Colorado legislature’s special session to start with 2 bills, full action

Author: Marianne Goodland - October 2, 2017 - Updated: October 2, 2017

The inner dome and presidential portraits in the Colorado state Capitol in Denver. (gnagel, istockphoto)

As lawmakers return to the state Capitol for a special session Monday, they’ll be dealing with at least two bills intended to fix a drafting error that has led to quite the dust-up between Republicans and Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Senate President Pro-Tem Jerry Sonnenberg, a Sterling Republican, dismissed rumors on Sunday that Republican Senate President Kevin Grantham of Cañon City would bang the gavel to start the session and then adjourn the Senate, bringing the special session to a rapid end. 

Sonnenberg told Colorado Politics that he believes there are at least two bills — one in the Senate, the other in the House — that address the mistake made in the omnibus legislation from the 2017 regular session. 

He also talked about how his thinking has evolved on whether the mistake, once fixed, would require voter approval.

The error on lawmakers’ minds Monday has to do with Senate Bill 267, the law intended to save hospitals around Colorado from a half-billion-dollar budget cut, along with a laundry list of other provisions.

Sonnenberg had been working on a draft bill intended to address the problem, but a bill he didn’t plan to introduce until next January. And Sonnenberg indicated Sunday the bill doesn’t address a growing concern over the constitutionality of the fix. The measure’s intent to restore revenue to special districts that were inadvertently stripped of those dollars is now raising questions whether voters will ultimately have to decide that issue.

The draft bill’s legislative intent said that with the passage of SB 17-267, the General Assembly “inadvertently exempted” marijuana sales from the state’s general sales tax.

Under SB 267, retail marijuana sales were exempted from the state’s general sales tax. The retail marijuana sales tax, a different tax, was upped to the full 15 percent allowed under the law, meaning no change in the overall amount of sales tax collected. But by taking retail marijuana sales out of the state sales tax, that accidentally eliminated those revenues for a handful of special districts.

The largest of those districts is the metro Denver-area Regional Transportation District, which receives about a half million dollars per month from those marijuana taxes. The metro Denver-area Scientific and Cultural Facilities District, which funds more than 200 arts and cultural organizations, also is losing that revenue. Even if the problem is fixed in this week’s special session, it isn’t retroactive so those districts cannot recover those funds.

The draft bill notes a special health services district also is directly affected, and that there is some ambiguity about whether several other regional transportation authorities also would lose out.

The health services district is located in Montezuma County; the transportation authorities include El Paso and San Miguel counties, in the Roaring Fork and Gunnison valleys and in Sonnenberg’s hometown of Sterling.

The draft bill also includes a safety clause, meaning it would go into effect upon signature of the governor. That’s not where Sonnenberg is today.

When SB 267 was moving through the General Assembly in late April and early May, Sonnenberg dismissed calls from conservative groups, including the Independence Institute, that said moving the hospital provider fee out of TABOR revenue limits needed voter approval.

But since he began working on that draft, Sonnenberg’s views on the constitutionality of the fix have changed. He told Colorado Politics that once the draft started circulating, legislative leaders started raising questions about whether the fix, which would restore tax revenue to those special districts, might be something voters will have to decide.

Jon Caldara of the Independence Institute said the provider fee has been a “cascade of deception” by both Republicans and Democrats. The first was by Democrats who designated the revenue in the 2009 legislation as a fee, rather than as a “bed tax.” As a tax, it would have to be approved by voters as required by TABOR; designating it as a fee avoided that.

The next deception, Caldara said, is that the fee never shows up on patients’ bills. The third, and worst deception, was not seeking voter approval for SB 267, Caldara said. He believes the special session is a complete waste of time.

But should the fix pass the General Assembly, Caldara believes it should go to voters. “I expect Democrats will always use the loopholes that the state Supreme Court has given them. It’s depressing to see half the Republicans become as dishonest.”

The session begins Monday morning at 10 a.m.

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland is the chief legislative reporter for Colorado Politics. She's covered the Colorado General Assembly for 20 years, starting off in 1998 with the Silver & Gold Record, the editorially-independent newspaper at CU that was shuttered in 2009. She also writes for six rural newspapers in northeastern Colorado. Marianne specializes in rural issues, agriculture, water and, during election season, campaign finance. In her free time (ha!) she lives in Lakewood with her husband, Jeff; a cantankerous Shih-Tzu named Sophie; and Gunther the cat. She is also an award-winning professional harpist.