Friday, January 16, 2009

Ritter Tells Legislators His Ideas For Cuts

Gov. Bill Ritter's budget director told the Joint Budget Committee today that the administration thinks most of the state's expected $600 million budget shortfall this fiscal year can be closed by moving money around.

Todd Saliman said the General Assembly should authorize $289.7 million in diversions and transfers from cash funds to the state's general fund and tap Colorado's emergency reserve for $134.1 million.

Among the cash fund transfers would be $11.9 million in casino revenues.

The remaining $201.1 million needed to close the gap would come from spending cuts.

"The governor's plan is to try to fairly distribute the pain across the entire state government," Saliman said in his comments to the committee, which will recommend measures needed to balance the state's budget to the entire legislature later in the session.

Ritter's office said that most of the spending cuts would come from executive agencies and programs but that more than $34 million should be taken from the state's contribution to the Police and Fire Pension Association of Colorado.

Included among the programs facing spending reductions or elimination is the full-day kindergarten program authorized by the General Assembly last year, which is one of the governor's major educational priorities.

Saliman said that the legislature should eliminate $34.5 million dedicated this year to construction projects relating to full-day kindergarten services.

Other cuts affecting public education would include, if Ritter's suggestions are taken, $4.9 million from charter school construction, $1.8 million from payments to school districts for military dependent enrollment, $1 million from grants that finance alternative teacher compensation plans, and $973,000 from grants to finance summer school programs.

Higher education would take a $30 million hit, which Ritter's office said would nevertheless result in a $90 million increase in spending on colleges and universities since the beginning of FY 2007.

The governor's goal of increasing health insurance coverage to low-income children would suffer a significant setback as well, as Saliman told the committee that Ritter's plan would drop the planned expansion of Children’s Basic Health Plan (CHP) eligibility from 205 percent of the federal poverty level to 225 percent of that benchmark for children and pregnant women. This cut would save $3.1 million this year and $13.6 million next year, according to a press release issued by the governor's office.

The balancing plan also would reduce various health care provider rates, saving $21.7 million.

Ritter will also ask the legislature to cap the amount of sales tax revenues businesses can keep to cover expenses at $5,000. Under current law vendors are allowed to retain 3.5% of sales tax revenues. Saliman said this change would affect 1.9% of the state's businesses and save the general fund $12.8 million.

The governor on Oct. 1 instituted a limited executive branch hiring freeze and suspended ongoing construction projects financed by the general fund. The governor's office says those actions have thus far saved the state $62.5 million.

Saliman said the governor would freeze an additional 64 construction projects, saving an additional $43.4 million.

The budget director also said that Ritter suggests avoidance of reductions in the state's emergency reserve and cancellation of diversions and transfers from cash funds if Congress enacts a federal financial bailout plan for states in the coming months.

Ritter acknowledged today that the choices available to lawmakers are less than ideal.

“My top priorities will be protecting life, safety and public health, ensuring that we are able to meet our safety-net obligations, and that we try to preserve much of the progress we’ve made in areas such as higher education the past two years,” Ritter said. “There will be no more challenging task this legislative session than responsibly, thoughtfully and collectively balancing the budget. Colorado’s budget has always been frugal and tight, and our options are much more limited than during the last recession."

Ritter's recommendations for closing the shortfall expected in FY 2009 are to be presented Jan. 23, according to a press release issued by the governor's office.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Ethics Committee To Take Up Balmer Matter Friday

The ethics committee assigned to investigate complaints against Rep. David Balmer, R-Centennial, and a lobbyist will meet tomorrow morning.

The committee is considering allegations that Balmer and the lobbyist, Erik Groves, attempted to exert inappropriate influence on a member of the House GOP caucus.

The member, freshman Rep. Cindy Acree, R-Aurora, alleged that she was promised a campaign contribution and a future committee chair slot if she voted for Balmer in the GOP caucus election to choose a new minority leader.

House Republicans had planned to select a replacement for Rep. Mike May, R-Parker, after May announced his retirement in mid-December. May has since said he will remain in the General Assembly at least until the ethics inquiry is completed.

Balmer's answer to the ethics committee inquiry says that he was not aware of Groves' activities or that of some chiropractors associated with the advocacy organization for whom Groves works.

The members of the committee are Reps. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, Kathleen Curry, D-Gunnison, Joel Judd, D-Denver, Tom Massey, R-Poncha Springs, and Ken Summers, R-Lakewood.

A website maintained by an organization called Colorado for Ethics has posted to the Internet the documents related to the ethics inquiry. You can find them here.

AG Suthers Announces Legislative Goals for 2009

Republican attorney general John Suthers today announced that his office will seek legislative approval of four bills that target “foreclosure rescue” firms, lift age-old civil penalty limits and increase the penalties for appraisal fraud and water pollution.

The first of the bills on Suthers' wish list, HB 1109, would expand the protections of the Colorado Foreclosure Protection Act (CFPA) to distressed homeowners who are not yet in foreclosure. The CFPA prevents foreclosure consultants from charging an upfront fee, created standards for written contracts, and prevents consultants from acquiring any interest in a property on which they have been hired to consult.

The bill, which is sponsored by Sen. Jennifer Veiga, D-Denver, and freshman Rep. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, is headed to the House Business Affairs & Labor Committee.

Nate Strauch, a spokesperson for Suthers, said the attorney general's office has noticed that some companies involved in "foreclosure rescue" operations try to get around CFPA by approaching distressed homeowners before foreclosure proceedings are formally intitiated. Strauch said that HB 1109 is intended to close that loophole by extending CFPA's protection to any homeowner who is behind on mortgage payments or has defaulted on a mortgage contract obligation.

The second measure sought by the attorney general's office, SB 054, would eliminate the maximum civil penalty that can be imposed for violations of the Colorado Consumer Protection Act and raise the maximum penalty for antitrust violations from $100,000 to $250,000.

According to a press release issued by the attorney general's office, the problem of fraudulent advertising is growing larger in Colorado as unscrupulous firms use e-mail, text messages and the Internet to promote their products and services. Under current law those businesses face a ceiling of a $100,000 civil fine "for any related series of violations," regardless of how many consumers are impacted by the firm's illegal behavior. The bill would allow a court to impose a fine of up to $2,000 per individual violation of the law, with no cap on the total civil penalty.

The bill, which would cause Colorado to join a national trend toward more judicial discretion in the imposition of civil penalties under consumer protection laws, is sponsored by freshman Sen. Mark Scheffel, R-Parker, and Rep. Andy Kerr D-Lakewood.

The attorney general will also ask for passage of legislation that would increase the severity of criminal punishments for fraudulent real estate appraisals. The bill, to be carried by Sen. Mary Hodge, D-Brighton, and Rep. Glenn Vaad, R-Mead, would raise the minimum penalty to six months imprisonment, a $500 fine, or both for a first violation of the statute.

The bill would also classify a second violation as a class 5 felony and raise the maximum penalties imposed such second offenders to a maximum $100,000 fine and three years in prison.

The final item on the attorney general's wish list is a bill that would open the door to felony criminal liability for pollution of state waters. The legislation, which will be sponsored by Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, and Rep. Beth McCann, D-Denver, would raise the penalties for violations of the state's water pollution control laws to the same level as violations of state laws forbidding unauthorized pollution of land within the state.

Current law allows polluters of waters within Colorado to be assessed fines.

If enacted, the bill would allow prosecutors to seek a felony conviction and, if obtained, a court could sentence violators of the state's water pollution control law to a prison term of up to six years if the violation is intentional and up to three years if the violation is negligent.

Merrifield's "Car Courtesy" Bill Clears Committee

Legislation that aims to keep traffic moving reasonably fast on Colorado's mountain roads got the approval of a House committee this morning.

HB 1042 requires any vehicle traveling at a velocity less than the speed limit and which is blocking more than five other vehicles to pull over so that the vehicles behind can pass. The slow driver would be required to pull off the road at the first safe location.

"People can relate to this because at one time or another they've been stuck behind a slow RV or car," sponsoring Rep. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, said. "On narrow winding roads, I see it happening all the time."

Merrifield said he witnessed a similar law in action during a visit to Alaska last summer. The "Last Frontier" experiences an influx of slow recreational vehicles in the warm months and that state's traffic code requires those vehicles to make way for faster vehicles on narrow roads.

"I'm calling it the 'Car Courtesy Bill,'" Merrifield said. "If you are a slow driver, the courteous thing to do, when you have the opportunity, is to get out of the way. Such courtesy will reduce road rage, too, but it’s primarily a safety issue."

The veteran Democrat said that he thinks his bill, if enacted, will lower the temptation to pass when conditions do not warrant it.

"Cars get backed up and when they get impatient, drivers try to pass," Merrifield said. "They pass when you can't see the traffic ahead or they pass when there are too many vehicles to be passing safely. I've seen people passing when they never should've tried. I'm sure they just got sick and tired of waiting."

The bill now goes to the House floor.

Lundberg Sworn in as Senator

Newly-appointed GOP Sen. Kevin Lundberg of Berthoud took his seat today, bringing Republican strength in the upper chamber to its full 14-member complement.

Lundberg was appointed by a Larimer County GOP vacancy committee to replace former Sen. Steve Johnson, R-Fort Collins, Saturday.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Schaffer New Chair of State Board of Education

Former U.S. Rep. Bob Schaffer, R-Fort Collins, was designated by his colleagues as chair of the state Board of Education today, according to the Denver Post.

Schaffer was elected unanimously by the seven members of the board.

There are four Republicans and three Democrats on the Board of Education.

Schaffer, 46, represented the state's 4th district in the U.S. House of Representatives between 1997-2003. He unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. Senate against Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., in 2008. Schaffer had previously sought the GOP nomination for the U.S. Senate against Pete Coors in 2006.

Schaffer was a Colorado state senator between 1987 and 1997.

Buescher Easily Confirmed as Secretary of State

The Colorado Senate showed no doubts about Gov. Bill Ritter's choice of former Rep. Bernie Buescher as secretary of state this morning.

The vote to confirm the Grand Junction Democrat was unanimous, with praise coming from both sides of the aisle.

"He is the right choice, and a smart choice on the part of Gov. Ritter," Senate minority leader Josh Penry, R-Fruita, said.

Buescher lost his bid to be re-elected to the House of Representatives in November. He had been expected to succeed former Rep. Andrew Romanoff, D-Denver, as speaker.

He will be sworn in at 3 pm today.

Merrifield Pushes Bill to Encourage Slow Mountain Road Drivers to Make Room for Others

Rep. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, has lost some patience with drivers on mountain roads who slow down traffic.

The avid mountain biker and skiier has introduced legislation that would allow police to ticket drivers of cars moving at less than the speed limit on a two-lane mountain road if their leisurely pace is causing a line of five or more vehicles to build up behind them.

Merrifield says it's a matter of safety.

"A number of times I’ve seen a number of cars who have just gotten fed up and passed in dangerous and illegal places and put peoples’ lives in danger," he said.

Merrifield emphasized that his bill would not require drivers to pull off the road in an unsafe place, such as on a stretch where no shoulders exist.

"If there’s no place to pull over, then you don’t have to," he said. "We’re trying to make the situation safer, not less safe.”

HB 1042, if enacted into law, would require only that the driver impeding traffic move off the road at the first safe place available.

The Colorado Highway Patrol supports the bill, Merrifield said.

The legislature enacted a requirement that drivers in the left lanes of multi-lane freeways move over to accommodate faster-moving vehicles a few years ago.

Merrifield's bill will have its first hearing tomorrow.

Buescher Appointment to be Considered in Senate Today

The Senate will decide today whether to confirm former Rep. Bernie Buescher, D-Grand Junction, today as secretary of state.

The vote is scheduled to get underway shortly after the Senate convenes at 9 am.

Buescher was appointed to replace Republican Mike Coffman, who had been elected secretary of state in 2006 but who successfully ran for Congress in 2008.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Mandatory CO Monitor Bill To Get Committee Hearing Thursday

A House committee will hear Thursday a bill that aims to require all homes put up for sale in Colorado, whether new or existing, and all apartments to have carbon monoxide detectors.

HB 1091, named for its sponsors after the Lofgren family of Denver, is expected to draw support from firefighters in addition to state health officials.

"We have lost too many Colorado lives over the past few months," Rep. John Soper,
D-Thornton, a sponsor of the bill, said. "We must do everything we can to prevent these tragedies from occurring again. I am an electrician and I know that the installation of carbon monoxide detectors is a reasonable addition to new homes that can prevent senseless deaths and injuries.”

Soper and cosponsoring Rep. Lois Court, D-Denver, said they are motivated to push the bill after the Lofgren family of Denver died in a west slope carbon monoxide poisoning incident over the Thanksgiving weekend. Since then a University of Denver college student also died of CO poisoning in her apartment.

Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver, will carry the bill in the Senate.