Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Western Painted Turtle is State's Official Reptile

The Western painted turtle, the most widespread species of turtle in the United States, is now officially recognized as Colorado's state reptile.

Gov. Bill Ritter signed HB 1017 Tuesday in front of an audience of Skyline Vista Elementary School students.

Students from Skyline Vista asked their state representative, Democrat Cherilyn Peniston of Westminster, to introduce a bill granting the turtle official recognition after learning that Colorado did not have a state reptile.

"Congratulations to all of you for taking an idea, bringing it to lawmakers at the Capitol, and turning that idea into a law," Ritter said. "You should all be very proud of yourselves for getting involved in our democratic process."

According to a website maintained by the Center for Reptile and Amphibian Conservation and Management, Western painted turtles are the largest of the nation's four species of painted turtles and can range from four to ten inches in length. They have webbed feet for swimming and spend most of their time in shallow lakes, streams and rivers.

Chrysemis picta belli got their common name from their colorful lower shells, which are brightly colored red with yellow and olive designs, according to a website maintained by the Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center, a unit of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Photo courtesy U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Last Ethics Commission Member Named

The Colorado Independent Ethics Commission is finally fully staffed.

The other members of the body created to enforce Amendment 41 selected Larry Lasha, a Fremont County commissioner, as the unaffiliated member of the commission.

He is the fifth and final member, meaning the IEC can now proceed to implement the citizen-passed ethics measure.

Lasha has been a county commissioner since 2002. He was formerly a firefighter and the Florence city manager.

Colorado Common Cause executive director Jenny Rose Flanagan said she is optimistic that Lasha's appointment will lead to resolution of some of the controversies surrounding Amendment 41.

"It's a strong group of people who are committed to the work," Flanagan said. "The framework of the law lays out very clearly that violations have to be related to your public office and have to amount to private gain. Things like going on a date or borrowing a lawnmower, things like that, are clearly outside the realm of public service."

Flanagan said she does not expect many ethics complaints to be lodged now that the IEC is operational.

"I guess we anticipate, more so than complaints, requests for advisory opinions so that the commission can offer guidance on some of the questions raised over the past few years," she said.

The Colorado Supreme Court recently ruled that a lower court injunction blocking enforcement of Amendment 41 should be vacated. The court did not, however, decide whether the expansive ethics measure is consistent with the U.S. Constitution. The plaintiffs in the case before the Court have argued that Amendment 41 violates the First Amendment.

Flanagan believes Amendment 41, which is codified as Article 28 of the state constitution, is constitutional.

"I'm definitely optimistic that it will be upheld," she said. "Ethics laws and gift bans are commonplace around the country and have been affirmed time and again."

The other four members of the IEC are Democrats Roy Wood and Nancy Friedman and Republicans Sally Hopper, a former state senator, and Philip M."Matt" Smith, a former state representative.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

State Auditor to Investigate Paroles

The Office of the State Auditor will investigate an increase in paroles granted to state penitentiary inmates and may release preliminary findings by June.

The Legislative Audit Committee requested the probe after eight Republicans signed a letter raising concerns about an increase of more than 100 inmates per month in early 2007 than had been paroled in a similar period in 2006.

The Department of Corrections says that about half of those granted early release in the period in 2007 under scrutiny left prison only two or three days before their terms ended. Department spokesperson Katherine Sanguinetti was quoted in a Denver Post article published March 14 as saying that the percentage of inmates granted discretionary parole, as opposed to mandatory parole, has not increased.

The Legislative Audit Committee has eight members, four from each party, and is chaired by Rep. James Kerr, R-Littleton.

Senate Passes Strike Ban Bill

The Senate gave initial approval Tuesday to a bill that would prohibit state employees from going on strike, but not without a fight from Republicans.

HB 1189 would make striking a misdemeanor. It also applies to encouragement or incitement of a strike. The measure applies to work slowdowns as well as full-fledged strikes.

The criminal penalty could be imposed both on individuals and a labor organization. Individuals could be fined $50 per day for violating the law, while organizations could be hit with a $1,000 per day fine.

GOP senators offered numerous amendments in an attempt to impose tougher penalties for going on strike. Republicans had offered a separate bill earlier in the session, since killed, that would have made public employee strikes a felony and barred strikes by other public employees including teachers and RTD drivers.

All of the Republican amendments failed, despite GOP arguments that stronger penalties are needed to protect taxpayers from interruptions of vital public functions that Republican senators said might result from Gov. Bill Ritter's autumn 2007 executive order allowing formation of some employee bargaining units in state government.

"We wouldn't be having this debate in the first place if the governor hadn't opened up this can of worms with his executive order," Sen. Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield, said.

Democratic sponsor Sen. Dan Gibbs, D-Silverthorne, argued that the bill does what is necessary to protect against state employee strikes without interfering with Gov. Bill Ritter's efforts to improve working conditions for state employees and government efficiency.

"This is about ensuring we have decent salaries and we have decent health insurance,” he said. “This is not about striking. This is about quality of life.”

In the end, Republicans supported the bill on grounds that it was a better alternative than having no prohibition against strikes in state law.

"It's not a terribly strong bill, but it's the only bill in front of us to try to accomplish what needs to be done," minority leader Andy McElhany, R-Colorado Springs, said.

The bill faces a final vote in the Senate before going to Ritter.

Evan Dreyer, a spokesperson for Ritter, said the governor is likely to sign the bill.

"He has said repeatedly he would sign it," Dreyer said. "We don't think it's necessary, but if the legislature thinks so, he'll sign it."

Dreyer also said that Ritter does not consider the strike ban bill to be inconsistent with his executive order authorizing some collective bargaining activities by state employees.

"It is in keeping with the executive order," Dreyer said.

Attorney General John Suthers said shortly after Ritter's executive order was issued that it did not and could not prohibit state employees from striking.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Sunday Liquor Sales Bill Gets Preliminary House OK

The House gave preliminary approval Monday to a bill that will allow liquor stores to open on Sundays.

SB 82 would take effect July 1. The House defeated a proposed amendment by Rep. Douglas Bruce, R-Colorado Springs, to strip the bill's "emergency clause." That means the measure is not subject to a referendum.

The bill is sponsored by Sen. Jennifer Veiga, D-Denver, and Rep. Cheri Jahn, D-Golden.

Bill Banning Firing for Talking About Pay Clears House

The House gave final approval Monday to a bill that would prohibit employers from punishing employees for disclosing the amount they are paid.

SB 122 declares that it is an unfair labor practice for an employer to "discharge, discipline, discriminate against, coerce, intimidate, threaten, or interfere with any employee or other person because the employee inquired about, disclosed, compared or otherwise discussed the employee's wages."

The bill also applies to situations where an employer requires, as a condition of employment, nondisclosure of wages earned and bans employers from requiring a signed waiver of an employee's right to disclose his or her wage information.

The proposed "Wage Transparency Act" exempts employer actions permitted by federal law and does not apply to employers not subject to the National Labor Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. section 151 et seq.

The 37-26 vote on the measure followed party lines, except for the "no" vote cast by Rep. Bernie Buescher, D-Grand Junction. Reps. Kathleen Curry, D-Gunnison, and Rafael Lorenzo Gallegos, D-Antonito, were absent and did not vote.

Advocates maintain that the measure is needed to facilitate awareness of unequal pay for women and between employees of different races.

SB 122 is sponsored by Sen. Sue Windels, D-Arvada, and Rep. Terrance Carroll, D-Denver.

The bill heads back to the Senate for consideration of amendments approved by the House.

Primavera to Introduce Stem Cell Bill Tuesday

A bill that would encourage the preservation and collection of stem cells from umbilical cord blood collected in hospitals around Colorado will be introduced by Rep. Dianne Primavera, D-Broomfield, on Tuesday.

According to a press release issued by the House Majority Caucus press office, the collected cord blood would be used to foster efforts aimed at reducing or curing cancer.

Primavera is scheduled to discuss her bill at a news conference at 2 pm Tuesday at the Capitol. She'll be joined by Dr Brian Freed, executive director of ClinImmune Labs and the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center Cord Blood Bank; Dr. Peter McSweeney of the Rocky Mountain Blood and Marrow Transplant Program; Dr. Ralph Quinones, Medical Director at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center Cord Blood Bank; and Dr. Chris Carey, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Denver Health.

Budget Headed for Introduction in the House Next Week

Speaker Andrew Romanoff, D-Denver, said Monday that the FY 2009 budget would be introduced in the House next Monday, March 24.

Romanoff made the announcement during his regular weekly press conference.

Net Metering Bill To Be Signed Next Week

A bill that would require all municipal utilities and rural electric cooperatives in the state to offer "net metering" programs to customers who generate "home-grown power" from solar panels, wind turbines or the like is likely to be signed into law next week, according to House speaker Andrew Romanoff.

Romanoff said during his weekly press conference Monday afternoon that HB 1160, which he called "one of the most significant bills of the decade," would be approved by Gov. Bill Ritter at a solar energy facility.

The proposal would limit the amount of customer-generated power for which utilities subject to its requirements must grant credit on an electricity bill. For residential customers, the maximum is ten kilowatts. For commercial or industrial electricity users, the limit is 25 kilowatts. A utility could choose to grant credit on an electric bill for generation of more than that specified maximum amount of power.

HB 1160 does not apply to all municipal utilities. Only those with more than 5,000 customers are subject to the law. Rural electric cooperatives would be authorized to require customers seeking to take advantage of net metering programs to meet specified interconnection standards and provide appropriate insurance.

The lead sponsor of the bill is Rep. Judy Solano, D-Brighton. It was carried in the Senate by Sen. Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, and Sen. Jim Isgar, D-Hesperus.

According to a website maintained by the American Wind Energy Association, 30 states currently require utilities to grant net metering credit to at least some customers who generate their own power. The U.S. Department of Energy has published a map that shows a state-by-state summary of net metering laws around the nation.