One hundred representatives from localities around the state gathered at History Colorado on Thursday to hear Colorado Municipal League lobbyists describe the bills that would be most detrimental to cities and towns this legislative session.
“I grew this beard when our granddaughter was born,” Denver Mayor Michael Hancock told attendees, joking that “this gray is indicative of every time the legislature goes into session.”
Hancock expressed concern about the most recent iteration of a “right to rest bill,” which in previous years would have overturned Denver’s urban camping ban. A judge in December 2019 found the ban unconstitutional, but a new proposal, House Bill 1233, would mandate “basic life functions” be afforded on public property. Those include sleeping, standing, sitting, eating and sheltering oneself.
“I don’t find it at all humane to encourage anyone to sleep outdoors in public spaces,” Hancock said. “It is not safe for them. It typically becomes an unhealthy, unsanitary situation very quickly.” He referred to a rodent infestation at Liberty Park adjacent to the Capitol that resulted in the park’s temporary closure and eviction of people camping there.
“Nothing about this bill addresses the issue of housing,” he added.
Meghan Dollar, CML’s legislative advocacy manager, said that she was surprised to see the bill this session, given that Denver voters upheld the camping ban by more than 62 percentage points in the 2019 municipal election.
“This is not a bill that was in any way drafted to just apply to Denver,” she said.
Hancock also expressed dismay at the committee defeat of Senate Bill 10, which would have enabled localities to ban or regulate plastic bags, straws and other packaging.
“If we believe, as we do, in the science and believe that we have to take some bold steps around protecting our climate and environment, then we need to take those steps,” he said.
Morgan Cullen, one of CML’s lobbyists, said that he hoped there would be an attempt during the session to revive the bill, but that local governments had a stake in the regulation of plastic containers and packaging, specifically due to their role in waste management.
“Single-use plastics cause litter in parks and roadways across municipalities in the state, and they're the ones that are responsible for having to clean it up,” he explained.
Also speaking to the local representatives was Gov. Jared Polis, who arrived holding his dog, Gia. Polis cited legislative accomplishments in 2019 that gave local jurisdictions more control over oil and gas extraction and regulation of tobacco and nicotine products. He echoed Hancock in calling for a focus on affordable housing, particularly by giving state incentives for localities to zone for density near centers of employment.
“When you don’t site for density near a place where there’s jobs, it means ... people are going to be commuting to those jobs from further out,” he explained. “So that means that the state and others are going to need to pay for roads and other capacity to get there. So why not offer you some of that money the state would save by siting affordable housing near where the jobs are?”
Polis added that higher housing prices force people to live farther away from employment centers in more affordable areas, leading to traffic congestion. He pointed out that voters have rejected multiple ballot measures to increase funding for transportation within the past few years, most recently Proposition CC in November 2019.
However, Polis concluded that “people do deeply care about funding the roads that they and their family members and their neighbors use. I think part of the problem in going statewide is voters tend to think it’s funding somebody else’s roads.”
He acknowledged that funding through corridors or regional measures might be a viable compromise, although rural areas with a lower tax base would struggle to raise money more so than the urbanized parts of the state.
Montrose Council Member Judy Ann Files felt despite the fact that four out of five Coloradans live in the Front Range, infrastructure funding needed to take into account the recreation and tourism economies of the non-metropolitan areas.
“If we’re going to be talking money for roads, it’s mostly going to fix roads on the Front Range. We don’t get it in the rest of Colorado. And yet, people from Denver want to come to our areas to ski and vacation,” she said.
Cullen acknowledged House Bill 1151, which would adhere to Polis’s vision for regional infrastructure funding by allowing transportation planning organizations to organize and levy taxes to support projects. While he called this particular bill “no big deal,” he said the message of the bill is that the state is abandoning its commitment to funding roads and transit.
“What it represents is that we are moving away from trying to find a comprehensive, statewide solution to transportation infrastructure,” he said, “and we’re going to start looking at more focused, regional approaches to dealing with what has become a systemic crisis.”
CML lobbyists reviewed other pending legislation that touched on criminal justice, police and fire pensions, and regulation of toxic chemicals, among other subjects. Brandy DeLange warned representatives about House Bill 1282, which would require communities that encrypt their police and fire radio channels to seek input on an encryption policy and give media access to the secured communications.
“Obviously this is a huge litigation trap,” DeLange said. “When we share information over encrypted radios, we’re sharing really private, protected information.”
As encryption of radio channels has become more common among first responders, preventing third parties from listening in, media organizations have pushed back, arguing that it hampers reporting to the community on public safety concerns. DeLange, however, said that allowing the media to listen in could be dangerous. She cited the potential for a reporter to be present — and in harm’s way — during the service of a “red flag” order, in which a court can order firearms be temporarily removed from someone who is a danger to himself or others.
One attendee from Aurora mentioned that the city found a cost to not encrypting its radio.
“I don’t think the bill sponsors care about the local fiscal impacts,” DeLange countered. “I think the bill’s sponsors care about government transparency.”
Briefly mentioned was the plan to offer paid family and medical leave, which failed in the 2019 session. CML’s executive director Kevin Bommer noted that many municipalities already offer the benefit to their employees, and others would be worried about a potentially unfunded mandate from the state.