Not many vetoes by Guv, but plenty of contention

By Leslie Jorgensen
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Of the five bills sunk by Gov. Bill Ritter’s veto pen, four had sailed through both chambers of the General Assembly in the 2010 session. The vetoes surprised sponsors of the bills — and a few mused that the governor’s actions might have been politically motivated.

The vetoed bills that had been easily passed in the state House and Senate were:
•HB 10-1101 regarding vehicle registration of trucks and tractor trailers used for farming and ranching;
•HB 10-1281 concerning deregulation of telecommunications service;
•HB 10-1287 restricting the use of state-owned vehicles by employees;
•HB 10-1364 renewing the Sex Offender Management Board and incorporating changes in the system

The fifth vetoed bill, HB 10-1409 to restructure government employees’ salary increase, had passed on closer vote margins that primarily split along party lines in both chambers.

“The governor wanted to take one last swipe at me,” declared Rep. Ed Casso, D-Commerce City, who co-sponsored HB 10-1281 with Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial.

Casso, whose criticisms of Ritter cost him a committee chairmanship earlier this year, said that this is his third bill that the governor has vetoed in the past four years. It was the first veto for Spence who had successfully passed 15 bills over the past 12 years, having served in the House from 1998 until 2004 when she became a senator.

Rep. Su Ryden, D-Aurora, and Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, co-sponsored HB 10-1364 that passed unanimously in the House and Senate. Ryden said that she respects Ritter’s reasons for vetoing the bill, but wonders if the action was in response to controversy surrounding an amendment offered by Rep. Joyce Foster, D-Denver, and Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs.

The amendment, introduced on the second reading of bill, would have granted sex offenders a choice of three therapy providers whenever possible. Foster had criticized one rehabilitation provider, Teaching Human Existence, but she failed to disclose that her brother-in-law had undergone treatment in the program.

The lack of disclosure stirred a hornet’s nest of media coverage — swarming on television broadcasts, talk radio shows, newspapers and blog sites.

“Senator Foster and all that stuff in the news really clouded the issue and she felt terrible about it,” said Ryden.

Listed are the vetoed bills with the governor’s reasons and the sponsors’ reactions.

HB 10-1101 co-sponsored Rep. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, and Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch
Baumgardner said the purpose of the bill was to ease the restrictions on farmers and ranchers to be eligible for the reduced-cost of license plates for trucks and tractor trailers. He said that the current law requires an individual to provide proof that a vehicle is used strictly for agricultural purposes and that farming and ranching are the primary income sources.

“Farmers and ranchers don’t make enough money and they have had to take outside employment to make ends meet,” said Baumgardner. “Everybody was happy with the bill except the governor’s office.”

The bill had passed unanimously in the state House and Senate chambers.

Explaining his veto, Ritter said, “As someone who grew up on a farm, I strongly value the work of Colorado’s farmers and ranchers. The agricultural industry contributes not only to the economic well being of Colorado — which is more important now than ever before — but also to the moral fiber and long history in our state.”

The governor, however, expressed concerns that removing existing safeguards would expose the agriculture vehicle license program to “increased fraud in the form of illegitimate farm plate vehicle registrations and non-agricultural vehicles receiving the program’s benefits.”

Ritter said that the bill would adversely impact state revenues from vehicle registration fees and reduce the number of vehicles required to pass emissions tests.

“In order to ensure the continued integrity of the farm truck license plate program and to protect the revenue and the environment of the state of Colorado, the current requirements for registering a vehicle as a farm truck should remain unchanged,” concluded Ritter.

Baumgardner questioned Ritter’s understanding of the agricultural industry as well as his faith in county clerks who process the vehicle licenses.

“In my opinion, the governor is not a friend of agriculture,” asserted Baumgardner. “During this recession, agricultural has been slapped in the face again and again. This year, it was the loss of exemptions that will cause greater economic hardships on ranchers and farmers.”

The legislator said the governor’s statement implies that “county clerks would be too dumb to discern the difference between an agricultural truck or tractor trailer and a Maserati or Corvette.”

County clerks, Baumgartner said, mostly renew agricultural license plates and owners show their driver’s licenses and proof of insurance. If there is any question about vehicle usage, he said, the county clerks can readily verify that the property is zoned for ranching or agricultural businesses.

“I had the votes to override the governor’s veto,” said Baumgardner. “I spent two days getting those votes, but it never came to the floor because (Rep. Paul) Weissmann refused to put in on the table. As Majority leader, I guess he has that prerogative.

“I think he didn’t want to embarrass the governor,” said Baumgardner.

Weissmann, of Louisville, didn’t respond to telephone and email requests to comment.

The bill will be resurrected next year.

“The day after this legislative session ended, it went to the drafter,” declared Baumgardner.

HB 10-1281 co-sponsored by Rep. Casso and Sen. Spence
The bill proposed exempting interconnected voice-over-Internet-protocol (VoIP) from regulation by the Colorado Utilities Commission (PUC) and reclassifying Qwest to a lower level of regulation in order to be more competitive in the telecommunications industry.

“Qwest had requested a lower regulation level because it’s been financially impacted by the loss of land line users,” said Spence. “Nearly 25 percent of people exclusively use cell phone rather than land lines.”

Ritter stated in his veto explanation that Qwest could request a lower level of regulation through the PUC.

The bill regarding VoIP affects Comcast and Qwest, which offers Internet access and plans to integrate VoIP communication services. CenturyLink, a company that may purchase Qwest, has completed the first phase of incorporating VoIP technology.

Ritter said he vetoed the bill to allow more time for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to determine whether VoIP is information technology or a telecommunications service that would fall under federal regulations.

As more customers switch from landlines to VoIP, Ritter said, “Colorado cannot be left without the power to regulate such an important technology… Regardless of movement at the federal level, the PUC must have the latitude and authority to regulate the price, quality of service and availability of VoIP in order to prevent significant harm to the consumers of this state.”

Spence and Casso argued that VoIP, a technology that came on the market in 2004, should be free of state government regulations.

“Why wait for the FEC? They’ve ignored (VoIP) for several years. What are we — some slave to the federal government?” asked Spence. “This is a state’s rights issue.”

“We’re not changing the Ten Commandments in this bill,” declared Casso. “It can always be altered by the Legislature in the future.”

The governor also said changes to the regulatory framework must be thoroughly vetted in public hearings.

“Indeed, this bill was overhauled by a strike-blow amendment in Senate Business, Labor and Technology Committee in the closing days of the legislative session,” asserted Ritter.

“Not so,” countered Spence. “That’s absolutely incorrect.”

The bill had passed the House on a 57–8 vote on May 5, and Senate 31–4 on May 12. It was vetoed on June 7.

“(Ritter) wanted to take one more dig at me before he leaves office,” said Casso, who guessed that if he hadn’t been a bill co-sponsor, the governor wouldn’t have vetoed it.

Casso said he plans to reintroduce the bill in January, and feels confident that it will pass and be signed into law by the new governor — whether it’s Democratic candidate Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper or one of two Republican candidates, Evergreen businessman Dan Maes or former 3rd District Congressman Scott McInnis.

Hickenlooper, he said, understands business and Maes and McInnis are Republicans who typically favor deregulation.

HB 10-1287 co-sponsored by Rep. Kent Lambert and Sen. Bill Cadman, Republicans of Colorado Springs
After three years of requesting an inventory of state-owned vehicles, Lambert said he finally got the data and was dismayed to see how many employees use the vehicles to commute to and from work and that the state had purchased hybrid vehicles during the economic recession.

“People don’t expect their hard-earned tax money to be used to pay for free rides for state employees. It’s a perk!” exclaimed Lambert. “It’s not fair!”

Lambert said his sentiments were shared by fellow members — Democrats and Republicans — of the Joint Budget Committee.

To resolve the issue, he proposed this bill that would prohibit employees from using state-owned vehicles without the approval of the Department of Personnel and Administration. Those who are authorized would be required to reimburse the state for miles used to commute to and from work.

It granted an exception to emergency responders, but they too would have to reimburse the state if more than 50 percent of the vehicle mileage was acquired from personnel use and commuting to and from work. The bill exempted state Highway Patrol personnel.

The governor said he vetoed the bill because “the savings do not justify the harm it would cause to public health, safety and welfare.”

“Under this bill, a large number of employees who are required to use a state-owned vehicle as an essential tool for performing their jobs would be financially penalized. As a result of imposing this financial burden, it would be harder to hire and retain employees in these positions that are vital to the health and safety of the public,” said Ritter.

Lambert said that the bill would have saved an estimated $3 million, and that “it could be far greater than that when you factor in the sale of vehicles in the fleet.”

He said that few employees need a state-owned vehicle to respond to an emergency after work hours. Based on the governor’s statement and several government officials who testified in committee hearings, Lambert said the cars are “perks” for most state employees.

“One department official said that state personnel are underpaid and they need the vehicles to offset that. It’s a financial benefit to the employee,” said Lambert, who questioned how many are claiming the financial benefit on their federal and state income tax filings. “You have to pay taxes on that!”

Lambert said that Rep. Jack Pommer, D-Boulder, a member of the Joint Budget Committee and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, had urged Ritter last year to reform the system of granting state-owned cars to nonessential emergency personnel.

“He told him, ‘You do something — or we will,’” recalled Lambert. “He didn’t — we tried.”

The bill gained bipartisan support, having passed in the House with two dissenting votes and gaining unanimous “yea” votes in the Senate.

“The issue isn’t going away,” vowed Lambert.

The next bill proposed, he said, may put the power to buy vehicles and authorize their use in the hands of the Legislature.

HB 10-1364 co-sponsored by Rep. Su Ryden, D-Aurora, and Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster
What had seemed like a “housekeeping” legislative action that swept approvals in the House and Senate became mired in a public debate over political ethics. It stemmed from an amendment offered by Foster and her criticisms of a sexual rehabilitation provider that, she said, should be removed from the list of state-approved treatment programs.

Only later did Foster admit that her criticisms, in part, were based on complaints made by her brother-in-law who had gone through that treatment program.

The brouhaha, some legislators said, resulted in the governor’s veto.

The bill sought to renew the Sex Offender Management Board (SOMB), which is due to sunset on July 1, 2011, for five years and institute improvements to the system, most had been included in a 48-page program review produced by the Department of Regulatory Agencies (DORA).

“Unfortunately, an amendment to this bill was introduced and adopted on the second reading in the second chamber of the General Assembly on Friday, May 7, 2010, after the last of the public hearings on the bill had been concluded,” said Ritter in a statement.

The amendment, offered by Rep. Foster and Sen. King, stated:

“Each offender entering treatment on or after July 1, 2010, shall be given a choice by his or her supervising agency of at least three appropriate approved providers where available, unless the supervising agency documents in writing that, based on the nature of the program offered and the needs of the offender, fewer than three providers can meet the specific treatment needs of the offender and ensure the safety of the public.”

The governor noted that, “proponents of the amendment argue that the amendment is critical to improving offender-treatment matching, which is a key element to an offender’s success in treatment. Proponents further argue that the amendment does not give a sexual offender free reign to choose his or her treatment provider, but instead only allows an offender to choose an appropriate provider from a list of three providers, each of whom have been certified and approved by the SOMB.

“Opponents argue that this amendment does not provide adequate safeguards to ensure that an offender knows which treatment provider would be most effective, thereby circumventing an appropriate treatment plan. Opponents further argue that the approach embodied in this amendment fails to recognize that the supervising authority, be it probation or parole officer, often have far greater experience in determining the appropriate treatment provider.”

In his opinion, the governor said, “allowing offenders to choose from a list of three providers potentially degrades systematic management and treatment, based on specific evaluation tools and accepted practices.”

“On an issue that is this critical to public safety and the overall success of the sex offender treatment program, this failure of adequate vetting and thorough debate constitutes a fatal flaw with the bill,” concluded Ritter.

The bill had passed unanimously in the House and Senate.

“I think the fact that it was amended in the final days was the biggest factor influencing the governor’s veto,” said Ryden.

She said that she supported the Foster-King amendment along with the majority of legislators in both chambers.

“The big concern the amendment opponents had was that some offenders are so manipulative that they could choose a provider that didn’t give them the stiff treatment they need,” said Ryden.

“The goal in the original law was to get people help to become functioning citizens — not be put away for life unless they can’t be rehabilitated,” said Ryden.

In preparing the bill, Ryden said that she studied the issues, talked with experts and listened to testimony during committee hearings. She learned the challenge of rehabilitating sex offenders is complex. A basic problem is that sex offenses are too broadly categorized.

“Everything from college pranksters to sexual predators are put in the category of sex offenders,” she said. “Over the past 20 years, more and more sex offenses have been added under the law.”

Minor offenses could be college kids mooning — pressing bare buttocks against car windows — or streaking naked across a football field. Ryden said the dangerous sex offenders are pretty obvious, such as pedophiles, child pornographer and predators seeking teens on Internet sites.

Because there is such a wide range of offenses under the umbrella, Ryden said there isn’t enough government funding to provide treatment.

“There are convicted predators sitting in jail for 10 years and not receiving treatment. Then, when they’re up for parole, they can’t be released because they weren’t rehabilitated,” said Ryden. “It’s a Catch 22.”

Ryden plans to reintroduce the bill in January.

HB 10-1409 co-sponsored by Rep. Jack Pommer, D-Boulder, and Sen. Abel Tapia, D- Pueblo
“The pay progression system for state employees is broken. For evidence of this, we need look no further than salary distribution within pay ranges for state employees. Instead of employee salaries being evenly distributed through the range or clustered towards the center of the range, there is salary compression at the top, generally for those with many years of service, and at the bottom of the range, typically for those hired within about the last decade,” said Ritter.

“Employees are reliant on the pay-for-performance system, which has been rarely funded since 2001, and then only sparsely. As a result, under the pay-for-performance system, employees barely moved within the range for this past decade. Since recently hired employees are typically paid at the entry level, they are left clustered at the bottom of their respective pay ranges. Although these defects in the compensation structure need to be remedied, this bill is not the right solution.

“House Bill 10-1409 would require the State Personnel Director to develop twelve annual pay increments within each pay range in the state personnel system, leading from the bottom to the top of the respective range. It would also direct the development of corresponding core competencies that an employee would need to exhibit in order to advance to the next pay increment. The bill further requires that, beginning with the 2011-12 fiscal year, each executive agency must include in its annual budget request funding for these pay advancements. These funding requests would be required regardless of the state’s budgetary constraints.”

The governor said the bill’s goals are commendable, but it falls short of the necessary reform and is too rigid.

“If this economic downturn has taught us anything, it is that budgetary flexibility is necessary in order to meet the challenges we face in difficult economic times,” said Ritter.

Tapia and Pommer were unavailable to comment. Lambert said that he had initially supported the bill, but he voted against it on the House floor because it had been heavily amended to encompass too many goals.

The bill passed in the House and Senate, 37–26 and 22–13, respectively.

Ritter’s veto provoked an outcry from Colorado WINS, the state employees’ union.

“Governor Ritter vetoed House Bill 1409, bipartisan legislation which would have eliminated the long-broken ‘pay for performance’ system, replacing it with a structure that included uniform, objective criteria to measure employee performance,” stated a Colorado WINS media release. “(The bill) would have improved the state’s ability to hire and retain an effective workforce to provide essential services to Coloradans.”

“The silver lining to the veto is that Governor Ritter’s veto letter admits that the system is broken and directs the DPA to create a new compensation system — now we have to hold them accountable,” concluded the statement.

Leslie@coloradostatesman.com