A review of what transpired at the state Capitol this week
The Colorado Statesman

Lawmakers wasted no time this week getting down to business, hearing a slew of controversial bills that run the gamut from repealing the rural renewable energy mandate pushed by Democrats last year to allowing same-sex couples to file joint state income tax returns.

Sen. Ted Harvey’s Senate Bill 35 would have repealed last year’s Senate Bill 252, which increased the rural renewable energy mandate to 20 percent by 2020.

The Highlands Ranch Republican watched his bill die Wednesday on a Democratic party-line vote of 3-2, which came as no surprise. Earlier in the day, he had complained that Democrats assigned the measure to the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, which the majority uses as a so-called “kill committee” for unfavorable bills.

When his bill was up in committee on Wednesday, Harvey said it was necessary to lower rates on rural customers who are still recovering from the economic downturn.

“This was a terribly written piece of legislation that would be very, very hard to accommodate in the real world of business, that would have substantial impacts on the consumer and the ratepayers and the businesses that are ratepayers,” Harvey said during his opening remarks.

Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, had appointed a committee to examine issues around SB 252, which agreed that the standard is achievable. But Harvey does not believe that is enough. He feels only a full repeal can alleviate concerns.

“Even though the governor signed this bill into law, even though he knew it had problems, even though he knew that he appointed a committee that in no way could have 100 percent consensus, he still signed into law a terrible bill,” opined Harvey.

But Sen. Jessie Ulibarri of Commerce City, chairman of the committee, pointed out that the governor’s committee supported moving ahead with the new standard, and suggested that instead of a repeal, lawmakers should be discussing how to improve the measure.

“Give us a path forward, and that path forward is not repeal…” said Ulibarri. “It is finding ways to address the needs… That’s where the conversation should be, it should be on how to improve existing law.”

Environmentalists praised Democrats for standing up to Republicans, suggesting that the new mandate is what Coloradans are looking for.

“Coloradans, no matter where they live, should be able to take advantage of the clean wind and solar energy resources that will power our clean energy economy,” said Pete Maysmith, executive director of Conservation Colorado. “Any attempts to further weaken this law will cost jobs and will mean less renewable energy will be produced in Colorado. That’s not what Coloradans want and that’s not what’s good for our economy.”

Allowing same-sex couples to file joint taxes

Democrats also locked down this week on allowing same-sex couples to file joint state income tax returns.

Senate Bill 19, sponsored by Sen. Pat Steadman of Denver, received a 3-2 party-line vote on Tuesday in Senate Finance, sending the bill to the floor.

The measure simply aligns state and federal tax filing procedures. Couples who marry in other states would be allowed to file their Colorado tax returns jointly as married couples.

The legislation comes after the Colorado Attorney General’s Office and the Colorado Department of Revenue determined that same-sex couples that marry outside of Colorado could joint file.

“We don’t need to over-complicate or over-politicize the tax filing process,” said Steadman, who is gay. “It makes sense that people who file a joint tax return at the federal level also file jointly at the state level. It’s my goal to clarify the process before taxpayers submit their 2013 income tax returns.”

Lakewood couple Pamela Thiele and Lauren Fortmiller testified in favor of the bill. They were granted a civil union from Vermont in 2002, a civil marriage from California in 2008 and a civil union from Colorado in 2013.

“After all the 45 years we have worked for equality and justice, after all the sadness and anxiety, being asked this year, finally, honestly and openly, to check the ‘married filing jointly’ box on a Colorado state form will be a thrill,” said Thiele.

Religious groups opposed the bill because they believe it is legitimizing gay marriage, which remains illegal in Colorado.

“Marriage between one man and woman is the cornerstone of our society,” read a statement from the Colorado Catholic Conference. “It is not simply a religious issue it is a matter of common sense and has a long tradition that pre-dates Christian faith. Any attempt to redefine marriage should be challenged.”

Public assistance cards at marijuana shops

Democrats, however, were less favorable with a measure that sought to limit the use of public assistance cards at marijuana centers.

The measure simply sought to ban using the public assistance cards to withdraw cash at ATM machines at marijuana centers across the state.

It would have added marijuana shops to the list of places where recipients of public assistance are prohibited from using their government-issued EBT cards, including casinos, liquor stores and gun shops. The bill would have also added strip clubs to the list of prohibited ATMs.

Senate Bill 37, sponsored by Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, was killed in the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee Wednesday on a 3-2 party-line vote.

Marble had pushed the measure because she is fearful that withdrawals of public benefits at marijuana centers could result in federal scrutiny, pointing out that marijuana remains illegal under federal law and the state is already walking a fine line following legalization.

“Do we want them, or give them reason to come into our marijuana retail sales shops and police them without our knowledge?” asked Marble. “I don’t think so. I think we have a lot to show that we can regulate ourselves.”

Democrats, however, pointed out that it is already illegal under federal law to withdraw public benefits at strip clubs. And they said there is no evidence yet to show that recipients have been using benefits at marijuana centers.

Democrats are also concerned that limiting ATM machines is problematic in low-income neighborhoods where banks can be scarce.

“I’m not comfortable limiting that access until I’m certain we’ve done our due diligence to make sure people can access their benefits when they need to,” surmised Sen. Irene Aguilar, D-Denver.

Shielding journalists

Freshman Sen. Bernie Herpin, R-Colorado Springs, is making a splash with the local media, pushing a measure that would strengthen the state’s media shield law to better protect journalists.

Herpin, who was elected this summer to replace ousted Sen. John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, said he thought of the bill after Fox News reporter Jana Winter faced a legal battle to protect her sources during coverage of the Aurora movie theater massacre.

Senate Bill 34 is modeled after New York’s so-called “Shield Law,” in which a subpoena can be issued against a journalist only if it can be proven that the information is “critical or necessary” to the claim.

The current law in Colorado only requires the requesting party to show the information is “directly relevant” to a case in order to seek a subpoena.

“As a military officer and an elected official, I took an oath to defend our rights,” Herpin addressed the media on Monday. “As a staunch defender of our constitutional rights, I would be remiss if I saw a weakness in a First Amendment right and did nothing to correct it.”

Winter had faced the possibility of jail time for not revealing the names of sources that told her about a notebook that the Aurora movie theater suspect had mailed to a psychiatrist before the July 2012 rampage. Even though a Colorado judge issued a subpoena for Winter to testify, a New York court did not force her to return to Colorado.

“I want to stress that I was not asked to carry this bill by anyone,” added Herpin. “This was initiated by my being aware of a weakness in Colorado’s Shield Law based on a news story I saw.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday heard the measure, where it received witness testimony, but was not voted on. The bill is scheduled for another hearing on Jan. 27 at 1:30 p.m.

“Sen. Herpin’s efforts to protect the public’s right to know are significant and should be commended,” Winter wrote in a statement. “His proposed amendments to Colorado’s Press Shield Law protects not only local journalists and the people of the state of Colorado, but also the public generally, who stand to learn from Colorado’s experiences handling some of the most significant issues of public concern that our nation faces today.”

Pay hike backed for state workers

State workers could be looking at a pay hike after Democrats on the Joint Budget Committee on Monday approved a 3 percent salary increase.

The proposal also includes a 1.5 percent merit-pay increase as part of the budget proposal that lawmakers will debate this spring.

The budget request passed the JBC Monday on a 4-2 party-line vote.

Republicans opposed the budget item, suggesting that it is not prudent to approve a 4.5 percent total increase while the budget is still recovering from years of downturn. The total cost is expected to be $88 million in the first year, according to a fiscal analysis.

The increase would come after lawmakers last year approved a 2 percent raise for state workers. But that was the first pay raise in several years.

The governor’s budget request only called for state employees to receive a 1.5 percent raise, with merit pay of 1.5 percent, while JBC staff recommended a
2 percent salary increase and a 1.5 percent merit pay raise.

Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, who sits on the JBC, said his biggest issue with the proposal is how the increase is being calculated.

“The [salary survey] does not adequately compare all the total compensation, especially the retirement system,” said Lambert.

But state workers say the raise is necessary to keep up with inflation.

“We need a raise to keep up with inflation because we work hard,” said Shelley Marquez, an accountant for the Office of Children, Youth and Family Services. “I actually have two more jobs… One is something that I do on the side to supplement my income.”

Tim Markham, executive director of Colorado WINS, the union that represents state workers, said public workers affect the economy.

“Colorado itself is the state’s largest employer, so what happens to public employees affects our economy statewide,” said Markham. “State workers want to be partners in our economic recovery.”

Hickenlooper gets his appointments

The Senate this week backed two of Gov. John Hickenlooper’s appointments, including posts leading the Department of Corrections and regulating the insurance industry in Colorado.

The Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously recommended Richard Raemisch as the executive director of the Department of Corrections. 

And the Senate Business, Labor and Technology Committee unanimously recommended Marguerite Salazar for the commissioner of insurance and Bonnie Brown Dean for the board of Pinnacol Assurance.

All recommendations head to the full Senate for confirmation.

“Colorado is fortunate to have found such a highly qualified candidate as Rick Raemisch to run its prison and corrections programs,” said Senate President Pro Tem Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Raemisch replaces Tom Clements, who was murdered last year by a parolee.

“Mr. Raemisch is committed to continuing the legacy of his predecessor, Tom Clements, who was in the midst of diligently reforming Colorado’s prisons before his passing last March. My colleagues on Senate Judiciary and I enthusiastically endorse Mr. Raemisch’s appointment…” added Guzman.

As for Salazar, Sen. Lois Tochtrop, D-Thornton, chairwoman of the Senate Business, Labor and Technology Committee, said she brings a “positive force” as insurance commissioner.

“Her knowledge of health care reform at the federal level will be an asset to the Colorado Division of Insurance, as Colorado continues to excel in reform ahead of the nation,” said Tochtrop. “With her guidance, we can continue to help more Coloradans access affordable health care, and address other vital insurance issues like homeowner’s and renter’s insurance in the wake of wildfires.”