The state legislature adjourned last Friday, after only 116 days in session, four short of the 120 days permitted by the state constitution.
Whether the session was successful depends on who you ask.
“I don’t think there was a lot to show for it, except for a huge tax increase,” said Senate minority leader Andy McElhany (R-Colorado Springs). “I would have liked to have seen progress made on health care, transportation and education.”
Sen. John Morse (D-Colorado Springs/Manitou) saw it differently.
“What they (the Republicans) say is irrelevant,” he said. “They failed to lead, and the voters threw them out, and we’re doing what the voters want. They’re the minority party, and they throw stones — that’s what they can do.”
Despite the rhetoric, there were moments of bipartisan agreement. All three “centerpiece” bills put forth by the Democrats passed, two of them with overwhelming bipartisan support. Moreover, Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter vetoed HB 1072, which would have made it easier for unions to organize non-union shops.
Republicans and business leaders, who had bitterly opposed the bill, welcomed the governor’s action.
“It’s important for economic development that we remain a state where there are good relations between businesses and workers, and this bill would definitely have sent the wrong message,” said Mike Kazmierski, executive director of the Colorado Springs Economic Development Corp.
Kazmierski singled out two bills that he said would be helpful to business in Colorado Springs: HB 1277, which exempts equipment used in “clean rooms” from sales and use taxes and HB 1060, which provides money for bioscience research.
He said it was too early to draw conclusions about HB 1069, which puts the state on record as opposing the Army’s use of eminent domain to acquire land to enlarge the Pinon Canon maneuver area.
Kazmierski was cautiously optimistic that the bill, which he characterized as “posturing by the state legislature,” would have no effect upon the future of Fort Carson.
“It just doesn’t make sense to poke the Army in the eye with a stick, before they’ve even begun to study it. It was just flat-out ignorance, just blown completely out of proportion, said Sen. John Morse, the sole Democrat to oppose 1069. ““What’s the legislature going to do if Carson is on the BRAC (base realignment and closure) list in a few years, vote for a resolution begging the Army not to close it?”
One of the Democratic majority’s “centerpiece bills” was SB 199, which increases funding for 175 of the state’s 178 school districts by freezing mill levies in the districts where voters have approved allowing the schools to retain tax revenue which would otherwise have to be refunded to taxpayers.
The legislation will have relatively little effect in Colorado Springs. That’s because two of the city’s largest school districts, 11 and 2, are among the three in which voters have not approved the schools keeping excess tax revenue.
Democrats also touted the passage of HB 1281, which requires utilities companies to generate up to 20 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020.
Ritter hailed the bill for providing both environmental and economic benefits, including increasing Colorado’s share of the national GDP by $1.9 billion, increasing total wages paid to workers by $570 million and generating $400 million in property tax revenue.
The bill passed 27-8 in the Senate and 59-5 in the House. Of the 13 “nays,” five were El Paso County Republicans, including McElhany.
“There were an awful lot of renewable energy bills this year, and some of them were OK, but some were just pie in the sky,” he said. “1281 doubled the renewable mandate, and there was absolutely no scientific or economic basis for it. The Democrats know that renewables poll very well, so all of a sudden we can’t get enough of it. So, if 10 percent is good, 20 percent must be twice as good! So why not 30 percent, or 40?”
Morse conceded that estimates of the bill’s economic benefits might be overblown, but insisted that it was the right thing to do for Colorado’s future.
The Democrats’ third major piece of legislation drew bipartisan support. SB 1 established the “Colorado Cares” program, which enables low-income residents to purchase discounted prescription drugs. It passed 57-7 in the House and 27-6 in the Senate.
Asked what he’d like to see next year, Kazmierski didn’t mince words.
“The legislature and the governor need to focus on the education of our future work force, and on maintaining and upgrading transportation infrastructure,” he said. “Those are the two most important things. The minority party should work to build coalitions if they want to get things done. When I see an attitude that ‘my vote doesn’t matter,’ that concerns me.”