Legislative Year: 2015 Change

Colorado Eyes & Ears »

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

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.


By Tessa Cheek on Mar 24, 2015 02:59 pm

Private education tax credit launches a flurry of education amendments

For years, Senate Republicans have been trying to pass a tax credit for private K-12 education. Now that they’re in the majority, they have brought the tax credit to the floor. Democrats used the opportunity to discuss a slew of education issues, many of which had already died in committee this session.

The Democrats proposed to make student loans tax deductible, to create a state-run tuition plan, to make private schools subject to the same standardized tests and evaluations as public schools, and to postpone funding private education until public kindergarten and preschool have full funding.

In the end, one amendment did pass with unanimous support. Carried by President Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, the amendment made the tax credit refundable. That means families too poor to pay income tax could still get a check from the state to fund their children’s private education.

Cadman said he supported the move because it would help kids who need it the most.

Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, D-Westminster, who sponsored the amendment earlier in the debate, rallied his caucus to support it for a different reason.

“Make a Duck a Duck” amendment on SB45 just passed unanimously. State tax dollars will now be used as vouchers for private schools #coleg

— Jessie Ulibarri (@jessie4CO) March 24, 2015

Gun debate: What we talk about when we talk about “success” 

On the surface, lawmakers were fighting over a repeal of universal criminal-background checks for all gun purchases. In practice, they were debating how to measure the success of the existing universal background-check law.

Democrats in favor of retaining universal background checks for all firearms purchases — including private, or peer-to-peer sales — said the policy’s success should be measured by how many people were prevented from legally buying guns because they couldn’t pass a criminal background check. That’s nearly 6,000 would-be gun buyers since the law went on the books in 2013.

Republicans advocating a repeal of universal background checks focused on the peer-to-peer sales the bill was intended to cover, pointing out that only three people have been caught and convicted for privately buying a gun without a background check.

This disagreement about how to measure or even talk about the law’s success was never settled. The ships-passing-in-the-night debate lasted several hours. In the end, everyone voted as expected: 18 Republicans shouted “yes” to repealing the background-check law, and 17 Democrats shouted “no”.

Salazar still mulling the mascot debate

Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton spoke with us about his provocative bill to make American Indian school mascots subject to approval by a board of tribal members. The debate hasn’t left his mind, specifically the arguments of GOP lawmakers.

“That is the essence of institutionalized racism right there, that we don’t trust American Indians enough to allow them to make decisions about themselves,” said Salazar.  “Anything that you do, we still have to approve like you’re a bunch of children.’ That’s what really got to me, and I wish I had said so more clearly yesterday.”

As for his controversial introduction of the bill, which deployed other racial stereotypes and slurs to demonstrate how Indian students feel when confronted by names like “redskins,” Salazar said he has no regrets.

“This bill challenges social mores and norms, and we meant for that to happen,” he said. “We’re watching a sociology experiment take place with this bill … this is what our republic was set up for.”

“Debating Society” by Isaac Cruikshank, public domain.

Newsmaker Q&A: Rep. Dan Thurlow, voting his conscience and taking the heat

By Tessa Cheek on Mar 24, 2015 09:12 am

Freshman lawmaker Rep. Dan Thurlow, a Republican from Grand Junction, has been making a lot of headlines lately for voting with Democrats. He ran afoul of hard-charging, far-right-politics group Rocky Mountain Gun Owners for voting against a bill that would have made it easier for Coloradans to buy machine guns and hand grenades. He also became the subject of digital recall rumblings after he voted to ban psuedo-science “conversion therapy” for gay people and against so-called religious freedom measures that he thought were too broad and might lead to discrimination. Who is Dan Thurlow? We caught up with him last Friday.

So, there’s a “Recall Dan Thurlow” Facebook page? 

Here’s the whole background on me: I came [to the Capitol] with the idea that I’m a guy who’s at retirement age and I wanted to just do something different. One advantage I have is that I don’t have much worry about whether I’m reelected or not. What I think that does is free me up to vote the way I think I should vote.

As you know, the issues down here are not simple. There’s always a complication and usually a good argument on each side. So I try to read the bills before committee, to listen in committee and then I try to make a rational decision based on what I read and what I hear. That’s the only way I know how to do it. That’s what I promised my constituents when I ran for office. That’s what I’m doing. I absolutely understand they have the right to disagree with me and they have the right to vote against me if they want and to vote for me if they agree.

As far as the whole recall thing, I don’t know and I don’t care. I don’t think it’s a very big groundswell. It’s a free country. They have the right to do what they want to do.

Have you been hearing good things from constituents about your votes? 

Oh, absolutely. On the votes I’m taking, nine-to-one the response is positive. And what’s funny about it, it’s not just the positive of “I agree with you” … it’s positive as in “That’s how you should go about the process.”

As you know, constituents can’t read every bill — that’s not what a normal person with a life has time to do. If you go and look at the gun bills for instance, there were five of them and they were complicated. There was one I didn’t agree with and I’d be glad to sit down with anybody and explain that vote. So far, everybody that I talk to and explain it to goes, “Oh, I understand why that wasn’t a good bill,” even if you’re Second Amendment proponent, which I am.

This was the machine gun…

Machine guns and hand grenades. The bill wouldn’t have done anything to ban them, it was to make them easier to buy. Machine guns and hand grenades.

So that was the vote that put you afoul of Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, right? 

I really didn’t hear much right after that vote. The stuff started after the vote on conversion therapy and on [the religious freedom bills] 1161 and 1171. Those are bills that I’m glad to talk over with anybody. I understand the feelings people have. They were premised as being about religious freedom. Believe me, I support religious freedom, and think we have a lot of it. But the other side of the argument is that we have to allow people to live their lives the way they want to live them.

I believe the conservative position is for government to stay out of our life in a regulatory manner, in a tax manner, and for government to stay out of our bedrooms. That’s what I’ve supported. To me that’s the conservative position.

What’s the feedback you’re getting from your colleagues down at the Capitol? 

Literally every legislator that I’ve talked to that has any experience here has said, “Vote your convictions and, over time, that’s how you’ll be successful.”

So, last weekend state Republican Party Chairman Ryan Call was ousted i a tough election. He was seen as too establishment, too moderate. But he ushered in a big win for the party with Cory Gardner, who won his U.S. Senate seat by pitching himself as a ‘new kind of Republican’ who would lay off social issues. Is the pressure you’re drawing rising from the same fault-line in the party?

I guess I really don’t. I didn’t attend [the party] elections. I was in Grand Junction that weekend. I haven’t been tuned into the intricacies of those politics. I guess I don’t have a viewpoint on that.

in Just-

by: e.e. cummings (1894-1962)

N Just-
spring when the world is mud-
luscious the little
whistles far and wee
and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it's
when the world is puddle-wonderful...

Emily Dickinson

    A little Madness in the Spring
    Is wholesome even for the King,
    But God be with the Clown –
    Who ponders this tremendous scene –
    This whole Experiment of Green –
    As if it were his own!  

Tessa Cheek, The Colorado Independent:  Minimum wage, maximum disagreement

Last year, Colorado lawmakers engaged in a five-hour floor fight about raising the minimum wage. Were they considering hiking it to $15 an hour, as was done elsewhere? No. They were wrestling over a resolution in support of a Congressional proposal that would raise the national minimum wage to $10.10 an hour.

Since then, protestors arguing for a $15 minimum wage have orchestrated protests and civil disobedience sit downs around the nation, including here in Denver.

Rep. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, is not letting go of the topic. He has planned a two-pronged approach: He wants to repeal a 1999 law that prohibits local governments from setting their own minimum wage, and he wants to propose a ballot referendum that would ask voters directly to raise the minimum wage.

“Business groups are going to come at the local control issue saying it will create a patchwork of wages, which I understand,” said Moreno. “But there are places in Colorado where the cost of living is much higher than others and who knows better the cost of living than local officials who actually live in those communities?”

To answer that critique, his ballot measure will ask voters to raise the wage to somewhere between $10.10 and $12.50 an hour.

“Colorado voters like to vote on a lot of things. They like to vote on taxes, why not give them the opportunity to vote on raising the minimum wage?” he said.

But referring a legislative measure to the ballot takes a super two-thirds majority of votes. If he fails this year, Moreno said wage activists and union members are likely to run their own version in 2016.

“In that case it’s very much in the hands of those grassroots activists who believe that $10.10 or $12.50 doesn’t go far enough,” said Moreno. “Those who are opposed to a referred measure need to consider that, we could frame the issue on our terms.”

Senate President Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, was less than bullish on the idea.

You mean government mandates on how a business should operate?” he asked. “That’s pretty tough for us.”

Governor sticking to guns on mag-ban 

It wasn’t the first question gathered members of the press asked him Tuesday, but it was the most inevitable, because… guns! “What will you do if the 15-round ammunition magazine ban repeal actually makes it to your desk?”

“The magazine law, however many questions there are about it — how easy it is to enforce — it makes our state safer. We could not find a single example of someone defending their home or their property who ever used more than fifteen rounds, ever, not one. It’s not something people need for public safety. It is an inconvenience if you’re going to the shooting range…”

Hickenlooper clearly has been practicing how to talk on this issue. He has stumbled in high profile ways in the past. This time he said that 30 percent to 40 percent of police officers killed in the line of duty were shot down by guns stocked with more than 15 rounds. He also noted that high-capacity magazines have been used in the vast majority of mass shootings.

“Even if the repeal gets to my desk … I’d have real misgivings about signing something that doesn’t make our state safer and doesn’t provide any additional Second Amendment protections.”

Powdered alcohol ban/regulation suddenly makes sense 

In the time it took Colorado lawmakers to turn a ban on hypothetical product into a regulatory structure for it, the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau went and did something radical. Earlier this week, it approved powdered alcohol for sale/ distribution, making it a real thing. As with that other controversial recreational Colorado product (weed!), the plan is to regulate “Palcohol” like alcohol and keep it away from the kids. 

Tessa Cheek, The Colorado Independent:  House bans conversion therapy 

The American Psychiatric Association officially began opposing “conversion” or “reparative” therapy, the the psychological practice that tries to turn homosexuals into heterosexuals, back in 1998. Exodus International, the oldest and largest institution in the Christian ex-gay movement, said sorry and shut its doors in 2013. And this year, openly gay lawmaker Rep. Paul Rosenthal, D-Denver, proposed a bill to ban licensed mental health professionals from practicing conversion therapy.

The bill occasioned the kind of “How okay is gay? debate that the Capitol hasn’t seen since 2013, when civil unions legislation won passage after years of ugly defeat. Rep. Kathleen Conti, R-Littleton, argued that lawmakers should defend the right to fight being gay.

“Does a minor have the right to come to a therapist and say ‘I have unwanted sexual attractions. I know this is not going to take me down a good road in my life’s path?” asked Rep. Kathleen Conti, R-Littleton, arguing against the ban. “If a therapist wants to honor your wishes to pursue happiness in this way, it would risk their license… Say someone comes and says ‘I want to have my own biological children. Can you help me learn to set this attraction on the shelf, not change it, not diminish it, so that I can pursue a path that is more in keeping with my ultimate goals in life?'”

Supporters of the bill, particularly members of the LGBTQ caucus, retorted that gay people can have kids and that the pursuit of happiness means being who you are, not winning a fight against it every day.

“I found my happiness by being who I am,” said Rep. Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo, when the bill came up for a final vote on Tuesday. “But this bill isn’t about me, or any members of the LGBT caucus here. You see, we all made it. We survived. This bill is for the number of kids who don’t make it. Because trusted adults tell them that there is something wrong with them, that who they are is wrong and not good enough. That they will never be happy. That they need to change. Adults who should know better… Sexual orientation isn’t a choice. It’s not something that can be cured, because it’s not a sickness.”

Rep. Dan Thurlow, R-Grand Junction, joined the 34 Democrats in the House passed the ban. It now heads to the Republican-controlled Senate.

This sounds like Planned Parenthood

Tuesday lesson: Support for any bill on reproductive rights still can fall apart at any stage of the legislative process in Denver. Everything cracked and dissolved like a melting glacier for HB 1079 in the Senate Finance Committee hearing. The bill would have provided public funding and statewide expansion for a Western Slope program that offers year-round support and education about responsible choices to Medicaid-eligible teens. The program has proven successful at reducing teen pregnancy without the political hang-up of directly offering contraception.

The bill is sponsored by Democrats and Republicans. Senate President Pro Tem Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, is the Senate sponsor. The bill had bipartisan sponsorship in the House and passed on a hearty 46-19 vote there, but an opponent testified at Tuesday’s hearing that the program, known for years as “Get Real,” has the same name as a Planned Parenthood-sponsored program in Massachusetts.

Roberts and the folks who run the Colorado’s “Get Real” all testified that the two really, really are totally unrelated. But the damage had been done. Questions from Committee Chair Tim Neville, R-Littleton, got pointy. The bill failed on a party-line vote.

It’s not a good omen for a more controversial bipartisan teen pregnancy bill still in the works, which offers long-acting reversible birth control to at-risk teens.

Senate GOP takes leaf out of Everytown’s book

Following the party-line passage of the 15-round magazine ban repeal on Monday, Senate Republicans are making moves to keep the momentum going. They’re rolling in the Senate. Swing-district Democrats Sens. Kerry Donovan from Vail, Cheri Jahn from Wheat Ridge and Leroy Garcia from Pueblo have all agreed to co-sponsor the repeal.

But an identical repeal has already died in a House committee. Republicans in both chambers have said that their major goal is to get the repeal heard on the House floor, which means applying pressure to Democratic Speaker Dickey Lee Hullinghorst to assign the measure to a committee where it isn’t guaranteed to fail.

Pro-gun control group Everytown saw some big wins this year when it ran online petitions to get retailers like Chipotle to ban firearms at their premises. It now appears Senate leadership has taken a leaf out of the leverage-via-digital-populism playbook.

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