensive debate this year: tightening vaccination requirements for Colorado kids. Last year, a bill that would have forced parents to turn in vaccine exemption forms in person at a health agency (rather than submit them online or without formal paperwork) sputtered after Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, said he’d oppose it.

Supporters of tighter vaccination requirements say they’re necessary for boosting Colorado’s dismal rates, among the worst in the nation. Opponents, who often argue using debunked science linking vaccines to autism, say it’s wrong to force families’ health care decisions.

Meanwhile, a somewhat less controversial package of bills introduced in the state Assembly aims to improve the lives of people struggling with addiction.

They include an influx of funding for addiction recovery and treatment and make sweeping changes to the way Colorado law addresses prescriptions, insurance coverage, criminal justice and harm-reduction efforts.

One example is House Bill 1065, which makes it easier to implement syringe-access programs by removing the current requirement for county board of health approval — which has stymied efforts to provide access to clean needles in El Paso County. Instead, the bill makes it possible for a county public health agency to contract with a nonprofit for a syringe access program or for a hospital to create its own program.

That bill — sponsored by Reps. Chris Kennedy, D-Lakewood, and Leslie Herod, D-Denver — also requires health insurers to reimburse hospitals for providing naloxone, a life-saving drug used during opioid overdoses. In addition, it allows pharmacists to sell syringes and needles without a prescription, and expands a grant program for naloxone distribution and other harm-reduction programs.

On another health-related note, there’s House Bill 1001, a bipartisan effort to increase regulation of nicotine products. It’s sponsored by Reps. Kyle Mullica, D-Northglenn, and Colin Larson, R-Littleton.

That bill would increase the minimum age for buying nicotine products from 18 to 21 in state statute. (As of December, that age limit was already in effect due to new regulations at the federal level.)

The bill also repeals the current criminal penalty for attempting to buy nicotine products as a minor. It prohibits retailers from letting minors sell the products, and adds licensing requirements for businesses.

House Bill 1103 would decrease the age for colorectal cancer screenings covered by insurance to 45 from 50. That bill is sponsored by Reps. Janet Buckner, D-Aurora, and Perry Will, R-New Castle.

Transportation

While Lee, who represents Senate District 11 in El Paso County, says no comprehensive funding bill has yet been proposed, he predicts lawmakers will find additional money for highways and other modes of mobility.

Last year, legislators allocated $300 million toward roads and bridges. Though higher than past years, it was a paltry sum for a system in need of billions of dollars in repairs and upgrades.

After voters last November defeated a measure that would have allowed the state to keep excess revenue under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights for transportation and education, it’s doubtful lawmakers will submit a similar measure to voters again.

It’s worth noting that Gov. Polis mentioned transportation only three times, in general terms, during his Jan. 9 State of the State address. 

His 2020 budget request included $605 million for roads and bridges, but most of that comes from the Colorado Healthcare Affordability and Sustainability Enterprise (CHASE), which was created by 2017 legislation. CHASE replaced an earlier hospital provider fee program and allowed the state to increase revenue without triggering a refund under TABOR.

In his opening speech, Senate Minority Leader Holbert said Republicans want at least $300 million for transportation to come directly out of the state general fund each year.

While Lee predicts a more comprehensive highway funding bill will be forthcoming, two transportation-related bills have been proposed. The first, Senate Bill 44, sponsored by two El Paso county legislators — Sen. Paul Lundeen and Rep. Terri Carver, both Republicans — would require 10 percent of the sales and use tax of vehicles be allocated to the highway users tax fund; 60 percent of that money would be set aside for state highways, 22 percent would be given to counties and 18 percent to cities for road projects.

Another measure, Senate Bill 51, won’t generate more revenue but will improve public safety through newer, more visible license license plates. Sponsored by Sen. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, the bill calls for a phased-in reissue program that would return Colorado license plates to the green mountain design. The bill would require license plates to be replaced upon sale or transfer of a personal passenger vehicle to a new owner.

Criminal justice

Bills in this category range from controlling the prison population to creating a 23rd judicial district.

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House Bill 1019 — sponsored by Reps. Herod and Julie Gonzales, D-Denver — would mandate a Department of Corrections (DOC) study of how to end the use of private prisons by 2025, including analysis of how to house inmates in other facilities and feasibility of the state obtaining private prisons. The bill also adds traits exhibited by inmates to reasons they can receive earned time against their sentences, such as leadership through mentoring and community service.

House Bill 1026 would create a new judicial district by lumping together Douglas, Elbert and Lincoln counties, which now lie within the 18th Judicial District. The new district would be stood up after the election of a district attorney in November 2024. That bill is sponsored by Reps. Kevin Van Winkle, R-Wheat Ridge, and Mike Weissman, D-Aurora.

House Bill 1079 addresses treatment of people with mental health disorders in the criminal and juvenile justice systems. Notably, the bill — sponsored by Reps. Adrienne Benavidez, D-Commerce City, and Jonathan Singer, D-Thornton — would allow judicial discretion in determining which juveniles convicted of sex crimes would be subject to sex offender registration.

Senate Bill 42 would extend to July 1, 2023, the Legislative Oversight Committee Concerning the Treatment of Persons with Mental Disorders in the Criminal and Juvenile Justice Systems. The committee, which has met since 1999, makes recommendations based on the findings of an advisory task force that examines how people with mental health issues are identified, diagnosed and treated within the justice system.

Senate Bill 60 would require the DOC to examine how offenders proceed through criminal proceedings, including sentences and programs, and deliver a report to the joint budget committee and both houses’ judiciary committees.

Senate Bill 65 would restrict use of cell phones while driving to adults who use hands-free accessories. The measure has been proposed in the past but failed to get traction. Penalties would be $50 and two points against a person’s driving record for a first violation, and escalate to $200 and four points for a third or subsequent violation. If the violation involved texting, the penalty would be $300 and four points. The bill’s original sponsor, Sen. Lois Court, D-Denver, has stepped down due to illness. 

Mental Health Colorado CEO Vince Atchity tells the Indy that another bill, which hasn’t yet been introduced, would do away with the automatic felony charge incurred by assaulting a first responder. Atchity explains that oftentimes a person in a mental health crisis who’s encountered by a police officer or emergency department nurse, for example, can lash out in a way that’s interpreted as assault.

Current state law makes assaulting a first responder an automatic felony, but Atchity says those situations often deserve a closer look through the lens of mental health. Otherwise, assailants can end up trapped in the justice system or unable to get a job — a recipe for worsening their mental health.

Expect to see a bill extending or eliminating the civil statute of limitations for child sexual assault introduced sometime this year. Other states that have tried to pass such legislation have met pushback from powerful organizations including the Catholic Church and Boy Scouts of America.

Education

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More than two dozen bills have been filed so far, but none yet addresses K-12 funding. Just wait, Lee says. “There are some education bills coming forth focusing on dealing with the property tax system,” he says.

At issue is the education funding formula that creates funding inequity by each school district levying taxes on property within the district as the central source of revenue. This means that districts with high property values are funded at a higher level than districts where property values are lower.

The companion issue is teacher pay. Colorado stands 47th among the states, which some fear will strip the ranks of teachers as they seek other professions.

Senate Bill 89 takes a step toward dealing with low teacher pay by proposing at least $15 million be allocated to help school districts raise salaries and wages. It’s sponsored by Sen. Jessie Danielson, D-Wheat Ridge, and Senate President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo.

The Colorado Education Association supports the measure, saying in a release, “Creating the Educator Pay Raise Fund has the potential to help thousands of educators stay in the profession.”

House Bill 1040, proposed by House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, R-Littleton, would enable concealed handgun permit holders to carry a gun on public elementary, middle, junior high and high school grounds.

Senate Bill 59, sponsored by former El Paso County Commissioner Sen. Dennis Hisey, R-Fountain, would subject an educator who has sexual contact with a student of any age to charges of sexual assault on a student by an educator. Under current law, a teacher who has sexual contact with an 18-year-old student may not be charged.

Along the same line, Senate Bill 16 would widen the list of crimes by school employees included in mandatory notification to parents. Currently, those crimes include felonies involving violence, drugs or unlawful sexual behavior. The bill would expand that list to include misdemeanors and felonies involving marijuana, and offenses stemming from unlawfully providing alcoholic beverages to a student. It’s sponsored by Sen. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale

A bipartisan proposal, Senate Bill 23, sponsored by Sens. Gonzales and Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, calls for developing guidelines to make schools safer through risk assessments, training, behaviorial threat assessments and study of lockdown drills. Similarly, Senate Bill 27 would require school districts to seek proposals for district-wide school safety analyses, with improvements funded by the state board of education.

House Bill 1002 would require an interim study committee to examine awarding academic credit for postsecondary education based on work-related experience.

Topics of other education bills: A study to determine how to attract more diverse educators; creating early childhood education programs; allowing tax-free distributions from state higher education tuition accounts for secondary and elementary tuition expenses; changes to licensing procedures for early childhood educators; protecting public school employees from retaliation resulting from their actions in protecting a student’s rights of free expression; limiting campaign contributions in school board races;  creating a program to assist students in repaying student loans for up to 24 months; expansion of grants for adult literacy programs; allowing a state income tax credit for educators who purchase school supplies up to $750; allocating $4 million for a program to pay salary bonuses to certain teachers in low-performing schools, and several bills that deal with behaviorial and mental health in public schools.

Business

In the realm of business, yet-to-be-introduced legislation that would create a paid family and medical leave insurance program takes center stage.

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If, as expected, Sen. Faith Winter, D-Westminster, sponsors the bill, it will represent her sixth attempt to pass the legislation. Last year was the closest she ever got — but near the end of the session, the bill was amended to designate a task force to study the best way to create a paid leave program instead of actually implementing one.

The task force, which released its report Jan. 8, recommended that paid leave be available for parents after a child is born or adopted, people caring for family members, and for purposes related to foster care and military service. Victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking, as well as people with medical disabilities and organ donors, could also get paid leave.

Whereas last year’s bill would have required both employers and employees to contribute to the insurance program, a majority of task force members recommended having it be fully funded by employees — or if not, creating exemptions for small businesses.

The task force looked at a low-benefit model, which would charge premiums of around 0.7 percent of an employees’ annual salary, and a high-benefit model, which included a 1.2 percent premium.

The proposed formula is complicated, but let’s plug in an example: If you make $1,100 a week (median income in Colorado Springs), you’d pay approximately $7.70 to $13.20 a week into the insurance program. In exchange, you’d be paid $786 (subject to federal taxation) for each week of family or medical leave. Under the low-benefit model, you could take up to six weeks of leave each year. Under the high-benefit model, you could take up to 14 weeks of leave.

Judith Marquez, co-director of 9to5 Colorado, the main group behind the bill, points out that the actuarial study conducted by the task force proved that both the low-benefit high-benefit models would be financially sustainable. 

“For our members, we definitely want a program that meets the needs of Colorado families and women and low-wage workers,” Marquez says.

Marquez expects that small businesses will be more likely to support a program funded through employee contributions alone.

The program needs all the support it can get: Last year, Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers and the Colorado Springs Chamber & EDC were among the bill’s vocal opponents. Many called it a tax increase that would be imposed against the will of voters and businesses.

Also in store on the business front is Senate Bill 93, which would reform the arbitration process. That bill, introduced Jan. 10, would establish ethical standards for arbitrators and increase transparency in an effort to protect those filing claims against businesses in arbitration court.  

It’s supported by the Colorado Consumer Protection Coalition and sponsored by Sens. Mike Foote, D-Lafayette, and Stephen Fenberg, D-Boulder.

Then there’s House Bill 1089, sponsored by Rep. Jovan Melton, D-Aurora. It would prevent an employer from firing someone who uses marijuana outside of normal employment hours and off of business premises.

House Bill 1060 would provide a new option for people interested in a more environmentally friendly alternative to burial or cremation: “natural reduction” of human remains. That means converting remains into compost that can then be spread in a family’s garden, memorial forest or other special place. The bill is sponsored by Reps. Brianna Titone, D-Arvada, and Matt Soper, R-Delta.

Also ahead: Keep an eye out for legislation that would create a state-administered retirement option for small businesses.

“Essentially, this would be a public-private partnership in which small businesses would be able to participate or be able to offer potentially a Roth IRA [retirement savings account],” explains Karen Moldovan, policy director for Good Business Colorado. She says that the Secure Savings Plan Board, created through legislation passed last year, is expected to issue a report next month on the feasibility of such an option.

Housing

Increasing the supply of — and access to — affordable housing remains an objective for legislators this year. It’s an issue that’s especially important in Colorado Springs, where fast-rising rents represent the fourth-highest year-over-year increase for metropolitan areas in the entire U.S., according to the latest report from Apartment List.

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While Democrats attempted to pass a rent-control bill last year that ultimately sputtered, they’re focusing on other housing-related issues at the start of this session. One example is House Bill 1009, which would suppress court records of eviction proceedings — presumably making it easier for those who’ve been evicted to find a new place to live. It’s sponsored by Rep. Dominique Jackson, D-Aurora.

House Bill 1035, sponsored by Rep. Singer, would develop grant programs to fund supportive housing services for people with mental health and substance use disorders who are involved in the justice system, many of whom are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.

Senate Bill 108, sponsored by Sen. Gonzales, would prohibit landlords from collecting information on a tenant’s citizenship or immigration status, disclosing that status to law enforcement, or refusing to lease tp someone based on their status.

Sen. Gardner of Colorado Springs is sponsoring a bill that could be a lifeline for owners of short-term rentals. Senate Bill 109 would classify rentals, if they are occupied by the owner for more than 30 days each year, as residential properties subject to residential property taxes — not, as El Paso County Assessor Steve Schleiker has suggested, commercial properties subject to higher tax rates. This would benefit people who, for example, have a guest room or cottage they occasionally rent out on Airbnb or VRBO.

Senate Bill 106, which has Sens. Rob Woodward, R-Loveland, and Joann Ginal, D-Fort Collins, as sponsors, would allow teenagers older than 14 to consent to receive services at a youth homeless shelter without having the shelter notify their parents.

Marquez, of 9to5 Colorado, says her organization worked on a bill that would strengthen protections for residents of mobile home parks, which she expects to be introduced soon. The bill would establish stronger thresholds for eviction, Marquez says, and attempt to provide residents with an opportunity to purchase a mobile home park before it’s sold to make way for new development. 

Miscellaneous

Legislators also will weigh in on an array of other bills. Here’s a few more we thought you should know about:

Senate Bill 8, sponsored by Sen. Winter, would increase penalties for violations of water quality laws from $12,500 currently to $25,000 per day for “criminal negligence” violations, as well as a year in jail, and from $25,000 currently to $50,000 per day for “knowing and intentional” violations, as well as up to three years behind bars.

House Bill 1106, sponsored by Rep. Dave Williams, R-Colorado Springs, would roll back a law passed last year that made reports of internal investigations  in law enforcement agencies available to the public.

House Bill 1126 reads as an attempt to push back against legislation passed last year to  increase state regulation of the oil and gas industry. It would require the state to approve permits for oil and gas development that have already been approved at the local level. Sponsors include Reps. Lori Saine, R-Dacono, and Perry Buck, R-Windsor.

House Bill 1119 would give the state more authority to regulate per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS. It’s sponsored by El Paso County lawmakers including Reps. Tony Exum, D-Colorado Springs, and Lois Landgraf, R-Fountain.

House Bill 1029 likely will lend levity to the session. Sponsored by Rep. Rod Pelton, R-Cheyenne Wells, it proposes a law that entitles elected county officers to opt to receive lower pay than the amount specified by state law. In El Paso County, the sheriff is paid $153,332 a year, while county commissioners, assessors, treasurers and clerk and recorders in the state’s largest counties receive $120,485. Now really, what are the chances? 

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