The Colorado business community says the 2013 legislative session was a “layer cake of political conflict,” blaming Democrats for a partisan session that forced business to take a back seat to a progressive agenda.
The Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry points out that the session was dominated by hot button, polarizing debates, including gun control, civil unions, election reform and marijuana.
“That created a great amount of conflict, which spilled over into debates about business bills as the two political parties battled under the Gold Dome,” explained Loren Furman, senior vice president of state and federal relations for CACI.
She points to various complexities surrounding the session, including more than 30 new lawmakers. Furman is also critical of Democratic leadership in both chambers, which she says “forced new members to vote a certain way on bills.”
“The majority Democrats advanced bills advocated by such groups as unions and social justice and environmental organizations that had supported their elections,” opined Furman.
She also pointed to “late-bill status,” which is a legislative privilege afforded to the majority, allowing it to introduce measures late in the session when other bills are no longer permitted. This year, Democrats pushed a number of late bills affecting the business world, including many on oil and gas regulations, rural renewable energy standards, and union lockouts.
“They then fast-tracked the bills through the process, giving the business community scant time to organize opposition,” states Furman.
She believes having both chambers controlled by one party was destructive to many policy agendas, as previous sessions were governed by more of a balance because only bills that garnered bipartisan support were passed.
“The 2013 session, by contrast, harkens back to the 2009 and 2010 sessions when Democrats controlled both chambers and — truth be told — ran roughshod over the business community, by, among other things, approving the “Dirty Dozen” tax bills that increased taxes paid by businesses by more than $230 million,” attested Furman.
She is referring to a package of bills by Democrats in 2010 that required online retailers to send notices of sales tax owed, and suspended or eliminated tax breaks for businesses, such as for the soda and manufacturing industries.
Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, agreed that the session was anything but bipartisan. In his end-of-session remarks, Cadman accused Democrats of caving to the left-leaning interests of environmentalists and unions.
“The interests of Colorado were for the most part left in the dust as the unions and other special interests were driving a very, very hard left agenda in Colorado,” declared Cadman.
Democrats, however, see it differently. House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, called the session one of the most productive in history. He said people often focus on the divisive issues, but for the most part, lawmakers were able to find bipartisan solutions. He pointed out that 95 percent of the bills that were sent to the governor for his signature passed with bipartisan support.
“It’s easy to get lost in the individual fights that happen, the things that gained attention, the controversial issues, but we really were able to work together on some of the most important issues,” said Ferrandino.
Labor-friendly bills cause uproar
There were plenty of individual fights this year, and labor groups were behind many. The Colorado AFL-CIO said the big winners this legislative session were working families.
“Without a doubt, this has been the most historic session for working families I can remember,” exclaimed Mike Cerbo, executive director of the Colorado AFL-CIO and a former state representative. “The bills we supported this session will benefit workers, their families and strengthen the Colorado economy as a whole.”
Unlike the business community, which is critical of leadership, the AFL-CIO is appreciative of Democrats’ efforts, suggesting that they “stood up for working families.”
Labor unions were a regular presence under the Gold Dome this year. At one point in March, union supporters danced the “Harlem Shake” in the Capitol Rotunda in an effort to support House Bill 1292, the “Keep Jobs in Colorado Act.”
The measure aims to enforce the state’s 80-percent hiring rule, which requires that contractors hire 80 percent of Colorado labor on public works projects. Reps. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs, and Dan Pabon, D-Denver, sponsored the bill.
It also requires state agencies to weigh overall “best value” in considering competitive bids on state contracts, moving away from a strictly price analysis. The governor signed the bill on May 25.
Dressed as construction workers and other laborers, wearing capes and sporting sunglasses and T-shirts that read, “Yo! Keep Jobs in Co!” union supporters danced up and down the stairs of the Capitol.
“The ‘Keep Jobs in Colorado Act’ creates opportunities for working families across the state,” Cerbo said of the bill. “Encouraging state bid preferences, limiting outsourcing and simplifying the 80-percent hiring rule enforcement will only serve to strengthen our state economy and keep jobs growing.”
The business community didn’t have much to say on HB 1292. But state departments said the measure will increase costs. The Colorado Department of Transportation, for example, said stringent verification requirements will raise the price of bids by anywhere from 1 to 5 percent.
Another big win for labor was Senate Bill 25, which establishes a statewide procedure by which all professional firefighters may enter into a collective bargaining relationship with public employers. Sen. Lois Tochtrop, D-Thornton, sponsored the measure.
Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, signed the bill on June 5. He had struggled with the measure, threatening to veto it earlier in the session if all sides could not find agreement. Local governments had expressed concerns that the measure would take away their authority to decide on collective bargaining issues.
The end bill was drastically watered down. Instead of mandating that firefighters be included in compensation and benefits discussions, the bill only requires that they be included in conversations about equipment and safety.
Still, firefighter unions hailed the measure as a great success: “We were very pleased to attend a bill signing with Gov. Hickenlooper on SB 25 that finally gives political rights, a seat at the table and a collective bargaining process to all firefighters across the state of Colorado,” said Mike Rogers, president of the Colorado International Association of Firefighters.
Hickenlooper believes his concerns were addressed: “Opponents of the bill have raised objections that it authorizes the state to intrude in an area of exclusive local concern and jurisdiction. We do not agree,” the governor said in a signing statement.
“Firefighters from various locales were deployed to risk their lives outside the boundaries of their own immediate communities,” he continued, pointing to how multiple jurisdictions participate in fighting wildfires. “Their safety and the effectiveness of their equipment and training are a matter of mixed state-local concern.”
Another labor-friendly bill that stood out was House Bill 1136, nicknamed the Trial Lawyer Employment Act of 2013 because opponents believe it only creates work for trial attorneys. The bill allows plaintiffs in discrimination lawsuits to seek greater payouts from employers of all sizes, including compensatory damages, punitive damages and attorney’s fees.
The bill was signed on May 6. Reps. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, and Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, sponsored the bill.
Small businesses spoke out against the bill throughout the process. Tony Gagliardi, state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, called the measure the “worst bill to come out of the legislature in a decade.”
“House Bill 1136 was the acid test of whether or not the governor was a man of his word. In signing this needless, punitive assault on Main Street enterprises, the promise he made in his State-of-the-State address to create a favorable environment for small businesses to thrive in now rings hollow and insincere,” Gagliardi said of the governor, who has always maintained a commitment to small business as a former restaurant and brewpub owner.
“That he should turn his back on his own small-business roots adds an extra element to the betrayal many small-business owners feel,” continued Gagliardi. “There is very little he can do now that will salvage his reputation with the biggest job creators in Colorado.”
Hickenlooper had been heavily pressured to veto the bill, but he would not cave: “As a former business owner, I know full well that discrimination in the workplace is the rare exception and not the rule in Colorado,” he said in a statement.
“Small business cannot thrive with red tape, needless bureaucracy and frivolous or harassing litigation… While our administration is very sympathetic to these concerns, we also believe that HB13-1136 has been crafted with safeguards against frivolous lawsuits and excessive damage claims,” the governor continued. “Moreover, we believe HB13-1136 rightly embraces employment discrimination remedies for companies with fewer than 15 employees that are recognized in most other states.”
The business community also found itself in an uproar over House Bill 1304, which would have allowed an employee to receive unemployment insurance benefits if an employer had initiated a lockout. The bill died a surprising death on the Senate floor on May 3.
Sen. Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, killed her bill rather than send it to Hickenlooper who was likely to veto it. She still had the support of her fellow Democrats in the upper chamber, and the bill had passed the House.
But Guzman said it was pointless to keep pushing for a bill that would ultimately get struck down. Instead, she said she will work with labor unions and the governor’s office on another approach.
“The better thing to do is to sit down and work out the problems,” Guzman said after spiking her bill, suggesting that she might try to have those conversations this summer.
Businesses, however, viewed Guzman’s move as a pleasant surprise. Leaders pointed out that a lockout of 10,000 union workers would cost the unemployment trust fund $3.44 million per week if each worker received $344 per week.
“CACI’s primary concern with the bill was that it could have cost employers across the state millions of dollars in increased UI premiums if locked-out union workers were awarded UI benefits, which would have endangered the UI Trust Fund that only two years ago was put on a path to recovery after it became insolvent because of the Great Recession,” said Dan Pilcher, executive vice president of CACI.
Other business bills
There was a host of other bills affecting the business community this year, including:
• House Bill 1046, sponsored by Rep. Angela Williams, D-Denver, which prohibits an employer from requiring an employee to disclose their user name, password or other information used to access their personal accounts through a personal electronic communication device. The governor signed the bill on May 11;
• House Bill 1222, sponsored by Rep. Cherylin Peniston, D-Westminster, which expands the federal Family Medical Leave Act to individuals with a serious health condition who are related to the employee. The bill was signed on May 3; and
• Senate Bill 18, sponsored by Sen. Jessie Ulibarri, D-Commerce City, which restricts the ability of an employer to use consumer credit information for prospective or current employees. The bill was signed on April 19.
See the June 21 print edition for a full listing of all the legislative enactments from the 2013 session.