Business-friendly bills ok’d in special session

Of the 11 bills introduced in the “extraordinary” special legislative session called by Gov. John Hickenlooper to address measures lost in a political war over civil unions, only three made it through. But all of them address the stated intent of the overall 2012 legislative session, which was meant to focus on assisting businesses with spurring job growth and bettering the economy.

The three bills run the gamut, including funding $61 million worth of water projects, returning the Colorado Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund to solvency, and modifying the registration procedures for special mobile machinery fleets to make it easier for businesses to comply with regulations.

Water projects will flow

Perhaps the most significant economic bill passed in the special session was Senate Bill 2, resurrected from Senate Bill 165. Sponsored by Sens. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village, and Jean White, R-Hayden, as well as by Reps. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, and Randy Baumgardner, R-Cowdrey, the bill will fund $61 million worth of loans and grants from the Colorado Water Conservation Board.

The measure appropriates $6.6 million for grants to 11 programs and studies affecting water supplies and flood prevention statewide and $55 million for water infrastructure projects and water purchases in the San Luis Valley, the Animas-La Plata project near Durango and at Chatfield Reservoir southwest of Denver.

Sponsors said the measure would result in at least 50 jobs.

The measure proved popular, passing both the House and Senate with unanimous support.

“It’s an important bill and an important year to make sure that we fund our water projects in the State of Colorado,” Schwartz said Monday when the bill made its way through the Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee during a brief hearing where it received unanimous support.

Mike Sullivan, deputy director of the Colorado Division of Water Resources, agreed that the project is necessary for the stability of Colorado’s water supply and economy. “It’s so integral to operations throughout the state,” he said.

Hickenlooper also praised the legislature for supporting the bill, stating, “These projects are critical to communities and regions across the state, and we commend lawmakers for their broad support.”

A separate nearly identical bill, House Bill 1001, sponsored by Baumgardner, was also introduced during the special session. But that bill surfaced primarily to ensure that at least one of the bills received full debate. It was killed on Tuesday by the House Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee, as there would not have been enough time to record second- and third-reading votes before the end of the special session.

Unemployment insurance bonding addressed

The special session of the legislature also spurred passage of House Bill 1002, a resurrection of Senate Bill 177 from the regular session. Sponsored by Reps. Larry Liston, R-Colorado Springs, and Dan Pabon, D-Denver, as well as by Sen. Cheri Jahn, D-Wheat Ridge, the legislation will allow employers to receive credit within their individual accounts for repayment of principal-related unemployment insurance bonding amounts.

The goal is to return the Colorado Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund to solvency. The belief is that the state stands to benefit financially from the differential between the low interest rates, which would be paid on the bonds and current federal rates. Simply put, the state is borrowing from the federal government to keep the fund solvent, so passage of HB 1002 is expected to end that cycle and cut interest, which will save the state money. It will save employers about $40-$50 per employee by crediting employers’ bond repayments to their experience ratings and lower their unemployment taxes.

“It allows them to increase their hiring and investment in growth,” Pabon said when the measure sailed through the House Economic and Business Development Committee on Monday with a unanimous vote. “Either way, this is a giant step forward for our Colorado businesses, and it is a real collaboration of folks from the business community, the unions, the Department of the Treasury and the labor department.”

Hickenlooper praised the collaboration in steering the bill through the legislative process. “The people of Colorado, employers and employees alike expect an efficient, well-run and dependable unemployment insurance program,” he said.

Special mobile machinery fleet registration passes

The final business-related bill to make it through the special session was Senate Bill 1, a resurrected version of Senate Bill 184 from the regular session. Sponsored by Sen. Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, and Reps. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, and Laura Bradford, R-Colbran, the measure will change the registration procedures for special mobile machinery fleets to allow owners of 10 or more pieces of rental mobile equipment to register their entire fleet at the same time once per year.

Bradford introduced an identical measure in the House during the special session, but she allowed that bill to die for SB 1.

Realizing the overwhelming support for the bill, Cadman simply stated, “It’s a good jobs bill.”

Rep. Roger Wilson, D-Glenwood Springs, summarized the support for the bill in the House: “One thing we can all agree on on both sides of the aisle, we may have a lot of discussion about regulation and health and safety, but when it comes to cutting red tape, we’re all on board.”

The governor seconded that sentiment, stating, “This legislation cuts red tape for business by creating a streamlined collection process for counties.”

Benefit corporations bill fails

One issue pegged as an economy- and business-related bill that did not receive approval from the legislature in the special session concerned “benefit corporations.”

Benefit corporations are companies that are allowed to register with the state in an effort to declare a mission that includes a public benefit, while also being allowed to make a profit.

Two versions of the bill were introduced during the special session. House Bill 1007, sponsored by Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, and Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, would have allowed for more flexibility in registering benefit corporations. Senate Bill 3, sponsored by Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, and Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, would have allowed for benefit corporations, but with more restrictive registration guidelines.

The Colorado Bar Association had opposed the Senate version, arguing that the definition of public benefits was defined too narrowly. Concerns were also raised over a requirement in the legislation to obtain third-party certification and a third-party benefit director.

“It ties hands in that once you are in, it’s very difficult to get out… it makes it expensive to get in, and even more expensive to leave,” said Bill Callison, an attorney representing the CBA. “It does certainly restrict flexibility down the road for future generation shareholders.”

The House version of the bill removed the third-party registration and benefit director requirements, which was appealing to the Bar Association. The bill also allowed for a company’s articles of incorporation to list a specific public benefit.

But despite the bipartisan support for both bills in the regular session, neither measure was able to get through the politically divided special session. When both were in the House, Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, assigned them to his “kill” committee, House State, Veterans and Military Affairs, for unspecified reasons.

Levy’s House version of the bill was killed by the committee based on the substance of the bill, and the committee killed the Senate version by Massey and Bacon after Massey requested to end its life for the special session. Passage of the bill was unlikely and Massey did not want to deal with the political fallout in what was already a polarized special session.

For Callison, the failure of the bill was a casualty tough to swallow. “Obviously politics killed this puppy,” he said. “But my strong bet is that there will be a broad coalition working to get a flexible bill through the legislature next year.”

— Peter@coloradostatesman.com

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