The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that government workers can't be forced to contribute to labor unions that represent them in collective bargaining, dealing a serious financial blow to organized labor.
Mornings are rough. Stop-and go-traffic on I-25 can feel more like a nauseating carnival ride than a highway. It’s no easier in the city. A car just ahead with out-of-state plates slams on its brakes and that cup of morning coffee flies through the air, staining your shirt. The car ahead is now attempting to parallel park, and doing a pretty poor job of it. The minutes tick by until traffic opens up enough to swerve angrily around the parallel parking pariah, narrowly avoiding a pedestrian who decided to walk diagonally across a busy downtown intersection. Arrive at work late, stained, smelling like dark roast and at peak levels of frustration. Time to start the day.
I was discharged from the U.S. Navy in July of 1970. After picking up a new Toyota Land Cruiser for $4,100 (a deal made possible through a purchase program available only to returning troops), my wife and I drove coast to coast with our two month old son, Byron, in a crib that slid neatly between the two lengthwise bench seats in the back of the Cruiser. We spent a month visiting relatives and touring national parks. It was the kind of vacation you only attempt when you are young and slightly stupid. Fortunately, Byron was the kind of baby that lures you into having another — quiet, rarely crying and willing to sleep through the night in a tent and strange motels.
It was at Jenny Lake in Teton National Park that I first encountered the mechanized, American family expedition. A large GMC pickup with a camper shell, a motorbike hanging in a rack on the front bumper, a fishing boat with Evinrude motor secured upside down on top of the camper and towing a small Jeep, pulled in next to us with four squealing kids.
Gov. John Hickenlooper and state Senate President Kevin Grantham, R-Canon City, say the process is already in motion to launch Senate confirmation hearings for the governor’s two recent appointees to the state’s Public Utilities Commission.
Grantham seems to be looking forward to it. “I think we’ll do it sooner rather than later,” he told The Colorado Statesman. “It’s going to be interesting.”
The PUC has become a politics headline maker in recent years, routinely drawing the eyes of lobbyists, activists and op-ed writers as it weighs how best to serve the public interest when regulating the state’s energy, water, transportation and telecommunications industries.
Hickenlooper two weeks ago announced the appointments to the three-member commission. Jeff Ackermann and Wendy Moser will take up positions vacated by Josh Epel and Glenn Vaad.
Ackermann most recently served as the Colorado Energy Office’s executive director. Before that, he was chief researcher for the PUC.
Moser was senior manager at Charter Communications, what the Wall Street Journal called a telecommunications”behemoth” after it bought Time Warner Cable in May for roughly $60 billion. Moser has also worked for Black Hills, the Colorado power company that has made headlines for the steep rates it charges Pueblo-area residents. Moser specialized in regulatory law and government relations.
The Colorado Springs Gazette last week described the selections as a “disappointment.” The paper characterized Ackermann as a bureaucrat and renewable energy champion, and Moser as an executive whose perspective has been shaped by defending corporate interests. The editorial writer argued the two would likely fail to effectively champion consumer rights.
At the Capitol this week, where the legislative session got underway, there also has been grumbling about Moser.
“I have had some consumer advocates express concern,” said Sen. Irene Aquilar, D-Denver. “The feeling is that we should take a close look and see if there’s a conflict of interest there.”
Aguilar served on an interim legislative task force this past fall that explored how to improve the state’s 9-1-1 emergency service, which has struggled to keep pace with the digital era. Mobile and internet-based emergency services have suffered increasing blackouts and long outage periods in vast rural and mountainous areas of the state. Past legislation aimed at addressing the issues centered on allowing the PUC to regulate 9-1-1 service. Telecommunications companies marshaled their army of lobbyists to limit PUC interference. Lawmakers across party lines were torn on the issue.
Hallway grumbling about Moser brings to mind what Grantham called the “strange circumstance” tied to the appointment to the PUC three years ago of Vaad. By “strange,” Grantham seemed to mean rare and a little surprising. He chuckled slightly at the memory.
Hickenlooper’s recent appointments took effect January 9, Monday of the week the legislative session opened. As is typical, Ackermann and Moser have been serving on the PUC while they await confirmation. That’s how Vaad was serving, too, except he served three years unconfirmed. In fact, his resignation, effective January 8, saved Hickenlooper from continuing a dance he had been doing with the state Senate since 2014.
The Vaad appointment drew an intense opposition campaign spearheaded by clean-energy advocates who saw Vaad, a former Republican lawmaker, as a champion of fossil fuel industry interests who might actively work against the interests of the state’s growing renewable energy sector. Members of the Senate received thousands of protest emails and phone calls opposing his confirmation.
As it happened, then-Senate President Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, never put the Vaad confirmation hearing on the chamber calendar. The appointment was read into the Senate record as the second-to-last order of business on May 7th, the last day of the 2014 legislative session. Hickenlooper then, for legal reasons, simply reappointed Vaad the day after the session adjourned.
And so it went. There was no messy Senate hearing. No Senate floor vote was ever taken under Democratic or Republican Senate leadership on the Vaad appointment. And now he’s gone.
“That was a lesson,” said Aguilar. “These commissioners can actually serve without being confirmed.”
That’s not going to happen this year, said Grantham.
“The appointments haven’t been read across the desk yet, but they will be,” he said. “We’re just now getting into the nitty-gritty this session. The two of them will get a grilling.”
He added that he believed the appointees were “clearly qualified.”
“The governor wants to make sure his appointments get confirmed,” he said. “He wouldn’t pick people that would have us all up in arms. That would be bad for us and bad for him and bad for the appointees.”
Hickenlooper’s office played down concerns.
“Both nominations have been made and sent to the Senate for confirmation,” the office wrote in response to questions. “The governor evaluated many candidates for the PUC. His nomination of Moser and Ackerman is indicative of their strong professional experience, subject matter expertise, and extensive knowledge of telecommunications and utilities, as well as their knowledge of the PUC’s responsibility to ratepayers.”
Sen. Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, has watched the PUC closely in recent years as it plays referee between Xcel Energy and Boulder, which is working to create its own clean-energy powered municipal utility.
“I think they’re both really good choices, very thoughtful. They understand the PUC and they understand the issues they’ll be considering,” Fenberg said. “I think there’s a healthy mix of interests and expertise among the members.”
Fenberg said it’s “not an inherently bad thing” that commissioners come from industry and have experience advocating for certain interests.
“The PUC is a complicated body. Most members of the public aren’t familiar with it and don’t know how it works,” he said. “It’s important to know how it works. For me, the most important thing is that they are smart people who know what they’re doing, and that they’re fair and follow the rules and processes.”
Aguilar said that, at this point, she thinks the confirmation process will be “fairly pro forma.”
“I think he’d only bring nominees he’s fairly sure will be confirmed.”
Which is not to say the confirmation requirement doesn’t work to watchdog appointments, she explained.
“There have been times when the governor has been told ‘Hey, this would be a difficult confirmation hearing,’ and then he appoints someone else. So, like so many things at the Capitol, the requirement for the confirmation does have an impact, even if perhaps not as publicly as it could have. In the case of clear conflict, the governor might withdraw the appointee’s name.”
The confirmation will likely begin with a vote in the Senate’s Business, Labor, and Technology Committee. Democratic committee members include Sens. Angela Williams and Andy Kerr, both of whom have made telecommunications issues a specialty and generally have non-adversarial relationships with industry.
For Colorado residents hunting for jobs that pay enough to live on, reports of the state's low unemployment rate and rapid population growth can be very disheartening. It seems everyone else has a job except you, often a depressing thought.
However, a recent study digs deeper into the numbers and finds job hunters' perceptions of the state's employment situation being less positive than as portrayed are closer to reality. And state lawmakers will be presented with the study's findings, in hopes of doing something to help workers and job hunters.
Thirty Years Ago This Week in the Colorado Statesman … A former state legislator was bestowed the honor of an ambassadorship. Former state Sen. Sam H. Zakhem was appointed by President Ronald Reagan as Ambassador to the Kingdom of Bahrain, he succeeded Donald Leidel. A well-known name in Colorado politics, Zakhem is Lebanese by birth, was educated in the United States and served Southwest Denver in both the Colorado House and Senate. From 1967 to 1972, Zakhem was an instructor at the University of Colorado extension and was also a foreign student adviser at the University of Denver from 1972 to 1973.
Zakhem served as a state representative from 1975-1979, and as a state senator from 1979-1983. While serving in the Colorado Legislature, Zakhem sponsored pioneering efforts dealing with solar energy, aid to the elderly and tougher penalties for drunk drivers and employers who hire illegal aliens. He then, thanks to Reagan's appointment, went on to serve as the U.S. Ambassador to Bahrain from 1986 to 1989.
An ordinance that established a prevailing wage for City and County of Denver contractors has not seen any significant change in more than a half century, other than a process to exclude violators from doing city work projects that has not banned a single company.
That is likely to change, with the city council's Finance and Governance Committee recent recommendation that the full council approve several changes to the ordinance that were guided by Denver Auditor Timothy O'Brien.