Friday, April 10, 2009

Groff Appointment to U.S. Department of Education Post Announced

Senate president Peter Groff, D-Denver, is going to Washington, D.C.

U.S. secretary of education Arne Duncan announced Friday that Groff, 45, has been appointed director of the Faith-Based and Community Initiatives Center, which is housed in the office of the secretary.

The press release does not indicate when the appointment is expected to take effect.

Senate Decides to Tap Pinnacol Funds to Close Budget Hole

The Senate decided late Thursday night to close a $300 million funding hole for the state's higher education system by transferring $500 billion from Colorado's workers compensation insurer.

The move, which has drawn intense fire from Republicans and from Pinnacol itself, would leave the insurer with a reserve of $200 million.

Some legislators argued that the move, authorized by two Senate bills, would expose the state to a lawsuit and that the money might never be available to help close the state's huge budget shortfall.

The two bills that would open the door to a transfer of Pinnacol assets to the state's general fund are SB 273 and SB 281. The first was preliminarily approved in the Senate Thursday on a 19-14 vote. Two Democrats opposed it, while Sen. Al White, R-Hayden, joined most Democrats in support. The second was gained preliminary approval, also on Thursday, on an 18-15 vote. Three Democrats opposed that bill, while White abandoned his party to support it. Both measures must gain final approval in the Senate before moving over to the House.

Republicans argued that the Pinnacol reserves do not belong to the state, since it represents premiums paid to Pinnacol by private businesses.

"This is Hugo Chavez legislation," Sen. Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield, said on the floor Thursday. "If a company is highly profitable, let's nationalize it."

Mitchell was making reference to the president of Venezuela, who has supported efforts to nationalize certain privately-owned industries in that country.

Pinnacol, which was created by the General Assembly and is chartered by the state, is not private. Its Board of Directors is appointed by the governor.

The move in the Senate, which came late Thursday evening, followed a confusing day of twists and turns in the ongoing budget debate at the Capitol.

For the first time in the state's history the Senate rejected a budget recommended by the Joint Budget Committee. Senate president Peter Groff, after consulting with minority leader Josh Penry, R-Fruita, sent the "long bill" back to the JBC for reconsideration so that the $300 million cut to higher education spending could be avoided.

The members of the JBC promptly sent the "long bill" right back to the Senate, with members of the committee from both parties later making clear that they had considered all reasonable alternatives.

Groff, when he sent the budget back to the JBC, asked the panel to consider whether to recommend repeal of about $2 billion in tax credits.

A state supreme court decision last month indicates that the General Assembly can repeal tax credits without approval of Colorado's electorate as long as that action does not result in revenue growth in excess of the limit specified in the Taxpayers Bill of Rights.

Meanwhile, Penry's Republicans argued for furloughs and layoffs of state employees and for across-the-board appropriations reductions to all state agencies and departments.

But the JBC rejected those suggestions, with members saying they oppose furloughs and layoffs and that there isn't time to consider either spending reductions or revocation of tax credits before this year's legislative session ends May 6.

Report: Groff to Resign, Accept Post in Obama Administration

Senate president Peter Groff, D-Denver, will resign soon to accept an appointment as an official in the U.S. Department of Education, according to a report in today's Denver Post.

The article, by the Post's veteran capitol reporter Lynn Bartels, says that Groff declined to answer questions about the appointment from President Barack Obama, which Bartels wrote was confirmed by two sources.

The veteran legislator, who was first elected to the House of Representatives in 2000, was appointed to the Senate in 2003 as a replacement for former Sen. Penfield Tate. He became the first African-American president of the Colorado Senate in 2007 and, this year, joined with Rep. Terrance Carroll, D-Denver, as the first African-American team leading both chambers of the General Assembly in the state's history.

Groff is a leading advocate for education reform and a strong supporter of charter schools.

Another Post article says that Sens. Betty Boyd, D-Lakewood, John P. Morse, D-Colorado Springs, Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, and Abel Tapia, D-Pueblo, are the leading candidates to replace Groff as Senate president if he does, in fact, resign his seat.

Groff was re-elected to his second full term in the Senate last year. That term is scheduled to expire in January 2013.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Ritter Signs HB 1260

A bill that will allow unmarried people to share employee benefits and plan their estates, and which is likely to benefit gay couples, was signed into law by Gov. Bill Ritter Thursday.

HB 1260 allows any two adults to enter into "designated beneficiary agreements." Such agreements would allow for one adult to designate a person of their choice, even if that person is not their spouse, as the recipient of property, life insurance proceeds, retirement benefits and other assets of their estate.

It would also allow the designation of any other adult as a person who can make medical decisions on one's behalf.

Republican critics of the measure had criticized it as a back-door attempt to undercut the Colorado electorate's rejection of Referendum I, which would have authorized civil unions in the state.

But Ritter's spokesperson said the governor considers the bill to be an effort to help people get their business and personal affairs in order during a time when they are ill or facing death.

Owens Publishes Editorial Column Critical of Pinnacol Move

Former Gov. Bill Owens is publicly urging the General Assembly to refrain from transferring assets from the state-chartered workers compensation insurer to help close Colorado's budget shortfall.

In an editorial published in this morning's Denver Post, Owens said that the proposal is "stunning in its audacity and brazen in its goal."

Sen. Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, has introduced legislation that would amend a 2002 law that protected Pinnacol Assurance's assets from state seizure.

Owens argued that Shaffer's bill would force Pinnacol to raise premiums and lower benefit payments. He also said it backtracks from a bargain made to secure passage of the 2002 legislation, in which Pinnacol agreed the state would not be responsible for its liabilities and the state agreed that Pinnacol's assets would not be subject to transfer to the general fund.

"The legislature shouldn't do it," Owens wrote. "If it does, the governor should veto it."

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

House Approves Cell Phone Ban

A bill that would make illegal, at least for the vast majority of motorists, the practice of holding a cell phone to the ear while driving cleared the House this morning.

The vote was 39-25. Six Republicans voted in favor of the bill, while five Democrats opposed it.

HB 1094 would require all drivers to employ hands-free equipment while talking on a wireless telephone.

The measure would also generally prohibit minors and school bus drivers from talking on a wireless telephone, even with a hands free device, while operating a motor vehicle. The only exception to that new statutory rule would be the use of the wireless telephone to contact a law enforcement agency.

The bill flatly prohibits, for all drivers, the practice of 'texting" while driving, as well as the use of electronic mail and Internet web-browsing and other applications requiring the use of a keyboard.

The bill exempts police officers, firefighters, emergency medical technicians and some commercial truck drivers from its strictures.

Drivers would be authorized to use a cell phone without a hands-free device in an emergency situation, such as when a person's life or safety is in danger or a crime is being committed. In addition, use of a wireless telephone would be permitted when necessary to report a "fire, traffic accident in which one or more injuries are apparent, a serious road hazard, a medical or hazardous materials emergency, or a person who is driving in a reckless, careless, or otherwise unsafe manner."

The ban on the use of a wireless telephone while driving would not apply when a vehicle is lawfully parked or when it is stopped on the shoulder of a road or highway.

A first offense would result in a $50 dollar fine. Subsequent offenses would draw a $100 fine. The bill does not authorize law enforcement officers to search or seize a wireless telephone used by a motorist in violation of its provisions.

HB 1094 now heads to the Senate. It is sponsored in that chamber of the General Assembly by Sen. Bob Bacon, D-Fort Collins.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Bill Aimed at Forcing IREA to Expand Programs for Energy Conservation Clears House Committee

A House committee approved Tuesday a measure that would require all rural electric cooperatives with more than 100,000 customers to implement conservation programs.

While the bill does not name any particular rural electric cooperative, it is aimed at the only such entity in Colorado with that many customers - Intermountain Rural Electric Association (IREA).

IREA, which is based in Sedalia and serves customers in Douglas, El Paso, Park, Teller, Clear Creek, Elbert, Arapahoe and Adams counties, has strongly resisted efforts to strengthen programs aimed at reducing electricity use.

The organization, through a vote of its members, opted out of Amendment 37 in 2005. That vote, in which only a small percentage of the cooperative's members voted, stood in contrast to the vote on Amendment 37 in its service territory. More than 50 percent of the electorate in IREA's service area supported Amendment 37 when it was on the ballot in 2004.

Under current state law rural electric cooperatives who have not opted out of Amendment 37 must generate 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020.

Under HB 1323, IREA would have to implement conservation and energy efficiency progams that would achieve a use of renewable energy equivalent to two percent of its 2008 sales by 2012 and to ten percent of its 2008 sales by 2020.

The bill, which is sponsored by Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, and Sen. Jennifer Veiga, D-Denver, must also be approved by the House Appropriations Committee before it is considered by the full House.

IREA, in addition to opting out of Amendment 37, has also spent large amounts of money on efforts to convince the public that global climate change is not happening or that it is a natural event.

A grass-roots organization called IREA Voices has been organized to advocate for greater use of renewable energy sources and energy conservation programs by the organization.

IREA Voices is sponsoring three candidates for seats on the annual election for seats on the organization's Board of Directors. The election for those seats is to be completed April 18.

Sen. Veiga to Retire at End of Session

A veteran Denver state senator has announced that she will retire at the end of this year's session of the General Assembly.

Sen. Jennifer Veiga, a Democrat who represents downtown and the north-central area of the Mile High City, has been a legislator since 1997.

Veiga, 46, said she would retire so that she could move to Australia with her long-term partner.

She was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1996. She moved to the Senate when a vacancy committee appointed her in 2003 to replace Doug Linkhart, who had been elected to the Denver City Council. Veiga won election to the Senate in 2004 and again in 2008.

Veiga served as House minority leader in 2003 and is currently chair of the Senate Business, Labor & Technology Committee.

She holds a bachelors degree in political science from the University of Colorado at Boulder and a law degree from George Washington University.

A Democratic vacancy committee for Senate District 31 will appoint her replacement.

Veiga has not indicated the specific date on which her resignation from the Senate will take effect.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Immigrant Tuition Bill Dies in Senate

The Senate killed Monday a controversial bill that would have allowed some children of undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition at state colleges and universities.

SB 170, which had drawn intense fire from minority Republicans, was defeated 18-16 on second reading.

Five Democrats joined with the chamber's Republicans to block the bill.