Friday, March 28, 2008

Senate Appropriations Sidelines Effort to Ban Porn Sales to Kids

A bill that would have made it a crime to sell pornography to minors in the state died in the Senate Appropriations Committee Friday.

SB 125 was a broad effort to shield minors from exposure to nudity or displays of sexual activity. The bill provided that violation of the ban would be a misdemeanor.

The bill's specific criteria for determining whether sex-related material violated the ban is one source of the controversy surrounding the proposal. The language employed by bill sponsor Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, was as follows:

"A material or performance is deemed harmful to minors if the material or performance depicts nudity or sexual activity and if the material or performance, when taken as a whole, meets the following criteria:

(a) a reasonable adult person would find that the material or performance has a predominant tendency to appeal to the prurient interest of minors; and
(b) a reasonable adult person would find that the depiction of nudity or sexual activity in the material or performance is patently offensive to prevailing standards in the adult community concerning what is suitable for minors; and
(c) a reasonable adult person would find that the material or performance lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors."

This language was drawn from a federal statute called the Child Online Protection Act, which was enacted into law by Congress in 1998. That law and a predecessor called the Communications Decency Act were ruled unconstitutional as a violation of the First Amendment in two cases decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Court has held that the First Amendment does allow legislatures greater latitude to restrict the access of minors to pornographic material to minors than would be allowed for adults, but there is uncertainty about whether this "community standard" criteria is constitutional. The Court did not have a majority of its members agreeing that the First Amendment allows pornographic material to be banned with such language in either of the cases ruling on the constitutionality of COPA or CDA.

In addition, opponents of the bill have raised concerns that, whether or not it is consistent with the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, it has a higher likelihood of being in conflict with the state constitution's speech clause.

In any event, the decision by the Appropriations Committee turned on money, not the freedom of speech.

Republican Sen. Steve Johnson of Fort Collins was apparently perplexed by the majority's conclusion that there's not enough to pay for the bill's mandate.

"There is an appropriate, unexpended, unaccounted for funding source," Johnson said.

SB 125 had previously been approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee when Sen. Dan Gibbs, D-Silverthorne, joined with three Republicans on that committee to support the measure.

CAP4K Clears First Hurdle

Gov. Bill Ritter's far-reaching proposal to re-structure the state's public education system won approval from a Senate committee Thursday, clearing its first hurdle on the way to the lawbooks.

SB 212, which incorporates the governor's "Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids (CAP4K)", was approved by the Senate Education Committee on a unanimous, bipartisan vote.

CAP4K, which Ritter introduced at a press conference last month,has four principal elements:

1. The state Board of Education and Colorado Commission on Higher Education would be required to establish definitions of school readiness and college and workforce readiness.
2. The state's Model Content Standards that guide the high school curriculum would be expanded and improved. They would apply to all grades from pre-school to the first year of college (standards currently only exist for grades 3 through 10) and align those standards with the content and skills needed for success after high school.
3. The school readiness assessment program would be based on a goal of assuring that all students who graduate from high school are ready for college and/or the workforce.
4. Post-secondary institution admission policies would be modified to allow students to earn credit by proving their proficiency in a particular subject as opposed to limiting the circumstances under which knowledge can be assumed to a student's completion of a course.

Among the means used to assess student proficiency would be a series of subject-based examinations that would replace the CSAP tests.

SB 212 now goes to the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The bill's bipartisan prime sponsors include Reps. Christine Scanlan, D-Dillon, and Rob Witwer, R-Genesee, and Sens. Chris Romer, D-Denver, and Josh Penry, R-Fruita.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Senate Committee OK's Constitutional Lock on Transportation Spending

A Senate committee approved Thursday a resolution that would ask the state's voters to amend Colorado's constitution to assure that revenues from all sales and use taxes related to automobiles could be used only for transportation projects.

SCR 2 proposes a constitutional amendment requiring the tax revenues from auto-related sources to be routed into the state highway fund and available only to the Colorado Department of Transportation.

If approved by the electorate, the constitutional amendment would allow the General Assembly to divert revenues derived from auto-related sales to other purposes only if two-thirds of the members in each chamber voted to do so.

The measure would assure that about $300 million per year would be available for highway projects, according to sponsor Sen. Andy McElhany, R-Colorado Springs.

The proposed constitutional amendment, if approved by both chambers of the General Assembly and the voters, would be the second instance of using the state constitution to constrain the legislature's discretion to reduce spending on particular areas of the state budget.

Amendment 23, approved in 2000, requires the General Assembly to increase funding for K-12 education by the rate of inflation plus one percent per year through 2011 and then by the rate of inflation each year after that.

SCR 2 is sponsored in the House by minority leader Mike May, R-Parker.

Gov. Bill Ritter appointed a commission to study transportation issues in Colorado in April 2007. But the governor has not suggested any specific legislation based on the recommendations of the Transportation Finance and Implementation Panel, which were issued in January 2008.

McElhany's I-70 Toll Bill Passes Senate Committee

A bill that would require all motorists on I-70 to pay a toll at the Eisenhower tunnel cleared a Senate committee today.

SB 213, sponsored by Sen. Andy McElhany, R-Colorado Springs, was approved on a 5-2 vote. Among the senators voting "yes" were five co-sponsors of the measure.

The decision by the Senate Transportation Committee came after about two hours of testimony. Most of the witnesses testifying before the committee spoke against the bill. In fact, other than McElhany, the only person speaking in favor of the bill was Denver Chamber of Commerce president Joe Blake.

McElhany's bill would authorize the state to collect a toll of up to $5 on all cars and trucks moving in both directions on I-70.

McElhany, who is the Senate minority leader, said his bill aims only to secure a mechanism for funding whatever recommendations come out of the state department of transportation I-70 study process now underway.

The committee killed a competing proposal by Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver. SB 209 would have charged tolls on vehicles with less than three occupants only at peak travel times.

Proposal to Change Initiative Process Introduced in Senate

A bipartisan group of lawmakers has introduced a resolution that would ask the state's voters to toughen the requirements for amending the state's constitution.

SCR 003 adopts the recommendations of the General Assembly's Joint Select Committee on Constitutional Reform. It asks the voters to approve a constitutional amendment that would require petitions for a new statute to secure signatures from four percent of the voters who cast a ballot for governor in the last election in order to get the proposal on the ballot.

For initiatives that propose a constitutional amendment, the proposal would require proponents to obtain the signatures of six percent of the voters who cast a ballot for governor in the last election.

The voters would also be asked to require constitutional amendment petitions to garner signatures from each of Colorado's Congressional districts.

The resolution goes first to the Senate State, Veterans & Military Affairs Committee. If approved there, it moves on to the Senate.

The primary sponsors of SCR 003 are Sen. Abel Tapia, D-Pueblo, and Rep. Al White, R-Hayden.

DNA Bill Clears Senate

The Senate has given final clearance to a bill that guarantees prison inmates a new trial if law enforcement authorities fail to preserve DNA evidence.

SB 205, which was motivated by the case of a Denver resident convicted of rape on the basis of the victim's testimony that she saw him in a dream, passed third reading Wednesday on a 23-9 vote.

Sponsoring Sen. Ken Gordon, D-Denver, introduced the measure as a response to the loss by Denver police of DNA evidence in the case of Clarence Moses-El. Denver police threw away the DNA evidence despite a 1995 court order requiring the agency to keep it.

The "no" votes were all cast by Republicans, including by bill co-sponsors Scott Renfroe, R-Eaton, David Schultheis, R-Colorado Springs, Steve Ward, R-Littleton, and Tom Wiens, R-Castle Rock.

The bill requires a court to grant an convicted felon a new trial "in a case in which material evidence containing DNA or some other kind of evidence that is subject to a preservation order or an order for release and testing is destroyed, lost, or otherwise disposed of before the evidence may be used for the purpose for which it is being preserved."

Current Colorado law does not require that evidence in a criminal case be preserved for any specific period of time. Another bill under consideration at the General Assembly would require law enforcement authorities to keep DNA evidence for various periods of time, depending on the nature of the crime and the specific DNA evidence at issue.

Timothy Masters, a Fort Collins man convicted in 1998 of a 1987 murder, was recently released from prison, and his conviction was reversed, after DNA evidence preserved in his case proved that he could not have committed the murder.

SB 205 now heads to the House.

Energy Efficiency Bill Hits Senate Roadblock

A bill that would require most of the state's municipal utilities and rural electric cooperatives to set aside some of their revenues to fund energy conservation efforts was derailed, at least temporarily, in a Senate committee Wednesday.

HB 1107 applies to municipal utilities and rural electric cooperatives that have at least 5,000 customers. The bill specifies that those entities would have to dedicate one percent of their revenues in 2009 and two percent of revenues in succeeding years to programs aimed at encouraging their customers to use less electricity.

A similar requirement affecting Colorado's investor-owned utilities, such as Excel, is already in effect. The General Assembly mandated such programs for the IOUs in 2007.

During Wednesday's hearing before the State, Veterans & Military Affairs Committee, Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver, succeeded in amending the bill to limit its applicability to rural electric cooperatives with more than 85,000 members. Romer's amendment entirely removed the municipal utilities from the mandate in the bill.

However, the committee then voted 2-2 on the bill. Without a majority of the five-member committee voting to send it to the Senate Appropriations Committee, the bill is in limbo.

According to a report by John Ingold in the Denver Post's Colorado Capitol Insider blog, committee chair Sen. Abel Tapia, D-Pueblo, said he worries about the impact of the bill on utility rates for lower-income families but that he would keep an open mind about moving the measure out of committee.

According to the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, the bill would inject about $32 million per year into energy conservation programs around the state, resulting in a reduction of electricity use by 1.5 billion kilowatt-hours (KwH) by 2020, an amount equivalent to the annual use of electricity by 170,000 average Colorado households. Colorado residential and business utility consumers would save $600 million in electricity rates between 2008 and 2020.

The bill was approved by the House, 33-32, on Feb. 27. It was sponsored in the House by Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder. The Senate sponsor is Sen. Jennifer Veiga, D-Denver.

I-70 Bills Get Hearings Today

Two bills aimed at reducing congestion on I-70 through the Rocky Mountains will be heard by a Senate committee today.

Both bills, introduced by Sens. Chris Romer, D-Denver, and Andy McElhany, R-Colorado Springs, contemplate tolls on the highway. Romer's proposal would assess the tolls on vehicles carrying three or fewer people and which are traveling during peak use periods. McElhany's bill proposes to charge tolls at all times.

The Romer bill would use money generated by the tolls to pay for mass transit expansion along the corridor, while the minority leader's measure would use the money to add additional lanes to the highway.

A report in today's Rocky Mountain News says that Colorado has already been given authority by the federal government to charge tolls on the interstate highway.

Some West Slope lawmakers are critical of the measures.

According to a report in this morning's Denver Post, Sen. Dan Gibbs, D-Silverthorne, thinks the General Assembly will be dealing with "Johnny-come-lately," since there is an ongoing review process underway. And the article quotes Rep. Christine Scanlan, D-Dillon, as saying there is no "magic bullet" to solve the I-70 congestion problems.

The state department of transportation has been sponsoring a collaborative study of possible ways to ease traffic woes on I-70.

The Rocky Mountain Rail Authority is also examining the feasibility of developing a high-speed passenger rail system for the I-70 corridor.

The bills are SB 209 (Romer) and SB 213 (McElhany).

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Kopp's CSAP Bill Killed

The Senate Education Committee killed Wednesday a bill aimed at helping students who fail the 10th grade CSAP test.

SB 199 would have established a pilot program under which students in ten school districts who fail the sophomore year CSAP exam would take a diagnostic test in 11th grade. That test would be aimed at determining the student's particular deficiencies and would be followed by remedial coursework and then another diagnostic exam at the end of the junior year.

Kopp said during the hearing that state education commissioner Dwight Jones had indicated support for his bill.

"The commissioner appreciated how it would have helped close the achievement gap," Kopp said.

School district participation in the program would have been voluntary.

The bill was the first-ever effort to install a statewide effort to help high school students that fail the CSAP. It would have created a program under which participating higher education institutions could grant college credit to 10th graders who achieve very high scores on the CSAP exam.

Ritter Signs Net Metering Bill

Gov. Bill Ritter signed Wednesday a bill that will require the state's municipal utilities and rural electric cooperatives to grant credit on the electric bills of their customers who generate power from renewable sources.

HB 1160, sponsored by Rep. Judy Solano, D-Brighton, caps the amount of "home-grown" power for which a utility must give credit. Residential generators can get credit on their electricity bills for up to 10 kilowatt-hours of power, while commercial users can get credit for up to 25 KwH.

"This marks another momentous step forward as we engage homeowners and businesses in participating in the New Energy Economy," Ritter said. "This bill brings fair and equitable net-metering policies to citizens throughout the state, and it encourages more residential investment in renewable energy while supporting its use in rural communities."

The measure allows the municipal utilities and rural electric cooperatives to require the customer-generator to provide insurance and comply with technical interconnection standards. It does not apply to municipal utilities with less than 5,000 customers. It applies to power generated from solar, wind and hot water systems.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, 42 states plus the District of Columbia have net metering laws in effect. Amendment 37, passed by the state's voters in 2004, imposed net metering requirements on investor-owned utilities operating in Colorado.

Payday Loan Rate Cap Subject of Odd Senate Maneuvering

A controversial bill that would cap the interest rates and fees that could be charged by "payday lenders" received initial approval by the Senate Tuesday, but then the Senate reversed itself and, in an unexpected move, sent the bill back to committee.

HB 1310 has drawn vociferous opposition from the industry because it caps the annual interest rate that can be charged on short-term loans at 45%.

Under current law so-called "payday" lenders can charge fees that add up to an equivalent annual interest rate of 390%.

Data collected by the Office of the Attorney General indicates that the average borrower of a short-term loan was loaned $353.88 for a period of about 5 1/2 months. That average borrower paid $573.06 in finance charges.

The Senate, after approving the bill by voice vote in a close divide, sent it back to the appropriations committee to consider an amendment by Sen. Jennifer Veiga, D-Denver, requiring establishment of a financial literacy program. That program would be funded by a ten cent per loan fee.

The ill-fated vote to initially approve HB 1310 was 19-16, with Sen. Lois Tochtrop, D-Thornton, joining the Republicans in opposition.

Rep. Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, and Senate president Peter Groff, D-Denver, are the principal sponsors of the measure.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Nursing Mothers Bill Keeps Moving

A bill that would require Colorado employers to accommodate nursing mothers' need to breastfeed their infants or pump milk gained final approval in the Senate Monday and now heads to Gov. Bill Ritter.

HB 1276 provides that employers have to give female employees reasonable amounts of unpaid break time and/or paid breaks and/or mealtime in order to allow breastfeeding or pumping for up to two years after the employee's child is born.

The measure also requires employers to make "reasonable efforts" to provide privacy to the employee by means of a separate room and not a toilet stall.

The bill specifies that an employer does not have to take on any "undue hardship" to comply with the law. That phrase is has a meaning that is dependent on the financial condition and size of a business, the nature of its operations, and considerations of public safety.

The proposed "Workplace Accommodations for Nursing Mothers Act" was sponsored in the House by Rep. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, and in the Senate by Sen. Dan Gibbs, D-Silverthorne.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 14 other states have laws that touch on the right of female employees to expel milk at work.

Rep. Levy's Judges Bill Clears Senate

A bill that would prevent judges from hearing cases in which one of their colleagues is a party has cleared the Senate.

HB 1193 is a response to the kind of situation that occurred in a controversial Boulder adverse possession case last year, in which one of the winning plaintiffs had been a judge on the district court in which the dispute was decided.

The measure, sponsored by Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, will return to the House for consideration of a technical amendment concerning the state's water courts added in the Senate.

DNA Bill Gets Initial Senate Approval

Although several members listed as co-sponsors decided not to vote for their bill, a measure that would grant convicted felons a new trial when law enforcement authorities lose or fail to keep DNA evidence passed the Senate on its first test this morning.

SB 205, which is sponsored by 26 senators, was approved on a voice vote.

However, some of those who had signed on to sponsor it ended up opposing it.

Sen. Tom Wiens, R-Castle Rock, was among them. He said that he believes there are "plenty of other opportunities" to remedy loss of evidence. Sen. Josh Penry, R-Fruita, argued that the bill will benefit only one man.

Sen. Ken Gordon, D-Denver, has said he was inspired to draft and introduce the bill because of the situation surrounding Clarence Moses-El, who was convicted of a 1987 rape on the basis of a the victim's testimony that she had seen his face in a dream. The Denver Police Department discarded the DNA evidence gathered during the investigation of the crime in 1995 despite a court order requiring its preservation. Moses-El has always maintained his innocence.

Sen. Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield, disagreed with GOP colleagues Wiens and Penry. "As awful as it may be for a victim or a victim’s family to contemplate a retrial, our first responsibility here ought to be for justice," Mitchell said.

The bill faces a final vote in the Senate before moving on to the House.