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Legislative Year: 2018 Change

Colorado Eyes & Ears »

The Wednesday end of this year’s legislative session is in sight, and legislators have some busy days and perhaps a few long evenings ahead of them before adjournment comes.

As usual, the legislature left a lot of big issues until the end. But significant progress was made last week on some centerpiece bills. So it looks like lawmakers will manage to pull it all together, something they almost always seem to do despite the obstacles.

The 2017-18 budget has been passed, the complicated fix for the hospital provider fee seems to be a done deal and legislators may even agree on the vexing issue of how school districts should share extra revenues with charter schools.

Get more detail on what’s at stake in the final days in this Denver Post article.

And read on for review the way things stood on Friday.

As if they don’t have enough on their plates in the session’s final days, lawmakers were presented with a big new energy bill Friday.

House Bill 17-1372 would require energy companies to disclose locations of subsurface facilities and share development plans with affected local governments. It’s in response to the recent fatal house explosion in Firestone.

Even though the final gavel will fall May 10, Colorado lawmakers were already behind on deciding most of this year’s toughest issues – transportation funding, school finance, marijuana regulation and liquor laws.

Legislators are natural-born procrastinators, and there’s an end-of-session logjam every year. But many Capitol observers think things are messier this year, partly because seemingly unrelated issues are intertwined in single bills.

Let’s get the accomplishments out of the way first, because it’s a shorter list.

The budget – Everyone at the Capitol breathed a sigh of relief Wednesday when the Senate voted 33-1 to pass SB17-254, the state budget for 2017-18. The House approved the bill earlier, but the votes came weeks after the deadline for passing the budget. That’s a key accomplishment because the state constitution requires passage of a balanced annual budget. But the overall budget situation remains unsettled because other related bills remain in play – see below for details

Construction defects – The legislature has been stalemated for years on the issue of how condominium owners can sue developers for shoddy construction. Real estate interests feel current law makes it too easy to sue, resulting in expensive liability insurance rates for developers. Proponents of reform argue that has led developers to build apartments instead and that more condos are needed to help ease the state’s affordable housing crisis. HB17-1279 changes the process for condo owner lawsuits in a way that backers believe will reduce litigation. It passed the Senate 33-0 Thursday.

A big complicated bill

The broader budgetary issues that remain unresolved include transportation funding, school support and assistance for rural hospitals.

All of those issues are crammed together in a single measure, SB17-267, which carries the broad title of “Sustainability of Rural Colorado. (Legislative procedures generally require that a bill cover only a “single subject,” although that’s a rule subject to flexible interpretations.)

The “rural” parts of the bill include some earmarked funding for small school districts and rural highways. The centerpiece of the bill is reclassification of the Hospital Provider Fee so its revenues won’t count against the annual state revenue cap. The fee plus the federal matching funding it attracts are used to reimburse hospitals – rural and otherwise – for the costs of treating poor and uninsured patients. Bills already passed this session would reduce fee revenues, threatening payments to rural hospitals.

The bill also includes funding to pay off transportation bonds.

And supporters want to include a fistful of other, tenuously related provisions in the bill, including use of marijuana tax revenues for schools, higher co-pays by Medicaid patients, a cut in the business personal property tax and adjustment of the state revenue ceiling.  The bill has been the focus of prolonged negotiations, but it appeared Thursday that the deal was coming together. The Senate gave initial approval to the bill early Friday afternoon, with no amendments and surprisingly short discussion.

Meanwhile, a separate – and clean – transportation funding bill was introduced just a few days ago and already has passed two Senate committees. SB17-303 is somewhat similar to a measure killed earlier in the session in that the new bill would require voter approval of a tax increase.

The annual school funding measure, SB17-296, is also messy, given that the Senate Education Committee added controversial amendments that propose to grab marijuana revenues previously earmarked for other, non-education programs and also to require that school districts uniformly share their tax override revenues with charter schools.

Those provisions were stripped by one vote on the Senate floor during a debate that was interrupted several times to settle parliamentary disputes.

GOP Sen. Owen Hill, who's pushing charter revenue sharing, said he'd pursue that issue in the House, separate from school funding. Those sharing provisions are in a separate measure, SB17-061. It passed the Senate but has been bottled up by Democratic House leadership – hence the move to put the language in the finance bill.

Other big bills that are moving slowly include a measure to reform the Division of Youth Corrections, a proposed big reorganization of the state energy office and three marijuana bills that deal with pot tax rates, licenses for marijuana research and restrictions on public consumption.

Before the energy bill surfaced, the winner of the Johnny-come-lately award was HB17-1370, which was introduced Monday night and had its first House committee hearing Wednesday morning. It was killed in another committee Friday morning.

The bill would have opened the door for Wal-Mart, Target and large independent liquor stores to gain additional liquor licenses but was opposed by various other factions of the fractious booze industry. A similar bill was killed earlier in the session. Legislation expanding licenses for the big grocery chains was passed in 2016.

Still time for ceremony: Despite the pile of bills hanging over their heads, lawmakers spent several hours over the last 10 days speechifying on purely ceremonial resolutions covering such issues as Holocaust Awareness Week, Gold Star families, the importance of honeybees, children of fallen service members, workers who died on the job, autism awareness, motorcycle safety, the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War, the Armenian genocide, space exploration, second chances for convicts and a scenic highway near Grand Junction that’s beloved by cyclists.

By the numbers: More than 680 bills have been introduced during the 2017 session – about 50 of them in the last two and a half weeks, well past deadlines for new bill introductions. Legislative deadlines of all kinds are routinely ignored by leadership. 

Update: Last month we detailed legislators’ marijuana tax spending spree, which threatened to overspend the state pot fund by $8 million. The Joint Budget Committee, when reconciling House and Senate amendments to the 2017-18 budget bill, erased that deficit by trimming some marijuana spending proposed by the two houses and flat-out rejecting other proposals.

-- Todd Engdahl, updated May 7, 6:30 p.m.

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