Friday, January 30, 2009

Post Story on Bill to Ban Sugary Snacks from Schools

Democratic Transportation Bill Moves On

The comprehensive transportation funding bill that would raise motorists' registration fees to pay for highway and bridge repairs has taken another step forward on the road to law.

SB 108, which is known by the acronym "FASTER," cleared the Senate Finance Committee Thursday on a 4-3 party-line vote.

Sponsoring Sen. Dan Gibbs, D-Silverthorne, said the committee's fast action, which followed approval by another Senate committee earlier in the week, is necessary because the bill will promote job creation.

"If we can create a safer environment while creating more jobs for people in Colorado, let’s do it and let’s do it now," Gibbs said. "The 'ER' in FASTER in for 'Economic Recovery’. We need a reliable, sustainable, responsible solution and a real plan for the future of Colorado now, and this is it.”

The measure will raise about $214 million in its first year if it becomes law and about $250 million in subsequent years. The money will come from increases to motor vehicle registration fees.

The average increase for an individual is expected to be about $2.50 per month, according to a Senate Democratic Caucus "fact sheet" released earlier in the week.

The measure now heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Lawsuits Attack Amendment 54

Two lawsuits challenging whether Amendment 54 is consistent with the U.S. Constitution were filed in Denver District Court Wednesday, according to reports in the Denver Business Journal and Denver Post.

The two lawsuits were filed by unions representing teachers and firefighters and a group of business and non-profit leaders.

Amendment 54, which was approved in November with 51 percent of the vote, forbids holders of no-bid contracts with any level of government in the state from making campaign contributions.

The change to the state constitution applies to collective bargaining organizations that represent public employees. The ban on campaign contributions applies when an entity or individual has a no-bid contract worth more than $100,000.

Among the parties challenging Amendment 54 are The Children's Hospital, the University of Denver, Aurora's firefighters union and the union representing Douglas County teachers.

The union complaint alleges that Amendment 54 violates the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as well as the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The business and non-profit institution and leadership complaint also argues that the state constitutional amendment violates the freedom of speech clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Ritter and Buescher Unveil Business-Friendly State Website

Colorado's governor and secretary of state unveiled Thursday a website intended to allow businesses to do "one-stop shopping" for government services and information.

The site, called Colorado Business Express, provides Colorado business owners, for the first time, a single site where they can easily access all the vital information they need to interact with state government. Before Thursday it was necessary to contact each agency separately to get the same information.

“In these tough economic times, it’s more important than ever to keep making Colorado a business-friendly state,” Gov. Bill Ritter said. “With today’s launch today of Colorado Business Express, we underscore our commitment to helping companies grow, prosper and compete in today’s challenging marketplace.”

The new website will allow business owners to register their business entity, get information on how to apply for a state sales tax license from the Department of Revenue, or an unemployment insurance identification number from the Department of Labor and Employment.

The new service also links directly to the Internal Revenue Service’s online system, allowing users to quickly get a Federal Employer Identification Number.

People who use the website will also be linked to the Office of Economic Development and International Trade, which will enable them to obtain additional information about doing business in Colorado.

The year-long project was a collaboration of five state departments and, the state internet portal.

“Colorado Business Express is a major leap forward toward a more streamlined government, with better service and less paperwork for the benefit of Colorado’s new businesses,” Sen. Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, said.

Cadman is a member of a Senate committee that oversees the state's information technology systems.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Ethics Committee Clears Assistant Minority Leader Balmer

An ethics committee has cleared House assistant GOP leader David Balmer of charges he tried to inappropriately influence a GOP leadership election, according to a report in the Rocky Mountain News.

Committee chair Claire Levy was reported as explaining in an announcement that there is no credible evidence to support an allegation that the Centennial Republican had acted improperly in attempting to secure votes in an anticipated election to replace minority leader Mike May, R-Parker, in December 2008.

Balmer, who in 2004 faced allegations that he padded his resume during a political campaign in North Carolina, had been accused by May of using the promises of campaign contributions and a future committee chairmanship to secure the vote of Rep. Cindy Acree, R-Aurora, in the planned caucus election.

House rules forbid such tactics to obtain votes in a leadership election.

May had announced his resignation from the legislature in mid-December.

He later rescinded the resignation when the controversy over Balmer's alleged conduct arose.

May told the Rocky that he filed the complaint against his Republican colleague Balmer because he did not want the public to get the impression that the GOP caucus was "trying to cover something up."

"That is worse," May is quoted by the Rocky as saying.

The ethics committee is still considering charges that lobbyist Erik Groves violated rules against participating in legislative decisions relating to leadership.

Levy Introduces Bill To Crack Down on Corporate Tax Cheaters

A Boulder Democrat has filed a bill that would close a loophole in the state's tax code allowing large corporations to conceal transactions aimed at evading tax liability.

The measure, sponsored by Rep. Claire Levy, is a response to the use of real estate investment trusts to transfer money overseas without paying income taxes on it.

Levy pointed to misuse of the REIT device by several large corporations during a news conference announcing her bill today.

“These companies are abusing the public trust,” Levy said. “By sending their Colorado profits overseas and back through a series of shell corporations, they avoid paying their fair share of taxes. This bill is a way to create transparency. It permits the Department of Revenue to look at corporate transactions and make sure they have real economic purposes and are not intended only to avoid or reduce tax liability."

According to a recent Wall Street Journal report the Wal-Mart Corporation used REIT loopholes in state tax codes to avoid paying more than $350 million in state taxes between 1998 and 2001.

The real estate investment trust used by Wal-Mart and other companies to shield profit from state taxes is called a "captive" real estate trust because it is totally owned by one entity and/or executives or other organizations affiliated with that entity.

Traditional real estate investment trusts, which are authorized by the federal income tax code as a means for small investors to pool money to make large-capital real estate investments, are not affected by Levy's bill.

Levy also pointed out that her bill will not raise any state tax rate.

“This bill does not create a new tax," she said. "These are taxes that are rightfully owed. The people of Colorado pay taxes; so should corporations.”

A press release issued by the House Democratic Caucus said Levy's measure "implements the long-standing policy in Colorado that corporate profits earned in the state are subject to state tax."

Bill Authorizing Minors to Donate Blood Gets Preliminary House OK

A measure that would allow minors over the age of 16 to donate blood received preliminary approval in the House of Representatives today.

HB 1023, sponsored by Reps. Sara Gagliardi, D-Arvada, and Spencer Swalm, R-Centennial, and Sen. Betty Boyd, D-Lakewood, would open the door to teenager donations with parental consent.

According to an estimate by Bonfils Blood Center the bill, if enacted into law, would result in 2,600 more blood donors each year. The additional blood supply would benefit up to 7,800 patients each year.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Mandatory Carbon Monoxide Monitor Bill Clears Committee

A bill that would require builders to install carbon monoxide alarms in every new home, and place the same obligation on sellers of existing homes and landlords, cleared a House committee Tuesday.

HB 1091, which sponsors say was inspired by the November 2008 deaths of a prominent Denver family due to carbon monoxide poisoning, was approved by the House Business Affairs and Labor Committee on a 9-2 vote.

The bill had been heard at an emotional hearing two weeks ago, during which the father of a Denver college student killed in yet another recent carbon monoxide poisoning incident tearfully pleaded for the measure's passage.

Republicans unsuccessfully sought to amend the bill to force state universities and colleges to install carbon monoxide alarms in all dormitory rooms, though sponsoring Rep. John Soper, D-Thornton, said he would seek input on that proposal from college administrators and consider whether to add it when the bill is considered on the floor of the House of Representatives.

As it stands, HB 1091 would leave enforcement to local government and would not impose liability for malfunctioning alarms on builders or landlords.

Two Republican representatives, Amy Stephens of Monument and Larry Liston of Colorado Springs, joined with the Democrats on the committee in support of the bill. The GOP's David Balmer, of Centennial, and freshman Rep. Laura Bradford of Collbran voted "no."

Ritter Receives Civil Rights Award

Gov. Bill Ritter received prestigious recognition for his stances on civil liberties Tuesday as the Anti-Defamation League honored him with its 25th annual "Civil Rights Award."

According to a press release issued by the Colorado office of ADL, Ritter received the award because he

has devoted his career to public service, and has provided unwavering support for civil rights for all Coloradans. He was Denver's District Attorney for twelve years, where he fought for the expansion and enforcement of hate crimes laws. Since his election in 2006 as Colorado's 41st Governor, Gov. Ritter has supported and signed into law expansions of Colorado’s employment discrimination, public accommodations and housing laws to include sexual orientation. Most recently, he opposed a ballot proposal that would have ended public affirmative action programs in Colorado.

The ADL also honored Roz Duman, coordinator of the Colorado Coalition for Genocide Awareness and Action (CCGAA), for her work to "end complacency towards and raise awareness of genocides past, present and future." CCGAA has sponsored conferences and exhibits and worked with state policymakers to expose and confront genocide around the world.

Ritter Names Madden Climate Change Policy Chief

Former Rep. Alice Madden, D-Boulder, will be getting used to the executive chambers at the capitol soon.

The former majority leader was named by Gov. Bill Ritter as the state's climate change coordinator.

"Alice Madden has distinguished herself as one of Colorado's most accomplished and talented public servants," Ritter said. "Her thoughtfulness and problem-solving skills will be crucial as we strive to achieve the goals in Colorado's Climate Action Plan and strengthen Colorado's New Energy Economy. Expanding the use of wind, solar, geothermal and clean-burning natural gas will create jobs, clean the air and address climate change."

Madden served in the House of Representatives from 2001-2009. In 2004 she helped lead the campaign effort that resulted in Democrats regaining control of both chambers of the General Assembly for the first time since the early 1960s.

Madden's salary will not be paid by state revenues. Instead, her position is funded by grants from the private Hewlett, Denver and Energy Foundations.

Senate Committee Rejects GOP Effort to Block New Oil and Gas Regulations

Republican opponents of the state's new regulations on oil and gas drilling failed Tuesday in an attempt to convince the General Assembly to stop them from going into effect.

SB 4 was rejected by the Senate Local Government and Energy Committee despite pleas from sponsor Greg Brophy, R-Wray, that the measure is needed to prevent energy companies from fleeing Colorado.

Ritter Suggests More Cuts for FY09-10

Gov. Bill Ritter delivered more bad budget news to the legislature today as his budget director told members of the Joint Budget Committee that the state should close two prisons, eliminate $225 million of higher education and public school spending and take away, at least temporarily, property tax breaks for senior citizens.

The proposal, which was offered as a way of closing the $1 billion budget gap expected in the fiscal year that begins July 1, was announced by Todd Saliman.

The cuts, which would not allow the state to close the entire shortfall, would represent an 8.7 percent reduction from the general fund spending for FY 09-10 proposed by Ritter in November.

"Through this package of cuts today, there will be pain," Office of State Planning and Budgeting director Todd Saliman told the committee. "And it will be felt by many citizens who rely on state services."

The two prisons that Ritter wants to close are the Rifle Correctional Facility and the Colorado Women's Correctional Facility in Canon City. Inmates at those penitentiaries would be transferred to other state prisons.

The governor's plan would also delay the opening of the Colorado State Penitentiary II in Canon City by at least three months.

The education funding reductions would be divided up almost equally between the state's universities and colleges and K-12 institutions. Saliman said Ritter wants to cut $125 million from K-12 education and $100 million from higher education.

The K-12 cuts would include suspension of a second enrollment count for military dependents, which could cost school districts as much as $1.8 million per year, a reduction of $2.5 million in charter school construction assistance, and a reduction of $17.9 million in the planned expansion of Colorado's full-day kindergarten program.

The $100 million cut to higher education would include the $30 million cut for this year proposed Dec. 16. If approved, the total reduction would return state funding for colleges and universities to where it was in FY 07-08.

Among other spending cuts proposed by the governor are:

1. Closure of the 20-bed general hospital at the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo effective Nov. 1, 2009, which would save $4.8 million including $3.1 from the general fund and eliminate 54 full-time equivalent state employees (FTEs);

2. Closure of the 20-bed Therapeutic Child Care Facility at Fort Logan effective July 1, which would save $2.1 million, including $417,000 from the general fund, and eliminate 30 FTEs;

3. Reduction of an earlier request for increased funding for developmental disability services, which would save $3.4 million including $1.7 million from the general fund;

4. Reduction of Medicaid expenditures, health care provider rates and reimbursement obligations, which would save approximately $150 million including about $70 million from the general fund;

5. Suspension of efforts to increase enrollment in, and reduce funding for, the Children's Basic Health Plan Plus (CHP), which would save $19.3 million including $3.1 million from the general fund;

6. Elimination of all funding for the Colorado Student Before and After School Program, which would save $300,000;

7. Imposition of five unpaid furlough days on most of the state's workforce, for a $15 million savings, including $7.6 million from the general fund, and authorization for a maximum of three furlough days in FY08-09;

8. Elimination of 540 state jobs;

9. Suspension of salary increases for 26,000 state employees; and

10. Reduction of state tourism promotion spending by about half.

The proposal would not continue the limited hiring freeze now in effect.

The temporary elimination of the property tax exemption enjoyed by senior citizens would also affect disabled veterans. Only seniors and disabled veterans who have lived in their homes for at least ten years are currently able to take advantage of the state's homestead tax exemption.

Additional revenues would be gained by re-instituting the state's $10-15 user fee for the Colorado Bureau of Investigation's "InstaCheck" background check service, which would add $1.6 million to the general fund each year.

Ritter said his suggestions are aimed at minimizing harm to Colorado residents dependent on state services.

"On Jan. 15, my office began submitting a budget-balancing plan to the Joint Budget Committee, and today we are proposing additional steps that include deep, targeted and strategic cuts," the governor said in a press release. "These reductions, along with the latest unemployment figures released this morning, should leave no doubt in anyone's mind about the seriousness of the problems we face, and of the collective effort it will take to chart a Colorado way forward."

If the legislature adopts Ritter's suggestions, the total spending from the state's general fund in FY 09-10 would be nearly the same as it was in FY 07-08.

The governor's push for a spending plan lower than what he originally asked for Nov. 1 is driven by recent projections indicating that Colorado's sales and income tax revenues will be about $1 billion less in FY 09-10 than budget planners thought last autumn.

Ritter's plan for FY 09-10 assumes that the federal government will direct at least $259 million to Colorado through the proposed American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which is now under consideration in Congress.

The General Assembly will begin considering Ritter's ideas for the FY 09-10 budget, as well as the cuts in spending and diversions from reserve and cash funds proposed on Jan. 16 for the current fiscal year, sometime in February.

Initiative to Drastically Cut Fees Filed

An initiative petition that would, if adopted, drastically cut taxes charged by the state for auto registrations has been filed with the Office of Legislative Council.

The petition, which is sponsored by Jeff Gross of Kersey and former Greenwood Village mayor Freda Poundstone, would also cap the state's income tax rate at a flat 4.5 percent in 2011 and then reduce it by 0.1 percent in each year that state income tax revenues exceeded a six percent growth rate until reaching 3.5 percent. That step-by-step reduction would occur over ten years.

If approved for the ballot and adopted by voters, the measure would lower the state's auto registration tax to $2 for new vehicles and $1 for used vehicles by means of a staged process that commences on Jan. 1, 2011.

It would also cap title, registration and license fees at $10 per vehicle per year.

The initiative forbids state and local taxes or fees on motor vehicle rentals and leases.

Finally, the proposal would eliminate all fees and taxes assessed by state and local governments on any form of telecommunications.

The initiative is due for a review and comment hearing on Feb. 9.

FASTER Bill Passes First Hurdle

A Democratic bill aimed at financing needed highway and bridge improvements and repairs in the state has cleared its first legislative hurdle.

The FASTER bill, which would raise motor vehicle registration fees and raise more than $200 million per year, was approved today by the Senate Transportation Committee on a 4-3 vote.

The measure's sponsor, Democratic Sen. Dan Gibbs of Silverthorne, welcomed the bill's advance as a way of helping revitalize Colorado's economy.

"If we can create jobs while at the same time making our roads and bridges safer, let’s do it," Gibbs said. "I’ve been working closely with the business community, local governments and my constituents to make sure we start creating these jobs now.”

Although SB 108 cleared the committee with no GOP votes in support, some influential business interests are in favor of it.

“Colorado and this country are in unprecedented times,” Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce chief executive officer Joe Blake told the committee. “At this moment we have a choice and a responsibility. We need to get Colorado back to work and Senate bill 108 provides stable and reasonable sources of funding to address the maintenance problems in our transportation system. This proposal will create needed jobs.”

The measure proposes to raise registration fees by about $30-40 year, raising $214 million in the first year of the program and $230 million each year thereafter. A press release issued by the Senate Democratic Caucus indicates that the average person in Colorado would pay $2.50 more to register their motor vehicle each year.

The money generated would be divided between bridge repairs and highway repairs and upgrades.

About $100 million would be dedicated to the bridge aspect of the program and would be directed toward repairing the 125 bridges in the state rated as structurally deficient. The money would enable the Colorado Department of Transportation to secure certificate of participation financing that in turn would permit needed repairs to proceed immediately.

According to the Colorado Contractors Association the bill, if enacted into law, would create as many as 30,000 jobs.

Gibbs has been working to secure Republican co-sponsorship of his proposal. However, according to a report in the Denver Post's Politics West blog, GOP Senate leader Josh Penry of Fruita said that Republicans want to use the effort to secure a permanent and stable source of transportation funding to secure "meaningful tax reform."

Republicans made their own proposal for transportation funding today. It would redirect tens of millions of dollars from the state's general fund plus 25 percent of severance taxes generated from oil and gas extraction activities into transportation.

Last year voters rejected a ballot proposition that would have authorized the use of severance taxes for transportation.

The General Assembly is considering spending cuts to close a shortfall this year, and an expected shortfall next year, in the general fund. The total amount of that shortfall is expected to be $639 million this year, according to Gov. Bill Ritter's budget director, and about $300 billion in FY 2009.

Current law specifies that no state money can be directed into transportation until the general fund has grown by 6 percent over the previous year.

SB 108 heads next to the Senate Finance Committee.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Post: Bill Imposing Fee on Grocery Store Plastic Bags Coming

The Denver Post reports today that lawmakers will soon introduce a bill requiring consumers to pay a fee for each plastic bag they use to carry groceries from a store.

The measure, which has not been introduced yet, is inspired by a group of students from the Kent Denver School.

According to the Post story,

The bill, introduced Friday, would require shoppers to pay 6 cents for each plastic bag they used.

The vendor and the state, which would use the money to increase environmental awareness, would split the fee evenly.

The proposal would apply only to businesses that are the largest sources of the bags — stores of 10,000 square feet or more and those that generate more than $1 million in annual revenues.

The bags would be eliminated from those stores after three years.

The sponsors will be Rep. Joe Miklosi, D-Denver, and Sen. Jennifer Veiga, D-Denver.

A 2006 report estimated that Americans recycled more than 800 million pounds of "post-consumer film," which includes plastic grocery bags, in 2006.

"Slowpoke" Bill Clears House, Heads to Senate

A bill that would crack down on slow drivers on Colorado's narrow mountain roads gained final House passage today.

HB 1042, which is sponsored by Rep. Mike Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, was approved on a 37-27 vote.

The measure would authorize law enforcement officers to ticket drivers who operate vehicles at a velocity well below the speed limit and thereby hold up a line of traffic on two-lane roads. It would not require drivers to pull off to let those vehicles pass unless there is a safe place to do so.

The bill now goes to the Senate.