Colorado Legislature ends session with flurry of bills
The Denver Post
The 2010 Colorado legislative session closed Wednesday with lawmakers scrambling to pass bills limiting teacher tenure and eliminating a tax break for seniors.
As the clock ticked down, legislative leaders glanced forward to the most pressing problem they will face next year: how to fund higher education.
“I think that finding a stable funding source to sustain our institutions of higher education would be a top priority going into next year,” said Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont. “How do we backfill from the stimulus dollars going away?”
The session opened in January with a vicious partisan fight over eliminating tax breaks for businesses, but the battle at the end was all between Democrats over limiting teacher tenure.
In the session’s middle, there were several major bipartisan accomplishments, including passage of bills:
• Pushing Xcel Energy to convert its coal-fired power plants to use natural gas.
• Creating a plan to make the state employee pension system solvent.
• Regulating medical marijuana.
• Allowing colleges to hike tuition significantly in exchange for offering hefty financial aid to poor and middle-income students.
In 120 days, legislators considered 649 bills. By the final day, 268 were in the governor’s hands and 179 others were on their way, with a handful of others still caught in the process.
The bill to limit teacher tenure, though contentious among Democrats, passed Wednesday as another major bipartisan accomplishment that came at the end.
“I believe this has been the most bipartisan session since I’ve been here,” Shaffer said.
That viewpoint was not fully shared by Republicans, who remembered the bitter taste of seeing $100 million in tax exemptions get deleted by Democrats. And though a proposal to guarantee unions could collect dues from state workers died at the end of the session, Republicans said it was a last-minute sop.
“There have been some bipartisan victories; there’s no doubt about that,” said House Minority Leader Mike May, R-Parker, “but it (the session) certainly can be summed up as an assault on Colorado jobs.”
Few debates at the Capitol swung back and forth as wildly as that over medical marijuana. As the session opened, early plans for regulating medical-marijuana dispensaries appeared derailed by a lack of consensus, leaving open the possibility that legislators would side with law enforcement groups to ban dispensaries altogether.
Quickly formed coalitions of dispensary owners pushed back, spending at least $39,000 to hire seven lobbyists, according to secretary-of-state records. Those efforts resulted in a bill creating legal recognition and a relatively friendly regulatory structure for dispensaries.
Lawmakers, though, ultimately reeled back some of that dispensary friendliness, ending up with a bill that both licenses dispensaries and allows local governments to ban them, a position that could draw lawsuits from both sides.
Lawmakers also adopted a bill to crack down on doctors who recommend marijuana to patients willy-nilly. Ritter is expected to sign both bills.
“We weren’t afraid to take on controversial issues this year,” Shaffer said of Democrats.
Lawmakers also passed a bill eliminating requirements added by a 2004 Republican-led legislature that courts consider ranked criteria when considering congressional redistricting plans. Another proposal, which died, would have allowed same-day voter registration.
“It’s been one of the most political sessions that I’ve experienced,” said Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch. “More than any other session, both parties are really doing their part to advance or protect the elections of their members.”
But House Majority Leader Paul Weissmann, D-Louisville, said Democrats had to make so many hard choices, they didn’t have the luxury of protecting their seats.
“We wouldn’t have run half the stuff we ran to balance the budget if it was about protecting our seats,” he said.
After days of haggling between the House and Senate, the House on Wednesday agreed to a Senate plan eliminating for two years a property-tax break for seniors, saving the state $188.1 million. The House had pushed for leaving a portion of the tax break in place, but the Senate shot down that idea, and faced with the prospect of a budget out of balance, the House retreated.
Also Wednesday, lawmakers passed a bill that replaces the current performance-based pay-raise system for state workers with one that would give them regular pay hikes as long as they get satisfactory evaluations. The increases are still subject to legislative approval.
Staff writer John Ingold contributed to this report. Tim Hoover: 303-954-1626 or firstname.lastname@example.org