Legislative session a success, Chamber says

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Businesses didn’t win all of their legislative battles this year, but that isn’t stopping Springs lobbyists from declaring the session a success.

As a result of the session, businesses will soon be able to buy health insurance through co-ops known as exchanges, and they regained two tax credits lost during the last session.

On the other hand, though, they will now pay more unemployment insurance, and the state’s business regulatory environment could become more onerous after two bills that sought to cut red tape failed.

“It was a good session for us, overall,” said Stephannie Finley, president of government affairs at the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce, which handles most of the city’s business lobbying efforts. “Some pro-military bills passed, and that was a big deal for us.”

In the past, the state legislature hasn’t been pro-military, and that could damage the local economy. About 40 percent of the Springs economy comes from the military and defense contractors.

“The Pentagon told us, ‘Colorado has big wart in the middle of its forehead,’” because of the uproar over proposed expansion of the Army’s training facility at Pinon Canon, Finley said. “We’re happy to avoid that this session.”

Redistricting proved favorable for the Springs’ military as well, keeping all five bases in one district.

And balancing the budget, something Finley classified as “painful,” also brought separate interests closer together.

“It was great to see the different interests at the same table,” she said, “to have the chancellor with district superintendents for education sitting down with business leaders to come up with an agreement. That brought the state closer together.”

Businesses didn’t shoulder as much of the pain of balancing the budget as they did last session, Finley said. Local companies benefited when the state agreed to reinstate the software tax credit and the agriculture tax credit that were taken away last session.

Health care exchanges

One of the more controversial topics this session, health care exchanges ended up sailing through both chambers of the legislature — but only after Tea Party members registered their complaints with bill sponsor Amy Stephens, a Republican from Monument.

Now known statewide as “AmyCare,” exchanges will seek to provide a competitive marketplace for small- and micro-businesses to purchase health insurance. While part of federal health care reform plans, Colorado supporters say the exchanges can be implemented free of federal laws and are necessary for businesses.

“This was one of our big successes,” Finley said. “We lobbied hard for it, and it passed. The problem at the beginning was just one of mis-messaging. This is good for business. We have so many people who have started businesses because of the economy; they’re businesses of one. And getting health insurance is scary, it’s complicated and it’s expensive.”

Gov. John Hickenlooper is expected to sign the bill, which creates a quasi-public, nonprofit entity with a board of 12 directors. The directors are responsible for shaping the exchange. Applications are now being accepted through the board and commissions applications.

Another major health care bill, SB 168, would have created a health care cooperative, considered by many to be a precursor to a single-payer system. Opposition from hospitals and businesses caused the bill to die in the Senate.

Unemployment insurance

The unemployment rate in Colorado Springs is 10.2 percent, and statewide unemployment is still above 9 percent. Those numbers mean more people accepting unemployment benefits from the state — and a depleted unemployment fund.

The state already borrowed money from the federal government, and defaulting on paying it back would mean heavy penalties. The state had to come up with a solution, and Colorado Springs legislators carried the solution to the General Assembly.

Larry Liston, R-Colorado Springs, sponsored HB1288, the first comprehensive reform of Colorado’s unemployment insurance trust fund in more than two decades.

The bill was the product of months of work from business, labor, think tanks and the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

The legislation will raise unemployment taxes on all Colorado businesses in the short term, so rates don’t increase astronomically as they did during the recession.

Businesses reported huge increases in their unemployment taxes for 2011, some as high as 300 percent. The higher increases were a result of a bankrupt trust fund that required a loan from the federal government.

The legislation will raise the wage base on which companies pay unemployment taxes by 109 percent, and it will restructure the system to trigger slight hikes whenever the fund is being depleted.

“This wasn’t very popular with businesses,” Finley said. “We understand why it had to be done — something had to be done. But it hits businesses hard, particularly those with seasonal workers or temporary help. The state really was in an untenable position.”

Finley said one Colorado Springs employer said his unemployment insurance went up 44 percent this year.

Regulatory Reform

Bills that didn’t make it very far in the session — for the second year in a row — were ones designed to make it easier to do business in Colorado.

“We would like to see more regulatory reform, less regulation,” Finley said. “Even Hickenlooper’s bill to cut red tape and to open the door for more businesses failed. We’re going to keep trying to make this one happen, though.”

Barriers to business, such as too many state regulations, can be stifling to new businesses and those seeking to expand.

“We have to find a way to create jobs,” Finley said. “Regulatory reform might be a real snoozer, but it has huge implications to businesses in the state. This is the No. 1 concern — growing jobs — and it stuns me they let it go.”

Hospital Transfer Bill

The bill could have been called the Memorial Health System bill.

Sponsored by Colorado Springs Republican Bob Gardner, the bill sought to allow cities to sell hospitals and keep the proceeds.

The Colorado Springs city council must decide by August whether to put Memorial’s future on the ballot. The hospital system is hoping to become an independent nonprofit, and a citizens’ commission led by a hired consultant also made that recommendation.

Both the Chamber and Memorial lobbied against the bill, but a lobbying push from Denver-based corporate health care giant HealthOne and some questions from the public led Gardner to propose the bill.

“We fought hard against this bill,” Finley said. “People just didn’t have enough time to understand what it really meant.”

The bill failed in committee, leaving state law intact. Under current law, proceeds from the sale of municipal hospitals must be used for similar purposes.

The Future

The chamber is already gearing up for next session, where they will again push regulatory reform measures and protect the Springs’ military economy.

“I’d also like to see something happen with the work we’re doing with the sports economy,” Finley said. “Maybe have some of the barriers removed to promoting our partnership with the USOC. Also, there are $50 million for the SDS project in Fountain Creek, some of that for recreation. It’d be interesting to find a way to tie state actions to local interests.”