‘Kill Bill’ was theme of Capitol drama this week

The Colorado Statesman

A Feb. 17 deadline in the Senate meant that Senate committees were busy moving on bills this week. But none were busier than the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, which had 17 bills awaiting action through the end of the day Feb. 16.

The committee passed two, including the only bill with a Democratic prime sponsor. And the so-called “kill committee” dispatched 13 of the 17, with two more awaiting action sometime in the future.

The bills assigned to State Affairs this week covered many of the issues trumpeted by Republicans during the 2010 session and the campaign season: the so-called “dirty dozen” tax exemption repeals, regulatory reform and illegal immigration.

Monday’s calendar for State Affairs had eight bills and one concurrent resolution awaiting action, and that meant committee members spent much of their Valentine’s Day evening in the Old Supreme Court chambers. The first measure, Senate Concurrent Resolution 11-001, passed on a 3-2 party-line vote, after 2½ hours of testimony and debate. The bill would toughen the requirements for getting citizen-initiated petitions onto the ballot. The Old Supreme Court chambers were full for that bill, with many witnesses saying they either represented or cited Tea Party philosophy in their testimony.

SCR 1 has some of the broadest bi-partisan support seen in this legislative session. In the Senate the measure is sponsored by Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, and Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, six other Republican senators and five Democrats. In the House, the bill is co-sponsored by Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock and Rep. Lois Court, D-Denver, and 44 other members of the House.

Under SCR 1, ballot measures seeking to change the constitution would need to pass by at least 60 percent rather than a simple majority, although any amendments passed prior to 2013 can be repealed by a simple majority vote. In addition, any initiative petitions must gather 5 percent of the vote recorded in the previous election in each congressional district. Currently, there is no geographic distribution required for petition signatures.

SCR 1 also places restrictions on the General Assembly on its ability to overturn an initiated law; currently a simple majority can do so, but the measures up that requirement to a two-thirds vote in both houses. SCR 1 is a referred measure to voters, and if approved by them in the 2012 election, it would go into effect beginning in 2013.

Sixty constitutional amendments have been put on the ballot in the last two decades, according to Jerry Groswold, former CEO of Winter Park and a member of a University of Denver-initiated panel (Colorado’s Future) that studied the state’s constitution and made recommendations on changes. Groswold told the committee that more than $177 million has been spent in the last decade on ballot measures, and in the last two decades 60 amendments have made their way onto the ballot. But 41 out of those 60, about two-thirds, have failed, he said. That’s a lot of money “to preserve the status quo,” he said.

Former Legislative Council staffer Dan Chapman testified on behalf of AARP, stating that SCR 1 would raise the bar for changing the state constitution but does not affect initiated changes to statute. Broadening the geographic representation on petitions lessens the likelihood that a local issue would be elevated to one of statewide concern, he said.

Colorado is the easiest state to amend the constitution, said former Sen. Ron Teck, who added that he’s heard groups say that if they can get their amendments passed in Colorado those amendments can go on to other states. “I’d just as soon not have us in that role as leader,” he said.

Only a handful testified in favor of the bill, but many more testified against it. Kim Green of Colorado Citizens for Health Freedom said the geographic distribution requirement and its 5 percent signature minimum would make it harder for grassroots organizations to participate in the ballot initiative process. Her group, which she said is made up entirely of volunteers, sponsored a constitutional measure that failed to get on the Nov. 2008 ballot with 50,000 signatures, and she said the new requirement would hike it to more than 87,000.

Some of the public faces of Amendments 60 and 61 and Proposition 101, which failed to gain even one-third of the votes in last November’s election, testified against SCR 1. Natalie Menten, the spokesperson for last year’s campaign, claimed to run a grassroots organization that got the three amendments on the ballot, although an administrative law judge ruled last year that Doug Bruce and his group, Active Citizens Together (ACT), actually fronted the money and provided the petitions and petition language for the measures. Menten complained that her “grassroots organization” had “peanuts” with which to fight $7 million put into the campaign against the three measures, including money that came from organizations that she said receive taxpayer money, and that SCR 1 would hurt grassroots organizations. Russell Haas said his job is to protect citizens from its government, and that SCR 1 would shift power away from citizens and to the Legislature.

Michael Short of the Tea Party Patriots told the committee that SCR 1 is “an attack on freedom of speech” and impedes on the right of people to petition and have access to the Constitution. He also said the geographical distribution requirement might make it difficult for partisan measures to be signed in certain areas, such as a Republican-slanted measure in Denver.

Thaddeus Tecza, a retired political science instructor for CU-Boulder, called the bill a “solution in search of a problem,” and pointed out that citizens don’t approve most of the initiatives proposed. He chided the sponsors for a “lack of faith in the ordinary citizens of this state” and said the measure was coming from special interest groups such as Colorado’s Future. But Tecza also drew Shaffer’s ire when he asked committee members to note the appearance of the witnesses as a way of gauging who supported the measure and who didn’t. “Look at the way those who support this are dressed, and the way the people who oppose it are dressed. It will tell you what segments of the state will favor this and what segments will be negatively affected.”

“I’m offended,” responded Shaffer. “No one asked me to bring this forward, I did this on my own,” and said that Colorado’s Future got involved after he did. As to his appearance, Shaffer said he dressed nicely “because I knew we’d be in front of a large audience, not because I’m wealthy.” Tecza initially apologized but then said he stood on the substance of his remarks. James Fry of Aurora said SCR 1 indicates that legislators don’t want to hear from their constituents, and that they “loathe and despise” the fact that Colorado has the best citizen access to its Constitution. “You ought to spend your time in a more productive manner,” he said, pointing out that a similar measure, Referendum O, was voted down two years ago.

Elena Nuñez of Colorado Common Cause said there were some parts of SCR 1 that she supported, but opposed the geographic distribution and the 60 percent super-majority requirement, saying it gives “no” votes more say than “yes” votes.

SCR 1 now moves to the full Senate for action.

Other bills fail to survive

After voting on SCR 1, the committee moved on to the rest of its agenda, and quickly killed seven of the eight bills that followed. The one that survived, a bill on capital construction for charter schools that is co-sponsored by Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, and Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver, was laid over for further work.

Among the dead: two bills dealing with changes to the Public Employees’ Retirement Association. Senate Bill 11-074 was sponsored by Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, and attempted to allow local government, school and Denver Public School employers to decrease their contributions and simultaneously increase the employee contributions at the same rate, 2.5 percent. Greg Smith, PERA’s general counsel, said SB 74 would undermine the funding mechanisms for SB 10-001, which sought to bring PERA back to full funding in the next 30 years. Employee dollars are subject to refund, he testified, and employees receive a partial match from the employer contributions when those dollars are refunded, he said. In addition, he said, employee contributions are worth only 80 cents on the dollar to the employer match. SB 74 would have done for its named divisions what a 2010 bill did for the state.

A second PERA-focused bill, SB 127, would put new PERA employees into a defined contribution plan instead of its defined benefit plan, and was sponsored by Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley. A Legislative Council fiscal analyst noted the bill would render PERA’s state division insolvent by 2030 and would require the state to kick in an additional $6.5 billion to cover the division’s future obligations. SB 127 is another in a continuing effort by Republicans in the General Assembly to replace the defined benefits plan with a defined contribution plan, and which annually fails to gain support from majority Democrats. Both bills died on a 2-3 party-line vote.

A bill by Sen. Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield, to repeal the 2010 bills that lifted tax exemptions; and one from Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, that specifically targeted the out-of-state retailers (the “Amazon” tax), both also met the same fate.

The demise of Republican bills continued on Tuesday, with two more (out of four) postponed indefinitely by the committee, one pulled off the table in hopes of finding compromise that would keep it alive, and delaying the vote on the last by one day.

The one that lives to see another day is SB 116, sponsored by Mitchell, which would require business fiscal impact statements for legislation. It’s a move that at least in principal is endorsed by the governor, and Mitchell told The Colorado Statesman the bill was laid over while Gov. John Hickenlooper convenes a taskforce to look at the issue.

On Wednesday, the committee approved SB 57, which provides options for county clerks in metropolitan districts of more than 10,000 voters to send mail ballots only to those who have requested them and who have returned ballots in the district’s most recent election. Under SB 57, districts of less than 10,000 can continue to follow current law, and larger districts have the option of continuing to follow current law, which allows for mail ballots to be sent to all voters who are on the list of permanent mail-in voters. SB 57 is sponsored by Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, and Speaker of the House Frank McNulty, also of Highlands Ranch.

The committee was less kind to the other bills on its agenda Wednesday, voting to kill an Arizona-style immigration bill, SB 54, sponsored by Lambert. SB 54 would have cost the state more than $3 million in 2011-12 and $2 million the following year. It would have required police officers to arrest people, without warrants, whom the officer believes is an undocumented alien and is “subject to a removal order by an immigrant court” or the Department of Homeland Security. Witnesses testified that the bill would lead to racial profiling or prompt police to arrest people who have legal immigration status. A second bill on immigration, a Harvey-sponsored measure that would make the federal E-verify system mandatory for Colorado employers, also went down to defeat; as did a bill from Sen. Kevin Grantham, R-Cañon City, that would have lowered the late fees on motor vehicle registration enacted by SB 09-108, the FASTER bill.

Committee Chair Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, said the committee has been “dealing with matters that are of interest to people and that’s why we’re here. We’re only scratching the surface.”

Ranking committee member Sen. Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, told The Statesman during a break in Wednesday’s action that the committee’s votes to kill Republican-sponsored bills showed a disconnect between the stated priorities of Hickenlooper, the state Democratic Party’s leader; and the Senate President. Cadman said the schedule had been tough but that the committee has given everyone a chance to testify. “The process is open and the witnesses are lined up.” Cadman characterized the killed bills as “economic development and consumer friendly” measures, and said that Shaffer had “ignored the sentiment of the electorate and the sentiment of the new governor” in assigning them to the “kill committee.”