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Ernest LuningErnest LuningOctober 3, 20178min5480

It's safe to say no one is happy with the special legislative session that convened Monday and concluded Tuesday at the Colorado Capitol.  Gov. John Hickenlooper has faced nearly unified opposition from Republican lawmakers since calling the special session in order to come up with a "simple fix" to a drafting error in complicated legislation he signed earlier this year.


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Joey BunchJoey BunchOctober 3, 20179min11130

Colorado lawmakers, depending on party affiliation, thought the special session that ended Tuesday on a party-line vote in the Republican-controlled Senate Transportation Committee represented a missed opportunity to fix their mistake or a staunch defense of the state Constitution.

Republicans opposed the fix and preferred voters decide the tax issue, or at least get specific legal guidance on Senate Bill 267, the bipartisan legislation the governor signed into law in May. The bill inadvertently removed special districts’ ability to get a share of marijuana tax revenue. Agencies that provide transit, cultural programs and other special services told lawmakers that while it was a small part of their annual budgets, every dollars counts.

Republicans argued that taking away a tax then restoring it, as Democrats sought to do, might require voters to approve it under the constitutional Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.

Sen. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, chair of the Senate Transportation, which killed both bills seeking to fix the badly worded bill, asked Dave Genova, head of Denver’s Regional Transportation District, whether it had a plan to cut services. RTD did not.

He asked if it had contingency funds that could prop up services while the legislature worked on a fix in the regular session in January. It did.

“While we do have these rainy day accounts, we do have a lot of competing priorities,” Genova told the committee Tuesday.

Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, seemed exasperated with Republicans who wanted to wait three and half more months. She said “lawyer after lawyer” had told lawmakers that they have the authority to fix a bill-drafting error without going back to voters for approval to restore the pot taxes to special districts.

“If you can remedy a problem sooner rather than later, doesn’t it make more sense to do so?” she asked in the committee hearing.

House Assistant Minority Leader Cole Wist, R-Centennial, said he took an oath to uphold the state Constitution, which says voters must approve tax increases.

“Our failure to comply with the Constitution also has consequences, ” he said. “We’ve heard a lot about how this is a simple fix, but a simple fix is in the eye of the beholder.”

Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, D-Arvada, said some Republicans are using the bill to show opposition to RTD, “Some people want to use this as a way to punish RTD, but this is not just about RTD.”

Baumgardner said he didn’t believe that theory on punishment, but wondered why the push for a fix, through a special session came too late to get it on the ballot to let voters decide this November.

“You could have put this on the 2017 ballot if it had been addressed earlier,” he said.

House Majority Leader KC Becker, D-Boulder, one of the sponsors of Senate Bill 267, took on the constitutional question.

“Is this a new tax? Nope, voters have approved it multiple times,” she said of pot taxes. “We certainly did not intend to override votes here. Our mistake does not take away the fact that voters approved these taxes. This is not a new tax.”

Rep. Mike Weissman, D-Aurora, talked about RTD’s services that his constituents rely on.

“It doesn’t help, all other things being equal, losing half a million dollars a month doesn’t help,” he said, adding he fears cuts to transit services his constituents rely on.

Weissman said there is broad support for a fix, including mayors from conservative and progressive-leaning cities, chambers of commerce and constituents.

He noted that 49 of 65 members of the House voted for Senate Bill 267 last May.

“If you voted for this bill, whatever your reason to do so was, it was not to remove from the tax base of special districts their ability to collect a voter-approved tax on recreational marijuana,” he said. “And if you voted against this bill back in May, whatever your reason to do so, I just about guarantee the reason to do so was not because you wanted to preserve the presence of recreational marijuana in the tax base of these districts.

“That issue was simply not on the table.”

Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush, D-Steamboat Springs, called any no vote “an assault on rural Western Colorado,” where residents rely on small special districts for services, such as transit, that can’t easily absorb the loss of the marijuana tax revenue.

“It is an assault on people who work hard every single day — our teachers, our police officers, our nurses, our maids, our restaurant workers,” she said. “It’s an assault on the services that help them every single day.”

Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida, said it’s the first time in his five years in the legislature that he has seen such an important mistake that was so overlooked in a bill that became law.

“I don’t know how that happened,” he said. “It could have something to do with a lot of important legislation gets shoved through in the last two weeks of the legislative session instead of talking about it from the first two weeks, but that’s just a footnote to that.”

He said he’s a rural advocate but he favors restoring the cut through the Constitution, not the legislature.

“I’m a rural advocate only because of what the Constitution allows me to do,” Wilson said.

Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, who sponsored the Senate fix said she is open to other options, including finding money for special districts elsewhere in the budget or legislation that stated the fix would take effect upon a new ruling on constitutionality.

“I think we owe it to the districts to give them feedback other than, ‘We’ll work on it in January,’” she said. “… We’re not being our best selves in this special session.”

Deborah Jordy, executive director of the Denver’s Scientific and Cultural Facilities District, said she was disappointed but hopeful for an eventual fix.

“As we have said since the error was discovered, we stand ready to work toward a solution that respects the will of the voters who have authorized our funding multiple times over the last nearly 30 years,” she said in a statement. “It is our hope that state lawmakers will provide that solution during the regular legislative session in 2018.”

Americans for Prosperity opposed the special session and argued that a change in taxes requires a vote of the people.

“It’s a shame Gov. Hickenlooper and some legislators were willing to disregard TABOR and raise taxes without the permission of Coloradans,” Jesse Mallory, AFP’s state director and the former chief of staff to the Senate Republicans, said in a statement. “Thankfully, members of the General Assembly stood strong and stopped this legislation, reminding voters that some legislators still serve their constituents, not special interests. I’m proud of our activists who were able to quickly mobilize and make their voices heard that raising taxes without the permission of Coloradans is unconstitutional.”

(Editor’s note: This story has been updated several times to add more comments.)


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Ernest LuningErnest LuningSeptember 29, 20178min773

Gov. John Hickenlooper and Democratic lawmakers say it’s a simple fix, but Republicans say it’s anything but. As next week’s special legislative session approaches — it’s set to convene Monday — Republican leaders in the Capitol and outside pressure groups are ramping up their opposition and predict the endeavor will be an expensive waste of time. It isn’t the reaction Hickenlooper expected when he issued a formal call for the session earlier in September so lawmakers could correct a drafting error in a tax bill that’s costing some special districts hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue.


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Dan NjegomirDan NjegomirSeptember 20, 20174min7980

Don’t expect the Colorado Union of Taxpayers to sugar-coat its contempt for Senate Bill 267, the omnibus, revenue-raising sleeper of a bill that passed in the final hours of the 2017 legislature last spring — and drew an outcry from many conservatives.

Sure, it may have shored up rural hospitals and schools and boosted highway funding, among other things, but to the folks at CUT  (and others, including many dissenting GOP lawmakers), the legislation amounted to an unconstitutional tax hike. They contend it should have been put to a vote of the people in accordance with Colorado’s constitutional taxing and spending limits.

So, when Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper announced earlier this month he would call a special session of the legislature Oct. 2 to fix an error discovered belatedly in the bill — it came as insult to injury for the decades-old advocacy group. And CUT’s Marty Neilson made clear in a press release Tuesday that she and her comrades have no interest in helping the governor clean up what they see as his mess:

If SB 267 wasn’t already enough of an affront to Colorado taxpayers, paying for a special legislative session to fix what our esteemed legislators and Governor failed to notice in the unconstitutional SB267 makes me “mad as hell” and “I don’t want to take it anymore!” Special sessions are expensive!   SB 267 starts off as unconstitutional (multiple subjects) piece of legislation; and, is an egregious violation of Taxpayers Bill of Rights (no vote by the people) for the tax and debt increases.   Mess ups like this do not constitute an immediate problem which must be addressed by immediate corrective legislation….

The press release concludes by, “Calling on all Colorado taxpayers to go to the Capitol and demand ‘Let Us Vote!'”

The error in 267 — it evidently went unnoticed until after Hickenlooper signed it into law in May — inadvertently cut the state’s many special taxation districts out of their share of tax revenue from recreational marijuana.

The governor insists the special session’s mission will be narrowly drawn to address that concern and nothing else. Yet, as Colorado Politics reported the other day, at least one lawmaker already is saying he wants to expand the session’s mandate to address transportation — or else he’ll vote against the fix. We’ll stay tuned.


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Mark HillmanMark HillmanSeptember 5, 20175min1090
Mark Hillman
Mark Hillman

Ideas inspire both philosophers and legislators, but the two jobs differ considerably thereafter.

That distinction is critical to understanding the current dust-up between the Independence Institute’s Jon Caldara and several Republican lawmakers.

A thoughtful, assertive voice for liberty, Caldara is a friend and an ally.  He and the Institute advocate tirelessly for personal freedom and limited government – principles that are as dear to me now as they were when I served in the Colorado Senate.

Caldara’s job is to turn up the heat on lawmakers when they are being cajoled to compromise.  His job is not, however, to consider those same lawmakers’ prospects for re-election or to balance the competing interests that lawmakers face back home.

So, when Caldara calls for the Republican Party to purge lawmakers who, in his view, don’t sufficiently toe the line, it’s time for all of us to take a deep breath and assess the realities that lawmakers must face – or ignore at their own peril.

Legislators have a responsibility to the people they represent.  They are responsible for governing, particularly when their party is empowered with a majority.

In Colorado, Republicans hold a one-vote majority in the state Senate.  Democrats hold a nine-vote margin in the state House, and they’ve held the Governor’s Mansion for more than a decade.

The reality is that Republicans cannot pass legislation without some cooperation from Democrats – and vice versa.

Two such bipartisan bills considered by the Legislature earlier this year draw Caldara’s ire because they represented compromise on existing taxpayer protections.

House Bill 1242, sponsored by Senate President Kevin Grantham and House Speaker Crisanta Duran, proposed to ask voters for a sales tax increase to boost transportation funding, which has flat-lined for the past 17 years.

Grantham is a straight shooter.  He didn’t break any arms, buy any votes or employ dirty tricks.  He asked his caucus to give the bill a fair hearing, and ultimately, it died in a Senate committee.

Senate Bill 267 – which became law – moved the controversial Hospital Provider Fee (HPF) outside the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) spending limit, allowing government spending to increase.  On the other hand, it lowered the TABOR spending cap by $200 million.

Caldara skewers Sens. Jerry Sonnenberg (R-Sterling) and Owen Hill (R-Colorado Springs), along with Reps. Jon Becker (R-Fort Morgan) and Polly Lawrence (R-Castle Rock), for advancing the bill.

If Republicans had their way, the spending cap would have been reduced by more than $500 million.  Conversely, Democrats wouldn’t have reduced the cap whatsoever, except that they had to placate Republicans.

Important to rural lawmakers, the bill threw a lifeline to several smalltown hospitals that were faced with shutdown.  That may not mean much to residents of the Front Range where hospitals are ubiquitous.  However, closing the only hospital in an entire county is the difference between life and death for some victims of severe accidents or acute illness.  Worse still, a community that loses its hospital faces a bleak future, with closure of businesses and schools looming.

Sonnenberg and Becker cut the best deal they could to protect the interests of the rural communities they represent and to prevent taxpayers from being fleeced.

With perfect hindsight, let’s compare this compromise to a missed opportunity several years ago when Republicans considered a bill expanding rights for gays and lesbians while protecting freedom of conscience of individuals and organizations whose faith holds that marriage is the domain of opposite-sex couples.

Republicans killed that bill and, in the next election, lost their majority in the state House.  The next year, Democrats passed the same bill minus protections for religious liberty.

Like it or not, progress in a split legislature involves give-and-take.  That doesn’t sell well in a white paper, but it’s the reality that our lawmakers must confront.  After all, what good is a pristine voting record if you’ve done nothing to make life better for the people who elected you


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Ernest LuningErnest LuningJuly 29, 20176min1340

After serving 15 years in the Legislature, state Sen. Kevin Lundberg, a Berthoud Republican, hopes to bring what he's learned about Colorado government to the office of state treasurer. On Saturday, Lundberg declared he's running for the open seat in next year's election, becoming the fourth Republican in a primary race that's likely to get even more crowded.


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Dan NjegomirDan NjegomirJuly 12, 201720min780