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Legislative Year: 2015 Change
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Colorado Eyes & Ears »

Ernest Luning, The Colorado Statesman

Three months after being sworn in, Secretary of State Wayne Williams has mostly stayed out of the news, and that’s the way he likes it.

It’s a marked contrast from Williams’s predecessor, fellow Republican Scott Gessler, an election law attorney who embraced the nickname “honey badger,” a varmint known for the relentlessness of its attack. Where Gessler seemingly courted controversy — and was the target of one complaint after another from Democrats — Williams is taking a more conciliatory approach, working closely with county clerks across the state and stressing his office’s mission providing services to voters, businesses and nonprofit groups.

“The role, once you’re in there, isn’t about which party you’re in, it’s how you serve the citizens,” Williams said in an interview with The Colorado Statesman. “There are some things I might do differently than another individual, but I try to work very hard to make sure this government office operates the way we would if we were trying to attract customers.”

Secretary of State Wayne Williams is working to unify the states’ election systems before the 2016 presidential election.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

The reviews of Williams have been glowing from officials and activists alike, including some who routinely clashed with Gessler at nearly every turn.

“Wayne is trying to mend a lot of the broken relationships that happened in the previous administration between the clerks and the secretary of state’s office,” said Denver County Clerk Debra Johnson, a Democrat. “More important, though, is how he is listening to what the clerks need,” she said, adding that she has “great conversations, a great working relationship” with Williams.

Arapahoe County Clerk Matt Crane, a Republican, sounded a similar note.

“Wayne has really made an effort to rebuild the relationship between the secretary’s office and the clerks,” he said. “It has to be a partnership between the clerks and the secretary, and I think that’s been lost over the last few years.” Williams, Crane said, is taking a collaborative approach when it comes to drafting legislation and rules, working to “come up with solutions that make sense for everybody.”

That Williams is patching up relations with clerks might not come as a huge surprise — he was El Paso County clerk when he ran last fall, the first time in the state’s history that a sitting clerk has been elected secretary of state — but he’s winning rare praise even from typically critical quarters.

“There’s a lot more communication,” said Elena Nuñez, executive director of Colorado Common Cause. “Secretary Williams has been willing to sit down and find common ground when we can do that, and that’s a great approach coming from the secretary of state’s office.”

She pointed to a bill — Senate Bill 15-060 — that Common Cause originally opposed but, after working on amendments with Williams’s office, the organization was eventually “excited to support it, thanks to the secretary’s leadership,” she said. “I think it will result in better legislation going forward.” (The bill, which has passed both chambers unanimously, allows residents to update their voter registration when they update driver’s licenses.)

“We’ve tried to concentrate our efforts in the Legislature on those issues that have a good chance of passing,” Williams said, acknowledging that most of the legislation his office has worked on this year amounts to “cleaning up around the edges.” The split majorities in the Legislature, he added, encourage practical compromise.

Also included on his office’s legislative agenda are a bill allowing voters to opt out of receiving a mail ballot and potentially a proposal for the state to help pay for 24-7 ballot drop boxes in counties that might not be able to afford it. (The cost can run as high as $10,000 for sites that don’t already have surveillance cameras installed.)

Williams has also put together a bipartisan task force to study questions about how poll watchers can operate in elections conducted mostly by mail ballot, a response to a bill that died earlier this session “because it wasn’t quite ready yet,” he said.

Down the road, Williams said he wants to figure out a constitutional amendment to run on next year’s ballot to resolve conflicts between requirements for military and overseas voters and constitutional deadlines for recall elections.

“We’ll work with the Bipartisan Election Advisory Committee to say how we write this in a way that doesn’t mess with recalls one way or the other, but changes the deadline so you don’t have a law that says you send out ballots 45 days ahead of time and a constitution that says you only know who the candidates are 15 days ahead of time,” he said. “We ought not to put a clerk in the position of having to choose which law to violate.”

Ahead could be a change to reduce statutory requirements for the number of voting sites in some counties. “Since we’re sending everyone a mail ballot, the idea is you don’t need as many sites, and that’s certainly the way voting trends are headed,” he said, noting that more than 75 percent of voters who didn’t cast mail ballots showed up on Election Day and half the remainder voted the day before. “Some counties — El Paso, Jefferson and Arapahoe — had to have a dozen sites for 100 people” in the weeks before Election Day, he said. “Should there be an in-person option? Sure, but do you need that many?”

But like other potential changes, that one might have to wait until after next year, when the state conducts a presidential election, Williams said.

“The eyes of the nation may be upon Colorado. If the election’s close, Colorado is likely to be a key factor deciding it,” he said with a rueful smile. “If the election’s not close, the clerks rest very easy.”

But there’s no way to tell in advance, so Williams is moving ahead with plans to pick a uniform voting system for the state. The effort, begun under Gessler, will replace the hodgepodge of voting systems accrued by counties over the past couple decades, including some that use operating systems that are no longer supported and others that lack basic functions, such as automatic feeds for ballot counting machines.

Denver is piloting one system in its upcoming municipal election and as many as five vendors could participate in test runs around the state in November. After that, a pilot-review committee will assess the performances and make recommendations so that counties that want to replace their systems can do so before next year’s primary election.

“The notion is to come up with one system statewide, but the committee might come up with a different recommendation. They might say that in small counties, this one works best, in large counties this works best. The downside with a patchwork of voting systems, like we have right now, is when you have a complete turnover of everybody in your clerk’s office, if your system’s not the same as your neighbor’s, who’s going to help? And how do you write a regulation that covers how you run something if there’s 16 different ways of doing things in the state?” Williams said.

“We want to make sure that when it comes time for the 2016 election that we’re ready,” he said, noting that there are 18 new clerks around the state and likely to be 20 by the time next fall rolls around. “That’s a third of our clerks. We want to make sure we provide the support for them that they need and they’re ready to run this very challenging election.”

He said that intensive training with clerks and their staff is starting this spring, emphasizing the importance of solving problems with elections before they happen. “It’s the most visible thing a clerk does,” he said. “If I get your motor vehicle registration wrong, I have time to fix it. If I get the election wrong, I don’t.”

While Williams is winning praise for his approach, there’s still disagreement over some election policy, such as his contention that some voters should provide photo identification when they register or vote. Williams said he supports changing the law to require photo I.D. for those who register during the window when ballots are out, although anyone without a photo I.D. could register before that.

“I think you need to have that protection, that security there,” he said. “We want to make sure that everyone who can legally vote is allowed to vote. But we want to have that protection so the integrity’s safe as well, there’s that balance.”

Nuñez said that Common Cause and Williams “are in very different places” when it comes to photo I.D., though Johnson opened a door to working with Williams to find common ground.

“Voter I.D. keeps coming up every year,” Johnson said. She’s been talking with other clerks about the question. “Let’s be on the forefront with this. It’s not going to go away. I think we need to sit down and have that conversation.” Pointing out that the list of acceptable identification was concocted years ago, she added, “How do we expand it? How do we tighten it? Those are the things we need to talk about.”

Williams also points out that, while elections might be the most visible activity his office conducts, other work dominates the secretary of state’s operations, including overseeing bingo games and raffles, certifying notaries and providing something called an apostille, a document authenticating birth certificates and marriage licenses, typically for foreign governments. And it’s performing those tasks, he said, where partisanship disappears.

“I was elected as a county commissioner as a Republican, but once you’re there, you serve everybody. If someone called up and said my road hasn’t been plowed yet, I never pulled up that person’s voter registration. The roads had no party affiliation.”

It’s the same conducting business in his new position, Williams said.

“We’re trying to make it so it’s easy to set up a business, easy to set up a nonprofit, easy to employ people, easy to provide aid to the community, so that government can be the help, as opposed to the hindrance,” he said. “The motto here is helping people achieve the American Dream.”

Ann Schmike from April 15 Colorado Chalkbeat

The State Board of Health voted unanimously today to approve rules that would require parents to submit non-medical exemption forms opting children out of immunizations more frequently to schools and child care facilities.

The change, which will take effect July 1, 2016, requires parents of K-12 children to submit personal belief or religious exemption forms annually and parents of younger children to submit the forms up to five times prior to kindergarten. (See this story for more background.)

A related provision meant to reduce the paperwork burden on schools will create an online exemption form that parents can submit directly to the state health department.

Currently parents have to submit an exemption form just once during their children’s schooling.

Health department officials say the more stringent requirements, which are still far from the strictest in the country, will help reduce exemptions claimed out of convenience rather than conviction and help push down Colorado’s higher-then-average immunization exemption rates.

Today’s hearing comes about a year after the state legislature passed House Bill 14-1288, which required schools to release immunization and exemption rates upon request and assigned the Board of Health to examine the exemption frequency issue.

The vote took place after a public comment session that featured a number of speakers who expressed strong support for the change, several who opposed the change, and several who said they wished the rules made it even harder to claim exemptions.

In the brief discussion that followed public comment, some board members agreed that the rules need to be even tougher, but said the change strikes a balance between two extremes.

“I am concerned that it doesn’t go far enough, but I do think it is a good first step,” said Board Member Jill Hunsaker-Ryan.

In addition to the exemption frequency rule, the Board of Health approved a plan to create a public database of immunization and exemption rates for all Colorado schools and child care facilities. That database represents a major expansion of the work Chalkbeat Colorado started in February when it published a first-of-its-kind database of immunization compliance and exemption rates for more than 400 schools in the state’s 20 largest districts.

The state’s database, expected in the 2016-17 school year, will create a standardized system for reporting school immunization rates, and set an annual Dec. 1 deadline for districts to report their data to the state. Since such a reporting deadline doesn’t currently exist, Chalkbeat’s database included rates that were compiled at all different times during the school year.

Finally, the rule changes approved today include an overview of a new online immunization module that’s being created by the state for parents who want more information. The module will include information on vaccine benefits and risks, vaccine safety, Colorado immunization rates, vaccination schedules, and a video on how vaccines work.

At least two public commenters argued that the module should include information on the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, which provides financial compensation to people hurt by vaccines. After the public comment period, state officials said that was a reasonable suggestion and information on the topic would be added.

Tessa Cheek on April 7, 2015

Senate Republicans still hate the pay equity commission

After much debate and even a little bipartisan support in the House, a bill to continue the state’s pay equity commission died along party lines in the Senate State Affairs committee yesterday. The commission, which Senate Republicans have now voted twice to discontinue, is supposed to study gender- and race-based inequity in wages and to propose legislation and business practices to narrow that gap.

Thank you @jessie4CO for fighting for #EqualPay for Colorado women and minorities. Unfortunate CO Republicans are working against. #coleg

— Jessie Danielson (@jessiedanielson) April 7, 2015

Republicans on the committee said they voted against continuing the commission for the same reason their colleagues on the business committee did over two months ago — namely, because it failed to recommend solutions to the worsening problem of pay inequity.

“Over the last five years, when the commission was in effect, they had seven statutory responsibilities and they only got to half of them. They weren’t doing what they needed to do,” said Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling.

Rep. Jessie Danielson, D- Wheat Ridge, was behind the bill to continue the commission in the House. Had her bill passed, the commission would have been granted a full-time staff person, which Danielson said would have gone a long way to uppig productivity on the commission and making it possible for it to complete its best business practices and wage equality recommendations list for legislators.

Danielson called Republicans opposition to the commission “indefensible” and stated in a release: “Killing the Pay Equity Commission is a slap in the face to all Colorado women.”

 Anti-cyber harassment bill was nearly a pro-RFRA bill

H/T Kristen Wyatt at the AP, who was the first to report that in passing a bill to update current harassment codes to include “indirect” harassment through social media, Senate Republicans also tacked-on an amendment to protect all “religious or philosophical” speech.

No way, said Rep. Daniel Kagan, D-Cherry Hills Village, who served on the joint House-Senate conference committee to hammer out a compromise on the bill.

This amendment would mean it’s not harassment to threaten Muslims w death, retorts @DanielKagan — Kristen Wyatt (@APkristenwyatt) April 6, 2015

Ultimately, House Dems agreed to let the provision stay as long as there was a clarification that only speech already protected under the First Amendment would qualify. The revised cyber harassment bill will now head back to both chambers for final approval.

Keep your testing reform bills straight 

With no fewer than ten proposals on standardized testing reform/ reduction/ opt-outs circulating at the Capitol — and with lawmakers’ allegiances to each changing by the day, if not the hour — it can be a test for reporters and lobbyists and everyone else just to keep it all straight.

Chalkbeat came to the rescue with a nifty tracker: Click to become less confused.

By Tessa Cheek on Mar 30, 2015 02:54 pm  The Cycle of Poverty

The Colorado House debated a series of poverty-related bills on Monday. First, lawmakers passed a ban on using Electronic Benefit Cards in strip clubs and weed dispensaries. Then, legislators battled over two measures to raise minimum wage. Rep. Daniel Kagan, D-Cherry Hills Village, used that juxtaposition to describe how the cycle of poverty costs taxpayers and debases the poor:

“After we impoverish them, and we subsidize them, we then humiliate them with rules that say: ‘You didn’t earn that money. We gave you that money, so you can’t use your benefits card in a strip club or a liquor store, because you are scrounging from us.’ So we impoverish, we subsidize, and we humiliate… I urge you to stop this cycle and start paying our lowest-earning workers a living wage, so we don’t have to subsidize them, and we don’t feel encouraged to humiliate them as well.”

Higher education victory for veterans 

Measures to increase higher-education funding have not exactly been bipartisan this session. Democrats’ measures to give top Colorado high school students free in-state tuition, to cap tuition increases indefinitely and to make student loan repayments tax deductible have all failed on party lines.

But today, the House unanimously approved a measure that would extend in-state tuition to all Colorado veterans, their families and spouses. The change is required in order for the state to keep up with federal requirements. Feshman Rep. Jon Keyser, R-Morrison, presented a bill that snags $55 million in matching federal GI dollars to fund it.

In-state tuition for veterans bill passed unanimously and now moves on to the Senate. Thanks to @Jon_Keyser. #coleg pic.twitter.com/QIiMeQAEOj

— Rep. Pete Lee (@PeteLeeColorado) March 30, 2015

Dr. Chaps takes aim at reporters in latest episode of “Pray in Jesus Name”

After inflammatory comments about the recent feticide in Longmont dominated last week’s headlines, Rep. Gordon Klingenschmitt, R-Colorado Springs, took to his televangelist series as alter ego Dr. Chaps to apologize for his comments and to decry the reporters who covered them.   

You’ll notice that The Colorado Independent’s columnist Mike Littwin has a starring role in the rebuttal portion of the show.

Hickenlooper gets his shake on

With textbook Hickenlooper charm, the state’s governor tweeted a special blend of goofiness and Colorado values with this carbon-neutral bike blender:

Move over, standing desk. This stationary bike blends a smoothie while you ride it. #multitasking #efficiency pic.twitter.com/rhcmIkgNO4

— John Hickenlooper (@hickforco) March 27, 2015

 

By Tessa Cheek on Mar 26, 2015 02:39 pm

Funding the felony DUI 

With only $5 million in new spending available to each legislative chamber because of this year’s expected TABOR (Taxpayer Bill of Rights) refunds, bill-pitching quickly has turned into a fiscal defense as much as a policy debate.

Reps. Lori Saine, R-Firestone, and Beth McCann, D-Denver, seem to know how it’s done. They got their pricey felony DUI bill through the finance committee on Wednesday after changing the policy so that the felony kicks in on an offender’s forth DUI rather than the third. That brought the cost of the policy down by a $1 million to $1.4 million in the first year.

Sen. Steadman has a plan for your pot taxes 

Due to the mind-boggling intricacies of TABOR, lawmakers are gearing up to ask Colorado voters/ taxpayers if they can keep revenue from recreational pot taxes for the third time. Joint budget committee member Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, took the lead on this one. He’s drafting a bill that would put the pot tax question on voters’ ballots and tell them exactly what the state would do with that $58 million if they get to keep it.

Steadman previewed the bill on Wednesday in a discussion that was as much about strategizing around voters’ perceptions as it was about how to spend the money. So far it looks like at least $40 million would go to school construction, a move voters already approved when they voted for high sales taxes on recreational weed in the first place.

The budget looms

Rep. Tracy Kraft-Tharp, D-Arvada, has a bill, stuck in the appropriations committee, designed to fund a statewide, high-tech fire-and-flood-prediction system. It will cost at least $2 million in the first year. After three years at the Capitol, she knows this season well: the prebudget frenzy. Throughout the session, lawmakers have angled and cajoled for their bills, some of which even have bipartisan support. But when it comes to the state’s budget – constitutionally-mandated to be balanced – it’s not about passing bills. Now, it’s time to make sure the state has enough money to pay for them.

“There’s five million dollars per chamber, so decisions will have to be made,” said Kraft-Tharp of this year’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights-sapped budget. The Taxpayer Bill of Rights, TABOR, doesn’t just give Coloradans the right to vote on tax hikes, it also puts a cap on how much money the state can spend, even through fee-funded programs.

When it comes to fighting fires, Kraft-Tharp is trying to make sure there is a good return on investment. “We spend billions on fires every year … If you spend two million dollars up-front, then the return on investment will be great because we’ll know exactly where to send our planes, our fire fighters.”

That said, Kraft-Tharp pointed out that she’s not just fighting her colleagues for a chunk of her chamber’s $5 million; she’s also competing with herself. She has a workforce development bill and a tax refund for small Colorado businesses that research and design clean technology and medical devices. The state can’t afford them all, and she knows it.

“We have to be creative and have a little patience,” she said of the looming funding frenzy. “I have a belief that bad bills tend to go away and good bills tend to get taken care of.”

Thank you for smoking

Despite being among the top 10 healthiest states in the nation, it turns out Colorado is lagging when it comes to taxing and regulating tobacco products. The state ranks 34th for cigarette taxation. According to Tobacco-Free Kids, Colorado spends nearly $400 million Medicaid dollars each year directly on smoking-related health issues. Yet a bill passed back in 1986 penalizes local governments that set their own taxes or regulations on tobacco.

Colorado ranks 18th in the nation for adult smokers. Data via AmericasHealthRankings.org

Today the legislature is considering a bipartisan bill, HB 1257, to remove that old provision. The big-tobacco lobby is out in force.

Just relax

A sure sign that the long days of the legislature are upon us: Lawmakers flocked to the Old Supreme Court chambers today for a few minutes of complimentary massages. Lucky them.

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