Friday, April 18, 2008

Senate Gives Preliminary Nod to Expansion of Sexual Preference Discrimination Ban

The Senate, after a heated and emotional argument over a Republican attempt to equate discrimination against short people with discrimination against gay men and women, gave preliminary approval this morning to a measure that would expand the scope of the state's ban on sexual preference discrimination.

Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, introduced an amendment aimed at preventing private sector discrimination on the basis of height, which provoked a tempestuous, and at times heated, exchange. Brophy argued that gay people don't face different treatment in any area of public life.

“What I’m talking about is economic discrimination, political discrimination, employment discrimination,” Brophy said. “I find no pattern of any of those.”

That statement prompted strong responses from several Senate Democrats.

“It must be nice, as a white male, to sit back and mock the real discrimination that occurs in our society, especially on the basis of sexual orientation,” Sen. Jennifer Veiga, D-Denver, said.

And Sen. Abel Tapia, D-Pueblo, recounted how his son, who is gay, felt compelled to leave Colorado to practice law because he did not believe he would have a fair chance to succeed in this state.

Senate president Peter Groff of Denver also indicated that he was displeased by Brophy's comments.

“Discrimination is a practice that has gone on in this country too long,” Groff said. “It is the birth defect of this country. And I think it’s time we deal with that.”

SB 200 would expand the reach of existing state law preventing discrimination on the basis of race and gender, among other demographic characteristics, in a wide variety of areas, including in housing, places of public accommodation, consumer credit, labor unions and school enrollment, to cover sexual preference.

Last year the General Assembly enacted, and Gov. Bill Ritter signed, a measure that prohibits private employers from making job-related decisions on the basis of a person's sexual preference.

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

Brophy withdrew his amendment before the second reading voice vote took place this morning.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Ritter Signs Wage Transparency Act

Gov. Bill Ritter signed into law Thursday a bill that forbids employers from punishing employees who disclose information about their salaries and wages.

SB 122, the "Wage Transparency Act," does not contradict any authority given employers by federal labor laws. Instead, within the confines of federal law, it prohibits employers from taking any action that might be construed as discipline, or from threatening such actions, in situations where an employee "inquire[s] about, disclose[s], compare[s], or otherwise discusse[s]" compensation.

The new law also forbids employers from requiring employees to sign non-disclosure or confidentiality agreements limiting employees' right to discuss openly the pay they receive.

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

"Colorado College Legacy Fund" Proposal Introduced

Two Republicans introduced Thursday a proposed constitutional amendment requiring that the state's share of mineral lease revenues derived from federal lands be used to create and maintain a reserve fund for higher education.

SCR 007, which aims to create the "Colorado College Legacy Fund," is the vehicle by which a bipartisan group of legislators aims to turn an idea put forth by University of Colorado president Bruce Benson in March into law.

Originally, the measure's sponsors planned to freeze the state's share of federal mineral leasing revenues directed to K-12 education while increasing the share received by higher education and dedicating a portion to local governments to offset expenses relating to energy extraction activities.

However, House speaker Andrew Romanoff, with support from Gov. Bill Ritter, plans to introduce another means by which K-12 education can be stabilized. Romanoff's "SAFE" proposal would eliminate the Taxpayers Bill of Rights requirement that all tax revenues in excess of the TABOR cap be returned to taxpayers, instead directing any surplus into a K-12 "rainy-day" fund.

Meanwhile, Ritter and a host of private sector groups are discussing a number of initiatives aimed at raising extraction taxes on oil and gas developers and directing those taxes to environmental, municipal and other purposes.

SCR 007 is sponsored by Sen. Josh Penry, R-Fruita, and Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma. It was Penry who encouraged Benson to sell the idea of dedicating the state's share of federal mineral leasing fees to higher education.

Senate Says "Yes" to Teach Colorado Program

The Senate passed Thursday a bill that would create a scholarship program for college students who agree to teach in the state's public and charter schools.

SB 133 is aimed at encouraging more students to teach math, science, special education and English. However, the "Teach for Colorado" scholarship program it authorizes is not limited to those fields.

It would make the financial assistance available both to students enrolled in a first bachelors degree program and students who already have bachelors or advanced degrees but who are enrolled in teacher preparation programs at the state's universities.

Students who agree to teach in rural or "high poverty" school districts would get higher priority consideration for the scholarship money.

The bill appropriates $1 million to the Department of Higher Education to launch the "Teach Colorado" program and authorizes the department to accept gifts and grants from the private sector to help fund the program.

SB 133 is sponsored by Sen. Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, and Rep. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood.

The measure must gain approval on third reading in the Senate before being taken up by the House.

Senate Gives Preliminary OK to CAP4K, Adds English Proficiency Requirement

Gov. Bill Ritter's signature education initiative gained preliminary approval in the Senate Thursday after lawmakers decided to require school districts and charter schools to assure that all students are proficient in the use of the English language.

The measure, which has bipartisan sponsorship in both chambers, would require schools to track the readiness of students entering high school, mandate that credit be given by means other than "seat time" in a class, and update the state's curriculum standards.

The Senate adopted an amendment by Sen. Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield, that would add to the curriculum standards a requirement that all students show proficiency in spoken and written English before receiving a diploma. However, it leaves the mechanism for achieving those standards and verifying that a student has achieved them to local school districts and charter schools.

"The goals in SB 212 are not enough--we need to hold districts accountable for reaching and teaching students to speak English," Mitchell said. "If a student spends days, weeks, months and years, in a public school and is eligible to receive a diploma but hasn’t been taught to speak English, its not the student's fault, it's the system's fault. We are failing those students."

SB 212 also phases out the Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP) for ninth and tenth graders over time, replacing it with the American College Test (ACT).

The bill faces one more vote in the Senate before moving on to the House. Its primary sponsors are Reps. Christine Scanlan, D-Dillon, and Rob Witwer, R-Genesee, and Sens. Chris Romer, D-Denver, and Joshua Penry, R-Fruita.

Rep. Morgan Carroll's FAIR Bill Clears First House Hurdle

A bill by Rep. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, that would require health and auto insurance companies to secure the approval of the state insurance commissioner before raising premiums cleared a House committee Thursday.

HB 1389, which has the co-sponsorship of 30 House Democrats, would also give the insurance commissioner authority to punish insurers for wrongfully denying claims.

Representatives of the health insurance industry testified in opposition to the bill, claiming that it is unnecessary because current law allows rejection of rate increases that are discriminatory or excessive.

However, Carroll told the committee that her bill is necessary to slow the high rate of premium increases in the state.

She said that data indicates that the average health insurance premium in Colorado rose 140 percent in the last five years, while the amount of coverage purchased by each dollar of premiums paid fell from $188 to $46 between 2002 and 2007.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation Colorado has the seventh-highest health insurance premiums in the nation.

Thirty-eight other states require prior approval of a government regulator before insurance rate increases can take effect.

Senate Clears Romanoff's B.E.S.T. Bill

A bill that would allocate nearly $1 billion toward the repair of decaying and dangerous public school facilities around the state got the final approval of the Senate Thursday.

HB 1335 would tap the state's school trust lands to raise about $500 million. Romanoff proposes that about $30-$40 million of revenues from natural resource exploitation conducted on those lands be used to make payments on necessary capital obtained via debt instruments.

The other portion of the total amount to be dedicated to school renovation and repairs would come from local contributions.

Colorado's school trust lands were granted to the state upon admission to the union and on condition that they be used to benefit school children. However, the state has never before had a structured mechanism for tapping into revenues generated on those lands for the benefit of public schools.

Public school buildings across the state are aging. According to a news release issued by the House majority communications office, hazards include failing roofs, structural problems, inadequate fire safety, faulty and dangerous boilers, absestos and carbon monoxide contamination.

The bill must return to the House for consideration of Senate amendments before heading to Gov. Bill Ritter's desk.

Democrats Peter Groff of Denver and Gail Schwartz of Snowmass Village sponsored HB 1335 in the Senate.

Five Republicans opposed the measure in today's vote, including Sens. Bill Cadman and Dave Schultheis of Colorado Springs, Ted Harvey of Highlands Ranch, Steve Johnson of Fort Collins, and Tom Wiens of Castle Rock.

Ritter, Suthers Endorse Romanoff's SAFE Proposal

Speaker Andrew Romanoff's proposal to untangle the state constitution's fiscal knot received the endorsement of the two most powerful members of the executive branch Thursday.

Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter and Republican attorney general John Suthers attended a news conference for supporters of Romanoff's idea at the Capitol.

Ritter called the so-called "SAFE" proposal, which would permanently "de-Bruce" the state budget by allowing the General Assembly to appropriate funds that exceed the TABOR cap and eliminate the Amendment 23 education funding mandate, "bold and elegant."

However, the governor also made clear the criteria that must be met for him to support whatever resolution asking the voters for a constitutional amendment emerges from the legislature.

“I have insisted that this proposal protects Senate Bill 1 transportation dollars, similar to how it is protected in current law," Ritter said. "Transportation funding is a top priority and we must ensure that Senate Bill 1 is funded whenever possible."

Romanoff's proposal would require that all revenues generated by existing taxes in excess of six percent growth over the prior year's budget be routed into transportation funding.

Ritter also emphasized that any constitutional fix must assure the permanent solvency of any rainy-day fund set up to replace the Amendment 23 mandate.

“I will also insist that this proposal ensures our rainy day fund for K-12 remains solvent," Ritter said. "We have taken steps to restore this fund’s solvency and I am committed to ensuring it remains solvent. Flexibility cannot come on the backs of our children.”

According to a news release issued by the House majority communications office, other supporters of the SAFE proposal include Sen. Steve Johnson, R-Fort Collins, Rep. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, state treasurer Cary Kennedy, and numerous education and business leaders.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Levy's Judges Bill Becomes Law

A bill that would prohibit state trial judges from hearing cases to which current or former colleagues on the bench are parties was signed into law this week.

HB 1193 was signed by Gov. Bill Ritter Monday.

The measure was inspired by a controversy surrounding an adverse possession case in Boulder County. The district judge hearing the case, which involved a land dispute between a former member of the same court and his wife and their neighbors, did not recuse himself.

Under the new law, which takes effect in August, either party to a lawsuit can request the judge to recuse himself or herself if the opposing party is a current or former member of the same court. The judge would have to grant the request and the state supreme court would appoint a judge from another district to hear the case.

Sponsor Claire Levy, D-Boulder, said she introduced the measure after the land dispute involving former Boulder County judge Richard McLean caused some observers to question whether Judge James C. Klein should have refused to hear the case.

McLean, who also served as Boulder mayor, sat on the district court in Boulder County for 15 years.

Another measure, aimed at toughening requirements to obtain title to land under the centuries-old adverse possession doctrine, awaits Ritter's signature.

Romanoff Floats Fix of Conflicting Fiscal Mandates in Constitution

Speaker Andrew Romanoff, D-Denver, thinks the General Assembly should ask the voters to reconcile the conflicting demands of the Taxpayers Bill of Rights and Amendment 23.

Romanoff says he will introduce a resolution asking the voters to approve a constitutional amendment that eliminates the mandatory tax refund aspects of TABOR while also eliminating the requirement that public school funding grow by the rate of inflation plus one percent through 2011.

According to a report in the Durango Herald, Romanoff plans to propose that the funds not returned to the taxpayers in years when the state gains revenue in excess of the TABOR base instead be placed in a "rainy day" account dedicated to K-12 education.

The proposal thus would preserve the TABOR requirement that Coloradans be given a chance to vote on tax increases while replacing the Amendment 23 funding mandate with a reserve dedicated to public education.

A resolution proposing a constitutional amendment would have to receive supporting votes from two-thirds of the members in each chamber in order to be placed on this autumn's ballot.

Because the Democrats hold only 40 seats in the House, they would need the votes of four Republicans to achieve that threshold. The Herald report says that Rep. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, is considering whether to support it. Romanoff would likely also turn to Joint Budget Committee member Al White, R-Hayden, Rep. Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, Rep. Rob Witwer, R-Genesee, Rep. Jim Kerr, R-Lakewood, and Rep. Ken Summers, R-Lakewood, for support.

Minority Leader Mike May of Parker was quoted in the Herald report as saying the GOP caucus was not inclined to support Romanoff's initiative.

Over in the Senate, the Democratic majority would need four GOP senators to approve the resolution. Sen. Steve Johnson, R-Fort Collins, has signaled support for the idea. Other possible Republican supporters could include Sen. Nancy Spence of Centennial, Joshua Penry of Fruita, Steve Ward of Littleton, Ken Kester of Las Animas, and Jack Taylor of Steamboat Springs.

A resolution incorporating Romanoff's proposal has not yet been introduced.

Architect Continuing Education Requirement Gets Preliminary House Approval

The House gave preliminary approval today to a measure that will require architects to fulfill continuing education requirements in order to maintain their licenses.

SB 29 would add Colorado to the list of 34 other states that have imposed a similar requirement.

"As you may know, the architects take their registration exam to become an architect, and that's basically it," sponsor Rep. David Balmer, R-Centennial, said. He said the bill is important to assure that architects are designing buildings as safely as possible.

Democrat Paul Weissman of Louisville argued that former Gov. Bill Owens was correct to veto a similar bill several years ago.

"I generally supported Governor Owens in his position on continuing ed," Weissman said. "What they sometimes become, and this is what Governor Owens talked about, is trips for tax write-offs. I agreed with the Governor in questioning the value."

Balmer, the assistant minority leader, pointed out that the state's architects association and the Department of Regulatory Affairs support the bill. He said DORA suggested changes that would link continuing education to certification requirements and emphasized the public safety implications of continuing education standards.

"Architects are designing buildings that have to be safe," Balmer said. "So I think it is very appropriate that they have continuing education."

Rep. Randy Fischer, D-Fort Collins, argued that Colorado should extend the requirement to engineers as well.

House GIves Preliminary Approval to Information Technology Centralization Bill

The House gave preliminary approval this morning to a bipartisan bill that would centralize administration of the state's information technology programs in a news Office of Information Technology.

"We have witnessed Colorado's IT wins and losses," sponsor Rep. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, said. "Unfortunately the losses have come far too often and have been far too costly. There's no doubt that this plan and the Colorado consolidation plan will move Colorado's future IT projects into the win column."

"Up to this point we've had a disjointed, disassociated and disconnected system," Rep. Dorothy Butcher, D-Pueblo, said. "Hopefully we'll be able to bring all our systems into this century and make sure they operate."

Under current law each of the executive branch's 16 agencies, as well as the state's legislative and judicial branches, operate their own computer information systems. According to the governor's office, Colorado spends more than $270 million each year on information technology resources.

The House rejected an amendment by Rep. Douglas Bruce, R-Colorado Springs, to remove the emergency clause from SB 155.

The bill must gain approval on third reading before heading back to the Senate for consideration of House amendments.

It would not affect management of the legislative and judicial branches' computer systems.