ENDORSEMENT WATCH | Business, LGBTQ groups bestow bipartisan backing on lawmakers

Business owners and chambers of commerce from across Colorado on Monday called on lawmakers to kill a pair of bills backed by Democrats in the General Assembly.

In a news conference organized by the National Federation of Independent Business, leaders of chambers in Colorado Springs and Grand Junction as well as business owners in Denver and Englewood came together to push back on what NFIB Colorado state director Tony Gagliardi described as “a legislative attack on the Colorado small business community by the Democratic majority.”

The coalition focused on two bills in particular: House Bill 21-1232 seeking to reduce health insurance premiums and Senate Bill 21-176, which would make changes to workplace discrimination laws.

“There's only one place that we think this bill should land and it may be round and circular,” said Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Diane Schwenke of SB 176, in reference to a trash bin.

That measure from Sen. Faith Winter, D-Westminster, and Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood, would among other things broaden an employee’s ability to file a lawsuit against their employer alleging workplace harassment, discrimination or retaliation.

The so-called POWR Act tries to do that in part by lowering the standard for workplace harassment from an action that is “severe and pervasive,” a threshold Winter said can be "next to impossible for survivors and complainants to come forward and win.”

“This standard gives sexual harassers a free pass,” Winter said in testimony earlier this month before the Senate Judiciary Committee. “I've had many constituents come to me and talk about their experience of racial or sexual harassment in the workplace and have no recourse because they've been told that unfortunately, our standard is to have one free grope.”

The hearing on that bill stretched more than seven hours, with strong opposition from the business community and concluded with the panel opting to lay the bill over for more work. Winter closed out that meeting with emotional testimony about a woman who works in the state Capitol receiving harassing text messages “from someone in this building that has power.”

“Getting text messages from a person of power in this building is not severe and pervasive and I will help her, but nothing else can be done,” Winter said. “I'm sorry, in 2021, that's not acceptable.

“Let's figure out how we make this work. But we are here for that 21-year-old and how it's working isn't working in today's environment.”

But Roger Hays, president and CEO of Premier Employer Services, Inc., said the legislation would mean “there's really no leash... to prevent frivolous lawsuits from just running amok.”

“With all the other costs that employers have to incur currently, with all the other regulations and the rules — this is just, I'll use the word ridiculous,” Hays said. “None of us want to work in an environment where we aren't comfortable... but when you expand the definition of harassment to become so broad that somebody can file a lawsuit over hurt feelings, that gets to be a little bit onerous."

Winter indicated during the committee hearing that wasn’t likely to happen under the bill as it was constructed, but the coalition still called for it to be killed.

“Senate Bill 176 is one of those bills — I just don't know if it can be fixed,” Gagliardi said. “It goes so far and is so intrusive.”

The coalition also put the public option proposal in that category.

As introduced, HB 1232 gives the healthcare industry — doctors, hospitals and health insurers — two years to reduce health insurance premiums by 20% (10% per year) in the individual and small group market. The individual market is about 8% of insured Coloradans; the small group market, which is small businesses with 1 to 100 employees, is about 15% of insured Coloradans.

If the premium targets are not met after two years, in the third year, the Commissioner of Insurance would come up with the Colorado Option Plan, with its major provision setting price caps on health care services provided by hospitals and doctors. The plan would be administered by the Option Authority, a nine-member quasi-governmental nonprofit entity.

Insurers would be required, under the bill as introduced, to offer the option plan. Doctors and hospitals would be required to accept it or risk their licenses.

The proposal also generated a lengthy hearing earlier this month that resulted in the House Health and Insurance Committee choosing to lay it over for more work. Much of the criticism raised in that hearing was again highlighted on Monday, including concerns that the bill would shift health care costs to employers in the large group market.

“Put this bill in the fatally flawed category as well,” said Rachel Beck, vice president of government affairs for the Colorado Springs Chamber and EDC.

Debra Brown of Good Business Colorado countered in an email that small businesses within her network didn't see the public option bill that same way. She added in a letter to state lawmakers "access to affordable, comprehensive coverage is out of reach for many small businesses, which also makes it difficult for them to attract and retain talented employees."

"The Colorado Option for Health Insurance could be the solution small business owners in Colorado have been waiting for," Brown said in the letter.

House Minority Leader Hugh McKean also weighed in with criticism of the public option legislation and called for a provision in the bill to bring it back before lawmakers in two years for a second look.

"If the sponsors are not willing to do that, then it tells me that they're trying to ramrod a bureaucratic solution to a problem they may not understand," the Loveland Republican said.

A second, action-only hearing on the public option bill is not yet on the schedule but sources have indicated it could be before the House health panel again as soon as this week.

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