2012 Legislative Wrap-up

Bills streamline gov’t, invest in future and add oversight

The Colorado Statesman

Gov. John Hickenlooper signed several bills this year to streamline government and save the state money, while making investments for the future and adding accountability and oversight.

On June 6, Hickenlooper signed a bill to modernize the state’s archaic personnel system. The bipartisan House Bill 1321, sponsored by Reps. Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, and Glenn Vaad, R-Mead, and Sens. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, and Mike Johnston, D-Denver, establishes a merit-based pay system to replace the current pay-for-performance system created more than a decade ago.

The legislation could mean that state workers will see their first merit pay raise in four years.

The bill works in conjunction with House Concurrent Resolution 1001, which was given final approval by the legislature on May 8. The resolution asks voters this November to back changes to the personnel system, which are written into the state constitution. The measure will appear on the ballot as Amendment S.

For Hickenlooper, a former restaurant owner, the issue of attracting “talent” and providing competitive salaries is one with which he can identify. “What we’ve been asking state workers to do is to do more with less…” the governor said of the state’s budget constraints and how it has affected workers. “In any kind of a context like that, if you can’t reward people for what they’re doing when they’re going above and beyond, it’s very hard to maintain morale.”

Specifically, HB 1321, which takes effect on Sept. 1, will:

• Eliminate the so-called “pay-for-performance” system and create a merit-based system that will target increasing wages for employees at the bottom of the pay scale;

• Eliminate so-called “bumping,” in which a laid off employee could return to a previous state job and “bump” a less-senior worker; and

• Add new rights for employees who are laid off, including severance pay, retraining and replacement plans.
Colorado WINS, the union that represents state workers, applauded Hickenlooper’s signing of the legislation. “State workers have been taking it on the chin for a decade now with a dysfunctional pay system, layoffs, increasing workloads and higher health care costs,” said Paul Boni, president of Colorado WINS and a laboratory coordinator at the University of Colorado-Boulder. “HB 1321 finally gives them something to look forward to and lays the foundation for the first raise in four years.”

Ferrandino pointed out that despite the polarized political climate surrounding state personnel issues, Republicans and Democrats were able to come together.

“The outcome and what happened in Wisconsin isn’t going to have any bearing on what the people of Colorado decide. If anything, what we’re doing here today shows that when people work together you don’t have that,” he said. “You can get good accomplishments that both sides can agree on when both sides sit down and talk.”

Elections reforms addressed

Lawmakers also made changes to rules and programs governed by Secretary of State Scott Gessler, a Republican who worked with both sides of the aisle on the issues.

“I’m pleased that we worked in a bipartisan manner to pass important bills that will allow us to better serve the people of Colorado,” Gessler said in a statement to The Colorado Statesman.

House Bill 1292, sponsored by Rep. Carole Murray, R-Castle Rock, and Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, makes technical modifications to elections laws in order to bring the state’s statutes in line with federal laws. The governor signed it on May 17.

Ballot titles were also addressed through two pieces of legislation, House Bill 1313 and House Bill 1089.
The governor signed HB 1313, sponsored by Rep. Libby Szabo, R-Arvada, and Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins, on April 26. The measure makes changes to rules governing the title board to clarify that the secretary of state and attorney general have the authority to designate a representative to serve on the board. It also requires that a person who submits a motion for rehearing to the title board must specify the grounds, and that after the title board takes action on a motion for rehearing, then no further motions can be heard. Finally, the bill solidifies in state law that appeals of title board decisions must be filed with the Colorado Supreme Court within five business days.

HB 1089, sponsored by Rep. Lois Court, D-Denver, and Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, tackles elections reform by aiming to clarify the initiative process for Colorado voters. The bill simplifies how a voter is casting their ballot for or against initiatives by requiring that ballots be labeled “Yes/For” and “No/Against.”

Steadman explained that the bill is part of a mission to simplify the balloting process in Colorado.
“I think our process is a little too easy to embed something in the constitution where it can’t really be easily amended, and so this is dealing with one of the symptoms of that problem, and helping voters understand what they’re doing. But it doesn’t take the place of more meaningful reform,” he said.

Government accountability

Lawmakers sought to bring reforms and accountability to government through oversight of public trustees offices. They also approved legislation to counteract the effects of government errors.

A watered down version of House Bill 1329, sponsored by Reps. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction, and Dan Pabon, D-Denver, and Sen. Jeanne Nicholson, D-Black Hawk, will give county commissioners more control over the budgets of public trustees and will require a biannual state audit of public trustees appointed by the governor. The bill requires the use of state procurement codes, which require a comprehensive bidding process for all purchases and services worth $20,000 or more.

HB 1329 was dramatically altered from its original form to retain the state’s governor-appointed public trustees. Initially, the bill would have turned the duties of appointed public trustees over to elected county treasurers in certain counties, putting into jeopardy the jobs of 10 public trustees.

Still, despite the gutting of the bill, sponsors applauded its signing on May 21. “This bill brings common sense to the office of the public trustee,” said Scott. “Reigning in the authority of public trustees and checking their spending habits is good public policy and good for Colorado.”

The governor also signed bills to enhance government accountability following the devastating Lower North Fork Fire, in which a controlled burn in March set by the Colorado State Forest Service caused a wildfire in Jefferson County that killed three people and damaged or destroyed more than two dozen homes.

House Bill 1361, sponsored by Reps. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, and Cheri Gerou, R-Evergreen, and Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, and Nicholson, creates a mechanism for victims to seek compensation from the state. The bill adds an amendment to the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act to include prescribed burns to the list of waivers from governmental immunity. The bill had a retroactive date of Jan. 1, 2012 to cover victims of the Lower North Fork Fire, despite the governor signing it on June 4.

Without the bill, victims of the wildfire would have been left to split only $600,000 in compensation.

The other bill that came out of the Lower North Fork Fire tragedy was House Bill 1352, sponsored by Gardner, Gerou and Cadman, which creates a commission to investigate the fire itself.

“House Bill 1352 ensures victims of this tragedy have a voice in the review of the fire and its aftermath,” said Gerou. “House Bill 1361 gives them a path to justice.”

“A series of mishandlings by the state left people homeless and grieving for their loved ones,” added Gardner. “I’m thankful we were able to work for a solution and provide those victims with some form of redress.”

One of the fire victims, Scott Appel, whose wife, Ann, died in the fire, said government responsibility offers a small sense of solace given the horrendous situation.

“I lost my wife, my home and nearly everything we had worked our entire lives for in the fire — the devastation is hard to comprehend,” he said. “Acknowledging responsibility for this tragedy is the right thing for the State of Colorado to do.”

Another measure pushed by Republicans to increase government transparency and accountability concerned federal dollars. House Bill 1009, sponsored by Gerou and Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, enhances an annual report to the legislature that details the amount of federal funds state departments receive. The measure also requires that the report detail any mandates associated with those federal dollars.

The bill was signed on April 16 and takes effect on Aug. 8.

“Lawmakers here in Colorado need to know what money is coming from Washington, D.C.,” Gerou said following the governor’s signing of HB 1009. “This law increases government accountability and raises lawmakers’ awareness of the fiscal realities in our state. This bill will help us make important decisions regarding our state’s fiscal policies.”

Investments for the future

Hickenlooper also signed several bills dealing with investments for the future, especially pertaining to the state’s natural resources.

On May 24, the governor signed House Bill 1315, sponsored by Rep. Jon Becker, R-Fort Morgan, and Steadman, which aims to continue building the state’s all-inclusive energy portfolio, including traditional and renewable energy.

The measure will change the name of the Governor’s Energy Office to the Colorado Energy Office. It also sets the office’s role as promoting traditional and renewable energy, spurring economic development and job creation, increasing energy security, protecting the environment, creating a balanced energy portfolio and lowering the cost of energy.

“This legislation helps ensure our continued investment and research in Colorado’s energy industry,” said Hickenlooper. “The office will promote clean and affordable sources of energy that are critical to the future of our state.”

“Energy demands, changes in technology and resource developments change the dynamics of energy policy,” added Becker. “Reorganizing the Governor’s Energy Office to reflect these changes helps ensure we are pursuing sensible and comprehensive solutions for Colorado’s energy economy.”

On May 19, Hickenlooper also signed a bill authorizing $61 million worth of funding for state water projects. Senate Bill 2, which came out of a special session called by the governor at the end of May, will fund Colorado Water Conservation Board projects through loans and grants.

Hickenlooper called the special session to address the water bill along with six others after Republican House leadership allowed 30 bills to die on the calendar in an effort to kill a bill that would have authorized same-sex civil unions in Colorado. The water bill was one of only three bills to make it through the special session.

Sponsored by Sens. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village, and Jean White, R-Hayden, and Reps. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, and Randy Baumgardner, R-Cowdrey, 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 at a bill signing for the measure at the Rio Grande Club in South Fork that they hope it will create at least 50 jobs.

“The jobs created by these infrastructure projects will provide a needed economic boost for communities in the San Luis Valley where these projects are the result of important state and local cooperation,” said Schwartz. “This legislation is absolutely vital to the state’s ability to address and cope with the severe drought conditions we are facing.”

Cutting spending, curbing government reach

Hickenlooper has also signed several bills to cut spending and curb government reach. On May 3, he signed a measure that will close Colorado State Penitentiary II in Cañon City, the state’s newest prison, which opened in 2010. A decline in the state’s inmate population, especially its solitary population, rendered the 316-bed prison unnecessary.

House Bill 1337, sponsored by Gerou and Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, and Steadman and Lambert in the Senate, was proposed by the Joint Budget Committee as part of its budgeting for the 2012-13 fiscal year, which began this month. Closure of the prison is expected to save the state from its $220 million financial obligation that stretches into the next decade for the newly built prison.

The JBC also proposed House Bill 1336, which the governor signed on May 3 to authorize a study of future corrections investments. Hickenlooper’s budget director, Henry Sobanet, said a change in correctional philosophies and reforms are decreasing the inmate population in Colorado, forcing the state to reconsider its prison investments.

“We’re seeing a drop in the number of prisoners, especially for solitary confinement, which really leads to a certain type of bed that we don’t need as much space for, and these are 24-hour supervisory beds, which are a little more expensive to operate,” said Sobanet. “So, even though we’re not through paying for the construction of the prison, we can save on the operating side — that’s why it’s a prudent maneuver.”

Lawmakers also felt it prudent to curb state government’s ability to impose unfunded mandates. Senate Bill 26, sponsored by Cadman and Vaad, prohibits a state agency from issuing mandates on local governments unless state or federal law specifically requires them. The bill also requires an agency to consult with local governments before issuing the mandate, while requiring the state to provide funding for the direct costs associated with the new rule.

The bill was signed on May 24 and takes effect on Aug. 8.

“This is good public policy,” said Vaad. “Unfunded mandates have no place in a responsible and well functioning government, especially in the midst of a recession.”

Lawmakers criticized

But not all legislative budgeting decisions made this year were considered fiscally responsible. Lawmakers were heavily criticized in February for backing a 22 percent per diem increase for 41 rural lawmakers. House Bill 1301, an appropriations bill sponsored by Senate Democratic Leader John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, and House Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, increased the per diem for living expenses from $150 per day to $183 a day.

Hickenlooper signed the bill on March 8, despite criticism from the public and several lawmakers. Morse explained the importance of his bill, arguing that the measure appropriates the annual budget for the legislature — $34 million — with only about $189,000 set aside for the per diem increase.

“Every department in state government has a budget, and most of them are rolled into the Long Bill, but this one is separate in that this is the legislative branch of government, and obviously it needs to be able to function since it’s the branch that actually represents the people,” said Morse.

Lawmakers, especially House Republican leadership, were also heavily criticized for stalling a bill that addressed public investments, thereby costing taxpayers $164,383 every day it was not signed into law.

House Bill 1005, sponsored by Pabon, allows counties and other local governments to make investments in government-backed securities that have less than two triple-A ratings.

McNulty delayed the popular bill, costing taxpayers a total of $4.3 million over the 26 days it languished. It sat on the calendar for a month before it finally moved to second reading. When it was finally approved by the Legislature in March, Hickenlooper was in Houston for a previously scheduled speaking engagement. But the bill was considered so important to the state’s finances that Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia signed it on March 7 in Hickenlooper’s absence.

McNulty told The Colorado Statesman at the time that there were “substantive” concerns surrounding the bill, specifically regarding the federal government’s spending. He also simply said, “Different bills move at different paces.”

Democrats attacked Republican leadership over the issue, charging that the GOP played political games. Even after the bill was signed, Pabon criticized McNulty’s leadership, pointing out that the bill was ready for the speaker’s signature at 2:59 p.m. on March 7, but that McNulty didn’t sign the bill and send it to the governor’s office until 5:26 p.m. The bill was signed only four minutes later, at 5:30 p.m.

“The lieutenant governor went out of his way to make sure it would be signed right away,” pointed out Pabon. “Speaker McNulty just thumbed his nose at the executive branch, the legislature and, most of all, the people of Colorado.”

-Peter@coloradostatesman.com