By Leslie Jorgensen
THE COLORADO STATESMAN
COLORADO SPRINGS — Gov. Bill Ritter signed seven bills into law at a town hall meeting in the Penrose Library and dished kudos to hometown Democratic legislators Sen. John Morse and Representatives Mike Merrifield and Dennis Apuan. The two-hour ceremony also was attended by two GOP legislators, Rep. Don Marostica, of Loveland, and Sen. Ted Harvey, of Highlands Ranch.
There was plenty of glad-handing, backslapping and joke swapping, as well as some questioning of the governor’s commitment to Colorado Springs.
“Despite the state’s economic and budget challenges, we made historic progress on job creation, economic development, health care reform, transportation improvements and advancing education,” Ritter told more than 150 people at the meeting on Monday.
“These three lawmakers worked hard on all the issues for their El Paso County constituents,” said Ritter, commending Morse, Merrifield and Apuan.
The bills signed by Ritter included measures to add $150,000 to the Colorado National Guard Tuition Fund, to extend the charters of the Colorado Civil Rights Division and the Colorado Commission on Civil Rights to July 2018, and to increase safety for bicyclists.
Senate Bill 148, sponsored by Merrifield and Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, requires passing vehicles to stay at least three feet from bicyclists and sets penalties for drivers who breech that requirement or otherwise endanger cyclists.
“They’re both avid cyclists,” said Ritter of the bill’s sponsors. “This state, for whatever reason, is a state where people are fit and exercise … and that includes bicycling.”
Ritter said that, for unknown reasons, cyclists have been the victims of motorists’ outrage. The bill “penalizes road rage to protect cyclists.”
Merrifield, a cyclist and former public school music teacher, bounded up to the microphone and sang, “Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do…”
Merrifield, who is the author of Colorado Gonzo Rides: A Mountain Biker’s Guide to Colorado’s Best Single Track Trails, said the bill was based on his own cycling experiences.
“I’ve had beer bottles and cans thrown at me,” said Merrifield with a quirky grin. He said that vehicles also have sideswiped him, causing him to crash his bike.
Merrifield was more fortunate than many cyclists.
According to statistics, one bicyclist is killed every six hours in the United States, and nearly 1 million children are injured in bike-related accidents each year. In Colorado, approximately 75 percent of bicycle accidents involving serious injury are the result of the negligence of a motor vehicle driver, whether the motor vehicle is involved in the accident or not.
Local cyclists clad in primary-bright biking garb, including members of the Pikes Peak Mountain Bike Club, joined Merrifield on the stage to watch Ritter sign the bill into law.
The dress code was defined by Merrifield, who wore a denim shirt sans necktie, bow tie or ascot.
“This venue is in my district — House District 18. Apparently some of you didn’t get the memo — ties are not mandatory,” quipped Merrifield, eyeing the governor and legislators in their suits and ties.
Ritter quickly followed the cue, discarding his suit jacket and ripping off the silk tie. He encouraged the other legislators to do the same. Marostica didn’t budge.
“Marostica is kind of a fashion maven at the Capitol,” explained Ritter with a smirk and a shrug.
The tone turned somber as Ritter signed House Bill 1058, sponsored by Morse and Marostica, which allows for the unclaimed remains of veterans and members of the military to be buried.
“If no one claimed their ashes, they couldn’t be buried,” said Marostica in explaining the need for the bill.
“This is a small token of our appreciation,” said Morse of those who laid their lives on the line for their country.
Veterans stood behind Morse and Marostica to watch the governor sign the bill.
Apuan and Harvey joined Ritter as he signed House Bill 1290, which adds $150,000 to the Colorado National Guard Tuition Fund. HB 1290 was originally introduced by Rep. B.J. Nikkel, R-Berthoud.
“The increased financial assistance will help National Guard members pay for school and ensure that they can compete in the global job market during or after their service to our country,” Ritter said.
“I was pleased to work on House Bill 1290, which raises the amount of financial aid available for members of the Colorado National Guard. These men and women serve their state proudly, and it’s my pleasure to work on their behalf,” stated Nikkel in a prepared statement distributed at the ceremony.
“I spearheaded several pieces of very critical legislation,” said Apuan, adding that the tuition assistance program ‘is a great way to show our thanks to our loyal servicemen and women who give so much to this country.’”
“These are bipartisan bills,” said Harvey, adding that he “grew up in Colorado Springs as an Air Force brat.”
Harvey noted that the scholarship fund, established in 1979, would be increased from $650,000 to $800,000.
Other bills signed into law included:
• House Bill 1250, sponsored by Merrifield and Sen. Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction, which offers additional financial assistance to school districts in rural Colorado by devising a process to increase funds distributed to Colorado counties through the federal Secure Rural Schools Act.
• Senate Bill 110, sponsored by Morse and Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, to extend the charters of the Colorado Civil Rights Division and the Colorado Commission on Civil Rights through July 1, 2018. Their charters were set to expire this year. Ritter also has asked the Colorado Civil Rights Division to prepare an annual report detailing its progress and challenges.
• House Bill 1313, sponsored by Merrifield and Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, which permits governing boards at universities and colleges to allow members of the student body to place a proposed optional fee on the ballot at a regular student election to finance lobbying or campaigning for an issue.
• House Bill 1334, sponsored by Democratic representatives Apuan and Beth McCann, of Denver, and Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton. The bill clarifies an existing statute, allowing multiple acts of theft to be aggregated if they occur within a six-month period, and if they are committed against the same person over any time period.
In the final minutes, an informal question-and-answer session turned a bit edgy.
A local reporter noted that Ritter had discussed landing new wind and solar energy manufacturing jobs in Thornton, Longmont and Pueblo — but never mentioned El Paso County, which has the highest foreclosure rate in the state and climbing unemployment.
Then he asked Ritter what he thought of the “Why does Ritter hate El Paso Cty?” signs posted along I-25. (A story about the signs and a photograph were published in The Colorado Statesman last month.)
Since then, the largest sign, which was near Baptist Road, was removed. Two smaller signs remain planted on a hillside near the Garden of the Gods Road.
“I believe every part of the state matters and counts,” asserted Ritter, adding that he has spent considerable time in the county.
As for the signage, Ritter had a simple message: “Take it down.”