Gov caps session by signing renewable energy bills

By Marianne Goodland
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Gov. Bill Ritter completed the last bill signings for the 2010 legislative session and his gubernatorial career earlier this month. Between January 15 and June 11, Ritter signed two resolutions, 297 House-initiated bills and 157 bills that started in the Senate.

In keeping with his top gubernatorial priority dating back to 2007, his first year in office, Ritter’s last bill signings dealt with renewable energy, and he also signed several other major pieces of renewable energy legislation throughout the session. According to a fact sheet regarding the “New Energy Economy” released this month, Ritter has signed 57 pieces of legislation to drive that agenda.

Gov. Bill Ritter signs one of the last five energy economy bills. “In less than four years, we have passed nearly 60 new energy economy bills that are sowing the seeds for a vibrant and sustainable future,” Ritter said.
Photo by Jamie Cotten/The Colorado Statesman

The 57 bills included 17 from the 2010 legislative session. It began with House Bill 1001, a bill to increase the state’s renewable energy standards to 30 percent by 2020. In signing that bill on March 22, Ritter said increasing the standard would help create thousands of jobs.

Under HB 1001, at least 3 percent of that standard must be met by solar energy, which Ritter said would lead to 100,000 solar rooftops over the next decade.

Republicans were unanimous in their opposition to HB 1001, claiming it would lead to higher energy bills and that the legislation was also payback to unions because the installation work had to be done by a licensed master or journeyman electrician. Not one Republican voted for the bill in either the House or Senate.

Ritter’s next major renewable energy bill got a little bit better reception from Republicans: HB 1365, which requires Xcel Energy to retrofit its least-efficient coal-burning electric plants to natural gas. The bill requires Xcel to submit a plan to the Public Utilities Commission by December to show how they will achieve a 70 to 80 percent reduction in nitrogen oxide (NOx), and sulfur dioxide (SO2) from their coal-fired plants by 2017, necessary to meet the EPA haze requirements.

HB 1365 had bipartisan sponsorship in both chambers; its primary House co-sponsor was Rep. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango; in the Senate, HB 1365 was co-sponsored by Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction and Senate Assistant Minority Leader Greg Brophy, R-Wray. But it also had bipartisan opposition, who claimed the bill would cost the state mining jobs (from Sen. Sen. Al White, R-Hayden, who has several major coal mines in his district) and from union leaders (former state Rep. Mike Cerbo, D-Denver, now head of the AFL-CIO).

Ritter cited the potential for job creation in his signing of HB 1365 on April 19. “By shifting our oldest and least efficient coal plants to cleaner, Colorado-produced natural gas,” Ritter said in a press release, “we send a strong message to the rest of the country that we absolutely can cut air pollution and protect public health while also creating jobs and protecting ratepayers.”

Ritter’s last bill signings on May 11 also dealt with renewable energy. On that day, he signed five renewable energy-related bills at the Veterans Green Jobs workforce training facility in Denver. “In less than four years, we have passed nearly sixty New Energy Economy bills that are sowing the seeds for a vibrant and sustainable future. We are creating jobs, attracting companies, reducing energy consumption and advancing high-tech projects that will continue to bear fruit for decades to come,” Ritter said.

Money — or lack of it — responsible for budget cuts
But the biggest issue for legislators in the 2010 session was the budget, and that did not come without considerable controversy. It began in January when Ritter submitted a plan to the General Assembly to repeal eight sales and use tax exemptions, which he said would generate about $18.8 million for 2010-11. The package grew to include another four bills that would end income tax credits for conservation easements and other items.

The bulk of the 11 bills that made it through the General Assembly were signed on February 24. The last one, HB 1200, dealing with enterprise zone credits, was signed May 27.

The tax repeals led to early-session acrimony, with hours of bitter committee and floor fights that sometimes required legislators to work into the wee hours of the morning.

And the battles didn’t end with the signing of the bills. On March 8, Amazon.com fired its Colorado affiliates, citing the legislature’s passage of HB 1193, which requires Amazon and other online retailers who don’t collect state sales taxes to notify state residents of the amount of sales tax they owe for purchases. As introduced, HB 1193 would have required Amazon and other online retailers to collect the tax if they had a “presence” in Colorado, which included its Colorado-based affiliates who advertise Amazon on their websites. Despite that language being amended out of the bill at the request of Amazon affiliates, the company canned the associates anyway, stating in an e-mail to the fired associates that Colorado “clearly intended to increase the compliance burden to a point where online retailers will be induced to ‘voluntarily’ collect the sales tax, a course we won’t take.”

The battle over HB 1193 and the other tax exemption repeals continued throughout the session, with business leaders and Republicans warning that it will be used as a tool to defeat Democrats in the fall elections.

The battle over the Long Appropriations Bill, HB 1376, was less intense than what might be expected in an election year. Prior to its introduction, Republicans warned they would try to add on amendments that would address some of their budget priorities, but that did not happen.

Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton, gives a speech on June 11 at the Veterans’ Green Job Workforce Training Facility before Gov. Bill Ritter, whose term ends in January, signed his last five bills, which are related to energy economy.
Photo by Jamie Cotten/The Colorado Statesman

The most controversy over HB 1376 was in its final passage in the House, when Rep. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, voted against the bill, along with all of the other House Republicans. As a member of the Joint Budget Committee, Lambert was a co-sponsor of HB 1376, and a JBC member has never voted against the budget bill.

Lambert cited several changes made to the bill that could potentially violate the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights as his reason for his “no” vote.

Ritter signed HB 1376 on April 29. “This is a tough budget that reflects tough times,” Ritter said in his signing message. “We took a balanced approach to balancing the budget, and we called on everyone to share in the burdens and to share in the solutions…This spending plan also preserves funding for programs and incentives that promote job creation, support small businesses, continue to advance the New Energy Economy and encourage a return to economic health.” For the first, and only time since he became governor, Ritter did not veto any footnotes in the long bill, but did direct departments to comply “only to the extent feasible” on four of them. As to the fifth footnote that Ritter had concerns about, Ritter told the Department of Revenue not to comply with it. The footnote dealt with costs for administering Amendment 50 revenues; Ritter said he did not veto the footnote since it only expressed legislative intent.

Less controversial among legislators was another of Ritter’s top priorities for 2010: restoring to financial health the Public Employees’ Retirement Association. A Dec. 31, 2008 financial statement showed that the pension plan had only $29.6 billion in assets to pay more than $57 billion in liabilities, a shortfall driven in part by prior legislative decisions and by the 2008 collapse of the financial markets. SB 1 was co-sponsored by Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont and Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry, R-Grand Junction; in the House it was sponsored by Assistant House Majority Leader Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood. According to PERA and supporters of SB 1, the bill puts 90 percent of the obligation for fixing PERA’s funding woes on current and future public employees and retirees, through increased contributions and lower benefits.

The bill drew strong opposition from PERA retirees, some current members and those who thought PERA should be converted to a defined contribution plan.

Ritter signed SB 1 on February 23.

An educational session
Several major education bills also made their way through the session, beginning with the first bill that Ritter autographed in 2010: SB 36, which was signed on January 15. Ritter and legislators hoped that the bill, which would require teacher preparation programs to track the success of their trainees, would help improve Colorado’s chances of getting a $377 million federal “Race to the Top” grant. However, in March, the state was notified that it lost out on the first round of the grants, finishing 14th out of 16 states in the competition. Colorado is still eligible for a grant from a second round of competition, but for a much lower amount — $60 million to $175 million.

Two other major education bills also got Ritter’s approval: SB 3, which would grant public colleges and universities limited flexibility in setting tuition rates; and SB 191, a controversial bill to change the evaluation and tenure process for public school teachers, at a time when the state has had to slash millions of dollars from school district budgets.

Ritter signed SB 3 on June 9, stating that higher education in Colorado was at “a funding crossroad,” referring to the decision to cut millions of dollars in general fund support from institutions and backfill those cuts with money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

That money ends on June 30, 2011, and the state will then have to cut another $300 million in general fund, more than half of what the institutions received in 2010-11.

“Senate Bill 3 is not a permanent fix,” Ritter said. “It does, however, provide short-term relief while we develop a strategic roadmap for long-term sustainability, and central to this new law is the principle that a public higher education in Colorado remains affordable and accessible to all.”

SB 191 drew heavy opposition from the Colorado Education Association and from 75 percent of the Democrats in the General Assembly: 43 out of a combined 57 Democrats from both chambers voted against it. SB 191 squeaked out of the legislature on its last day. In signing SB 191 on May 20, Ritter said the law “will advance Colorado’s record as a national leader in education reform” and that he looked forward to “continuing the partnership” established with Colorado teachers.

Marianne@coloradostatesman.com