Credit report bill discussion erupts into partisan name calling

The Colorado Statesman

A simple piece of legislation aimed at ending the use of credit reports by employers who make hiring decisions turned into one of the most personal and partisan attacks yet this year on the Senate floor.

Senate Majority Leader John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, riled Republicans into the attacks on Tuesday during debate of Senate Bill 3, which ultimately passed the Democratic-controlled Senate on final reading with a party-line vote of 20-15. The vote brought to an end two straight days of debate.

The legislation would prohibit employers from reviewing and using credit reports as a condition of employment when considering prospective employees.

The debate kicked into high gear beginning with conservative stalwart Sen. Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield, who spoke prior to Morse against the legislation. Mitchell was the first to draw clear distinctions between Republican and Democratic philosophies.

“This bill certainly clearly defines the different world views of the two sides of the aisle,” he said. “In this session it’s supposed to be about jobs, jobs, jobs. We have one side that thinks they are pushing a jobs bill when they say, ‘Let’s more tightly supervise hiring decisions; let’s restrict the information that employers consider when they decide who to hire; let’s inject public policy and regulators and bureaucrats and litigation and trial attorneys just a little further into our economy. That will bring back the jobs.’ Just to state those propositions is to refute them.”

Morse fired back, arguing, “The Republicans are saying, ‘We’ve got to protect these big corporations.’ And what we’re saying is, ‘Give the little guy that’s unemployed a fair shake.’”

Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, was astonished by Morse’s remark, shouting from the floor, “Don’t impugn motive!”

Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, affirmed his party’s outrage, calling Morse an “embarrassment” and saying he was “ashamed” by his colleague’s comment.

“I have been in this building since 1989… never in all of that time have I ever seen a leader in this body or in the House impugn the intentions of members of the entire body,” Harvey scolded Morse. “I am embarrassed for you, I am ashamed of you, and I think this body should rebuke you for your comments. Never in the 22 years I’ve been in this building have I ever seen the leader of a party display themselves in such an inappropriate manner.”

Following the debate, Morse told The Colorado Statesman that if he could go back he would tone down the inflammatory partisan nature of his comments, but not the overall message.

“My intention was just to draw the distinction between the arguments that they were making and the arguments that we were making, and obviously instead of ‘they’ and ‘we,’ apparently I said ‘Republicans’ and ‘Democrats,’ and so they took it very personally, for which I am deeply sorry,” said Morse.

For supporters such as Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, the bill’s sponsor, it was disappointing to watch the debate turn into a political battle. Carroll sees SB 3 as a check on “abusive” credit report practices that “unfairly” limit a Coloradan’s chance of finding employment. She points out that citizens with poor credit scores could be the victim of unforeseen circumstances such as identity theft, illness, unexpected job loss or divorce, to name a few. Carroll says that as many as 60 percent of employers run credit checks on prospective employees. She believes that the information provided is often inaccurate and misleading.

“All you need to do is stop doing the credit poll, which as you know by now was not designed for this purpose in the first place…” she said during floor remarks, noting that 5.5 million Americans are “chronically unemployed.”

“What are those people supposed to do to get back to work?” she asked.

Carroll distributed a credit consent form to her Senate colleagues, asking them to disclose to constituents their consumer credit information for purposes of determining “fitness for hire” as a state Senator. As of the end of the debate, only a handful of lawmakers signed the consent form, including Republican Sen. Steve King of Grand Junction, who did not support the bill, but still chose to appease Carroll by signing the form. He was the only Republican to do so. Democratic Sens. Joyce Foster, Irene Aguilar and Lois Tochtrop also signed the consent form, according to Carroll.

There were other colorful attempts at driving support for the measure, including Sen. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, walking around the floor with a pile of peanuts offering snacks to lawmakers with a credit score above 700.

Carroll attempted to diffuse criticism over impacts to businesses by providing an exemption in the bill for employers hiring for positions related to the credit check, such as a money or asset management role. In those cases, the employer would be required to disclose that they used a credit report, and the employee would be allowed to explain any negative information on the report.

Employers who violate the law would be assessed a civil penalty.

The business community, especially small businesses, are concerned that the law would be just another mandate on business owners that drives away job creators in the state. Tony Gagliardi, state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, said employers already offer prospective employees a chance to explain their credit reports, and adds that employers are simply looking for a pattern of poor credit practices that could impact how they perform their work duties.

“If they see seven years, or 10 years of continuous charge-offs, that’s a pattern, that’s a behavior pattern, and the employer has the right to use any legal means available to pick the right employees,” said Gagliardi.

Opponents say they have been mounting their opposition in the Republican-controlled House, where the legislation faces a much fiercer challenge and is likely to be killed.

“We’re trying to create jobs, and bills like Senate Bill 3… all they’re doing is shutting that spigot off,” said Gagliardi. “We’re not going to create jobs — there’s no intention of creating jobs as long as public policy like this exists.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com