Saturday, February 7, 2009

GOP Offers Deal: Arveschoug-Bird Budget Growth Limit for Transportation Fee Hikes

Statehouse Republicans, who are steadfastly opposed to motor vehicle registration fees increases proposed as a means to pay for transportation improvements, have offered to support legislation that would eliminate the cap on the growth of the state budget if Democrats drop the fee hikes.

The proposal, which House minority leader Mike May, R-Parker, announced today, comes in the wake of the Senate's approval Thursday of the FASTER bill.

FASTER would result in the average person's motor vehicle registration fee rising by about $40 and provide more than $200 million per year for needed highway and bridge repairs and improvements throughout the state.

May also said Republicans want a portion of the state's general fund dedicated to transportation.

""Traditionally, Republicans have said: 'Thou shalt not touch the 6 percent limit,' " May is quoted as saying in a Rocky Mountain News article. "The important thing (about the new proposal) is it provides a predictable and continuous revenue stream for transportation."

The Democratic House sponsor of the bill, Rep. Joe Rice of Littleton, said he welcomes May's idea but doesn't see how it will provide the needed funds for the state's transportation system.

"That's a good mid- to long-term solution, but we still need something in the next six months," Rice told the Rocky. "And I don't know how you get away from fees not being a part of that."

The limit on the growth of the state's general fund is six percent per year. It was established in 1992 and provides that money over the limit can be spent on transportation and capital improvements.

Retired state supreme court justice Jean Dubofsky recently said that she believes the Arveschoug-Bird limit is not a constitutional constraint on spending, even though the 1992 Taxpayers Bill of Rights appears to place spending limits in the state's legal charter.

Sen. John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, and Rep. Don Marostica, R-Loveland, cited that opinion in comments last week indicating they would introduce legislation to repeal the Arveschoug-Bird law limiting annual growth in the general fund.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Extension of State Employment Benefits to Domestic Partners Gets OK From Senate Committee

A bill that would require the state to extend coverage under insurance policies to the domestic partners of government employees earned the endorsement of a Senate committee Wednesday.

SB 88 aims to prevent the state government from treating same-sex partners of public employees differently than spouses.

"It is the right policy," Sen. Jennifer Veiga, D-Denver, told committee members. "It is the right time."

Veiga is the only openly gay member of the Senate.

The measure was approved by the Senate Business, Labor and Technology Committee on a 4-3 party-line vote, with all of the committee's Republicans opposed to it.

In 2006 the state's voters rejected Referendum I, which would have recognized domestic partnerships under state law and mandated that the state provide domestic partners coverage under insurance policies held by its employees.

The proposed "Colorado Domestic Partnership Benefits and Responsibilities Act" was defeated by a 53%-47% margin.

According to the Denver Post, Veiga said Wednesday that her bill, if enacted, would not conflict with the voter's decision in 2006 because it is limited to the issue of benefits for state employees with same-sex spouses.

SB 88 will next be considered by the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

FASTER Gains Initial Senate Approval With Tolls Provision

The Senate, in a surprising reversal, gave preliminary approval Wednesday to the controversial "FASTER" transportation funding bill, but only after first removing provisions that would open the door to additional use of tolls to pay for needed improvements and then adding that clause back to the bill.

SB 108 was approved on a party-line vote of 21-14.

The toll provision had been stripped earlier in the day by a coalition of Republicans and a few Democrats. But it was restored to the bill by the Democratic leadership before the vote.

The toll provision of the FASTER bill would authorize local governments to collect tolls to pay for the improvement, maintenance and repair expenses related to highways under their control.

Among other amendments agreed to by the chamber's ruling Democrats are provisions that remove a pilot project to study assessment of fees according to mileage driven, allow heavy trucks to pay a single-trip charge where tolls are in place, and that require 80 percent of the workforce on a highway project to employ Colorado workers and preference on contracts to be given to Colorado companies.

Republicans argued that the majority Democrats had not tried hard enough to compromise, while Democrats said they had gone as far as they could to accommodate GOP concerns over increased registration fees while preserving the amount of money needed to repair the state's crumbling highways and bridges. Democrats also argued that their willingness to phase in the fee increases was a significant compromise.

Senate president Peter Groff, D-Denver, also disputed GOP warnings that SB 108 could impose a political cost on Democrats in 2010.

"The numbers I care about are 47 and 12," Groff said. "47,000 Coloradans have lost their jobs in the last 12 months. The number I care about is 126. There are 126 structurally deficient bridges in Colorado that need to be fixed. The number I care about is 35. The I-35 bridge was the bridge that collapsed in Minnesota and we cannot allow that to happen in Colorado. We have a responsibility to get people back to work and that’s what this bill is about. It’s about putting Colorado back to work and making sure the roads are safe."

The measure, sponsored by West Slope Democrat Dan Gibbs, would raise motor vehicle registration fees by an average of $41 over the next three years in order to raise more than $200 million per year for transportation. The money would secure more than half of a billion dollars in bonds to pay for the improvements and repairs.

Under current law the state cannot spend any money on transportation until the general fund grows by six percent over the previous year. During a period of economic recession, when state revenues decline, transportation loses most or all of its funding.

Majority Democrats say a consistent funding source is needed both to expand the state's highway system and to repair more than 100 bridges deemed structurally unsound.

Republicans want some of the general fund allocated to transportation and have also suggested using a portion of severance taxes paid by energy companies to fund transportation.

Minority leader Josh Penry, R-Fruita, accused Democrats of displaying a lack of "common sense."

"This Senate is poised to impose hundreds of millions of dollars in new fees on motorists, but we can't reprioritize any money in our existing budget -- not a single penny -- towards safer roads and bridges?" Penry said.

The GOP idea to allocate severance taxes was nixed by voters in the November 2008 election.

The current law requiring transportation to be funded only after six percent growth in the general fund, known as SB1 funding, was enacted in 1997 during a period of Republican control of the statehouse.

State's Business Interests Concerned About Prevailing Wage Bill

The state's business community is in an uproar about a bill that would require contractors with Colorado's government to pay the "prevailing wage," as determined by federal labor law.

The measure, which is being sponsored by Rep. John Soper, D-Thornton, would apply to both union shops and contractors that are not unionized.

An article published Tuesday in the Rocky Mountain News explores the controversy surrounding HB 1208.

Rocky Article Says Majority Dems Will Push Insurance Reforms

An article in today's Rocky Mountain News says that the General Assembly's majority Democrats will push a series of bills aimed at reforming insurance industry practices in the state.

The article by the Rocky's Ed Sealover says that Democrats want to:

1. Reinstate Colorado's no-fault auto insurance system, which was jettisoned in 2002;

2. Require health insurers to cover more preventive care services;

3. Forbid the practice of charging women higher health insurance premiums than men; and

4. Raise the maximum age of children of policyholders for whom insurers must make available coverage in exchange for payment of an additional premium.

The article quotes GOP House caucus chair Amy Stephens of Monument as saying her party will oppose at least some of the bills on grounds that they might raise premiums and encourage insurance companies to reduce operations in the state.

Several bills incorporating the proposals have already been introduced.

Groff Says Toll, Mileage-Based Fee Study Provisions Will Be Removed From FASTER Bill

Two controversial provisions in a comprehensive transportation funding bill will be removed before the Senate votes on the measure, which is designed to raise more than $200 million per year to repair and improve Colorado's highways and bridges.

Senate president Peter Groff, D-Denver, announced the changes to the measure at a news conference this morning.

"We can run that in a separate bill. This bill is about putting Coloradans back to work," Groff said.

The Senate is due to consider SB 108 this morning.

Republicans announced Tuesday that they are pulling out of efforts to reach a compromise with majority Democrats on the measure.

Senate minority leader Josh Penry, R-Fruita, said the GOP was doing so because of the tolling and mileage-based fee provisions that are being removed from the bill at Groff's direction.

Penry also pointed to the bill's focus on using increased motor vehicle registration fees as the sole means of financing transportation system improvements.

"It's very hard to ask ordinary citizens to open their wallets when the General Assembly won't do the same," Penry said. "At the end of the day, we wanted to fix roads and bridges while this bill is still about tolling and tracking our cars with satellites."

Republicans want to dedicate some of the state's general fund to transportation needs, as well as a portion of revenue raised from severance taxes on energy development companies. Under current law that was enacted during the period of GOP control of the legislative branch of the government no general fund dollars are allocated to transportation.

Instead, the state begins to fund transportation once the general fund's revenues have grown by six percent over the prior fiscal year.

Voters rejected in November 2008 a GOP-supported ballot initiative that would have directed severance taxes to highways.

If given final approval by the Senate, the bill sponsored by Democrat Dan Gibbs of Silverthorne will move to the House.

Carbon Monoxide Bill Heads to Senate

The bill that would require all new homes and existing homes offered for sale after July 1 and all apartments to include carbon monoxide alarms is on the way to the Senate.

HB 1091 was given final approval Tuesday by the House on a 43-21 vote.

Republicans opposed the measure, arguing that it is unfair to impose a mandate on the private sector if no similar requirements apply to state facilities.

Republicans Randy Baumgardner, Don Marostica, B.J. Nikkel, Kevin Priola, Amy Stephens and Glenn Vaad joined the majority Democrats in support of the bill.

Democrat Wes McKinley of Walsh voted "no."

Cell Phone Bill OK'd by House Committee

A bill that would bar drivers from using a cellular phone without a hands-free device was approved by a House committee Tuesday.

HB 1094 would also make text messaging while operating a motor vehicle unlawful and prohibit minors who are operating a vehicle from using a cell phone while doing so.

The House Transportation and Energy Committee heard emotional testimony on the measure before approving it on a bipartisan 9-2 vote.

"I want to honor my daughter and know that I did everything I could do to prevent another person from being hurt or killed," Shelley Forney said. "I want you to think about the numerous lives that will be saved by passing this law today."

Forney, of Fort Collins, is the mother of 9-year old Erica Forney, who was killed in Fort Collins last autumn after a driver talking on a cell phone hit her while she was riding her bicycle in a bike lane.

Other witnesses supporting the bill included representatives of the state's law enforcement community and insurance industry.

Sponsoring Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, urged committee members to keep in mind that there are studies demonstrating that talking on a cell phone while driving, even through a hands-free device, distracts drivers.

"Your individual decision whether to talk and drive doesn't just affect you," Levy said. "It affects every other person on the road with you."

No one testified against the bill, which includes an exceptions for commercial truck drivers, police officers and firefighters and some state Department of Transportation employees.

But Republican Frank McNulty of Highlands Ranch said he thought the measure was an overreaction and that use of a cell phone while driving should not be treated any differently than "tuning the iPod or having a Big Mac."

Aside from McNulty, the only other member of the committee to vote "no" on HB 1094 was Rep. Glenn Vaad, R-Mead. Republicans Randy Baumgardner, Steve King and Marsha Looper voted with the majority.

The bill now moves to the House Appropriations Committee.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

FASTER To Hit Senate Floor

The bill that would raise motor vehicle registration fees to pay for improvements and repairs to the state's highways and bridges cleared the Senate Appropriations Committee this morning, opening the door for the whole Senate to consider the controversial proposal.

SB 108, sponsored by Sen. Dan Gibbs, D-Silverthorne, was approved on a 6-4 party-line vote after the committee defeated GOP attempts to eliminate a study of alternative means to finance the state's transportation needs.

That alternative system, called "Vehicle Miles Transferred" or VMT, would, if adopted, require drivers to pay a fee based on the number of miles driven instead of a tax on each gallon of gasoline purchased.

The study would involve asking Coloradans to volunteer to participate. Gibbs said he thinks the study would be unlikely to have any significant impact on the way the state finances its transportation system for at least 20 years.

The measure now heads to the full Senate.

Weissman Again Tries to Get Rid of Death Penalty to Pay For Cold Case Investigations

Rep. Paul Weissman, D-Louisville, is ready to try again to convince his colleagues to shift money from the state's rarely-used death penalty to cold-case investigations.

According to a report in this morning's Gazette (Colorado Springs), Weissman will soon introduce a bill that would eliminate Colorado's death penalty.

The money saved would be made available to the state attorney general's office for investigations of unsolved crimes, including murders.

The Gazette article quoted Senate president Peter Groff as saying he is not sure the bill's prospects are entirely positive.

Report Says Groff Backs Elimination of Personal Property Tax

The Democratic president of the Senate will back a GOP bill aimed at eliminating the state's personal property tax, at least as it affects businesses, according to a Denver Post report.

The article, by the Post's John Ingold, says Sen. Peter Groff, D-Denver, has told members of the Select Committee on Job Creation and Economic Growth that he believes the proposal by freshman Sen. Mark Scheffel, R-Parker, would strengthen Colorado's economy.

The personal property tax requires business owners to pay a tax every year on their physical assets, including such mundane items as desks, computers and printers.

Scheffel's bill, if enacted into law, would phase the tax out over 20 years.

SB 85 is sponsored in the House by Reps. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, and Kevin Priola, R-Brighton.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Despite Partisan Battle, Carbon Monoxide Alarm Bill Gets Preliminary House OK

The House of Representatives gave preliminary approval Monday to a bill that will require builders of new homes and sellers of existing homes, as well as landlords, to install carbon monoxide detectors.

The measure, which was inspired by the recent deaths of a Denver family on the west slope and a college student at the University of Denver, cleared the chamber on a voice vote after several Republican amendments failed.

Among those unsuccessful efforts to change the bill was a proposal to require all state buildings, including college dormitories, to install CO alarms.

But sponsoring Rep. John Soper, D-Thornton, pointed out that most universities already require their installation and that most state nursing home facilities use boilers, which are physically separate from living quarters.

HB 1091 now moves on to a third and final reading in the House before heading over to the Senate.