Friday, April 25, 2008

Highlights from Tuesday at the General Assembly

Your reporter was taking a much-needed break during the middle part of this week and so there were no updates for happenings at the Capitol between Tuesday and Thursday. Here are some of the highlights from Tuesday, April 22.

The House gave final passage to a measure aimed at helping legal immigrants obtain necessary clearance to be able to work on the state's farms. A large bipartisan majority endorsed HB 1325 one day after a Colorado Springs Republican representative set off a kirfuffle after announcing during floor debate that he believed the bill would invite thousands of "illiterate peasants" to Colorado.

The bill, which is being carried by Calhan Republican Marsha Looper and Montrose Republican Ray Rose, allows Colorado to speed up the process of issuing H-2A visas. Currently, application processing by the relevant federal authorities is so backlogged that it is taking, in some cases, about five months to issue the visas to qualified legal immigrants. HB 1325 will allow the state to assist the federal government with the process, accelerating visa application processing by up to three months. The measure also allows Colorado to undertake criminal background checks and health screenings of legal temporary workers.

The aim of the bill is to increase the number of qualified, lawful immigrant workers to assist with Colorado harvests. It includes incentives intended to help assure that the temporary, visa-receiving workers return to their home countries after the growing season.

The House vote on third reading was 46-18, with the "no" votes coming from members of both parties. Aside from Rep. Douglas Bruce, who made known his opposition by means of his controversial statement on Monday, opponents included Reps. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, Sara Gagliardi, D-Arvada, Cory Gardner, R-Yuma, Jim Kerr, R-Lakewood, Steve King, R-Grand Junction, Rosemary Marshall, D-Denver, Mike May, R-Parker, Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, Victor Mitchell, R-Castle Pines Village, Jack Pommer, D-Boulder, Dianne Primavera, D-Broomfield, Amy Stephens, R-Monument, Ken Summers, R-Lakewood, Paul Weissman, D-Louisville, and Rob Witwer, R-Genesee, as well as speaker Andrew Romanoff, D-Denver.

Under an H-2A visa foreign temporary agriculture workers can work in the U.S. for up to one year, with a maximum of three years possible under a single visa.

The House also gave final clearance to a measure allowing some persons convicted of certain misdemeanor crimes, which are generally minor in nature, to ask a court to order the conviction records sealed ten years after completing his or her sentence. The bill does not apply to any sex crime and does not preclude access to the records by government agencies engaged in necessary criminal background checks of an individual.

HB 1082 passed, 36-28, with Democrats Bernie Buescher of Grand Junction, Sara Gagliardi of Arvada, Dianne Primavera of Broomfield, Jim Riesberg of Fort Collins, John Soper of Thornton and speaker Andrew Romanoff of Denver joining all but two Republicans in opposition. Reps. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, and Al White, R-Hayden, were the only two GOP members to support the bill.

Freshman Rep. Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, is the prime sponsor of HB 1082.

The House also gave preliminary approval to a comprehensive residential landlord-tenant bill. HB 1356, if enacted, would represent the culmination of more than twenty efforts over forty years to have Colorado join almost every other state in having a residential landlord-tenant code in the state law books. Rep. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, is the lead sponsor of the bill.

Over in the Senate a Republican measure aimed at instituting incentive pay for teachers gained final approval. SB 65, sponsored by assistant minority leader Nancy Spence of Centennial, passed on a unanimous vote.

The measure creates a grant program available for school districts to use for teacher incentive pay.

SB 170, cleared on a 26-8 vote, expands from 30 to potentially 50 years the amount of time a municipality's downtown development area can take advantage of tax-increment financing. All the "no" votes came from Republicans, including Tom Wiens of Castle Rock. That town has recently commenced a process aimed at creating a downtown development authority and securing authorization for tax-increment financing to pay for a re-developed downtown.

The Senate also gave final approval to HB 1175, which authorizes a Fourth Infantry Division commemorative license plate. The vote was unanimous.

SB 217, which creates the "Centennial Care Choices" program aimed at expanding private health insurance coverage in the state, also passed on third reading in the Senate.

The bill, which is aimed at Coloradans too wealthy for Medicaid but who don't have enough income to buy private health insurance, relies on public-private partnerships to expand coverage. The proposal includes: (1) a request for health insurers to create a menu of “Value Benefit Plans” (VBPs) that would be evaluated and endorsed by the state and would be made available to all Coloradans; (2) assistance to low income individuals and employees of businesses through a state subsidy of a portion of the VBP premium for those who do not qualify for government programs and cannot afford health insurance; and (3) assurance that this program builds upon the existing employer-based health insurance system, does not encourage businesses currently offering coverage to discontinue it, and promotes administrative efficiencies.

The House and Senate approved a conference committee report on HB 1001, which would make grant funds available to biotechnology entrepreneurs. That meant the measure was on its way to Gov. Bill Ritter.

Speaker Andrew Romanoff introduced a bill that would penalize insurers for wrongfully denying or delaying claims. HB 1407 is part of a package of healthcare reform measures announced in March.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Ritter Signs Water Bill

Gov. Bill Ritter signed Monday a bill that will allow farmers and ranchers to leave water to which they have appropriation rights in a stream or river and lease or lend the water rights for conservation purposes or instream use.

The "Healthy Rivers Act" will, for the first time in Colorado history, take away the disincentive to conserve water created by the principle of "historic consumptive use," which requires holders of water rights to maintain, year-to-year, their use of water or lose the right to use it.

HB 1280 thus allows the Colorado Water Conservation Board to gain access to flows needed for the state's burgeoning river recreation industry.

"For too long, ranchers and farmers could lose their water rights if they didn't use all the water they were given annually," bill sponsor Rep. Randy Fischer, D-Fort Collins, said. “That’s backwards. We live in a large, dry western state that's susceptible to drought, and it's time we reward – not punish – those who conserve. This legislation gives landowners an important incentive to turn off the tap."

The bill was approved in the House, 59-6, and in the Senate, 32-2, before heading to Ritter's desk. It was carried in the Senate by Democrat Gail Schwartz of Snowmass Village.

Senate, on Party-Line Vote, Gives Final OK to Expansion of Anti-Discrimination Law

A Senate divided by party affiliation gave final approval Monday to a bill that would extend the state's current protections against discrimination on the basis of disability, marital status, religion, gender, age, nationality and race to gay and lesbian Coloradans.

SB 200 passed on a 20-15 vote, with all Democrats in favor and all Republicans opposed.

The measure, which is sponsored by Sen. Jennifer Veiga, D-Denver, also harmonizes the existing anti-discrimination laws to ensure that all classifications are covered equally.

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