The machinery of Colorado government ground out big changes the past four months. Now that the legislative session is over, the gears are beginning to turn on education, transportation, taxation and health care, as new laws and ballot questions fall into place.
Gov. Jared Polis can point to big wins on the promises he made on the campaign trail last year. This fall, state-paid all-day kindergarten will be a reality across the state. Whether the legislature can find another $175 million next year to keep it going remains to be seen.
“Unlike a lot of things in government that seem slow, we’re talking about a few months from now,” the governor said in his office, proud of the accomplishment and eager for the launch.
At a pep-rally-style event at the Capitol the Monday after the session ended May 3, Polis told cheering supporters about the Democrats’ accomplishments on education, health care and justice reform, and he even mentioned tax cuts for homeowners and small businesses.
Democratic majorities in the House and Senate passed liberal legislation with legs. They rewrote the rules around the environment and plan to ask voters about taxes, including legalizing sports betting.
Democrats also are testing the public’s willingness to accept gun-control legislation with a “red flag” law that will allow law enforcement to at least temporarily seize guns if a person is deemed a threat to themselves or others -- a bill that gun-rights advocates are challenging in court.
“These are going to go into his political biography,” Curtis Hubbard of Denver-based Onsight Public Affairs said of Polis.
He said Polis had delivered for families and students. “When he talked about bold ideas, it wasn’t just a campaign slogan,” said Hubbard, who was a political consultant for Polis opponent Donna Lynne in last year’s race.
A new era for oil and gas
In 2014 when Polis was a congressman, he flirted with a ballot initiative to provide more local control over oil-and-gas operations. This year as governor he signed Senate Bill 181, one of the session's defining pieces of legislation, to provide it.
If the heated rhetoric is true, the legislation could cost the state jobs and massive amount of tax revenue if companies start avoiding stricter rules in some towns and counties along the northern Front Range.
"For years, bill after bill to move Colorado forward [on] reasonable oil and gas reform was blocked at the legislature, and the voices of our communities were ignored,” said House Speaker KC Becker, a sponsor of the measure, referring to the previous four years when Republicans controlled the state Senate and killed bills passed out of the Democratic House. “This year we stood up and refused to ignore the growing health and environmental impacts of oil-and-gas drilling hear homes and schools.”
With the bill's passage, both the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and the Air Quality Control Commission will be drawing up new rules for how oil and gas companies operate.
Eric Waeckerlin, a partner with Denver-based law firm Holland & Hart who often represents oil and gas clients, sees a lot of complicated rulemaking ahead.
Waeckerlin anticipates it will take at least a couple of years to sort out the new rules, as government boards and commissions, including local governments, sort out the vague definitions and guidelines laid out in Senate Bill 181.
Local governments already are throwing up temporary moratoriums on oil and gas development, while officials in energy-rich Weld County are looking at ways to exempt their county or effectively repeal onerous parts of Senate Bill 181 on the ballot in 2020.
If that happens, the new rules will hardly be in place before there’s a strong push to end them or amend them. Or, Waeckerlin said, companies could look to do business where there’s less political resistance, in states such as North Dakota and Texas.
The deep-pocketed oil-and-gas industry, so far, has taken a cooperative posture in crafting some parts of Polis’ legislative agenda, but they’re still very much on the outside looking in. At some point, if Colorado history serves, the issues will spill over into the courts and onto the ballot.
“There are at least 12 different rulemakings, some of them are a much heavier lift than others,” Waeckerlin said.
“... There’s a rulemaking to have the commission look at cumulative impacts. What does that mean and how far does that go? How far does the ripple effect go? Are you talking about a project that sends natural gas in a pipeline to the West Coast? Are you talking about a project that supplies the world, so you have to look at greenhouse gas if they’re burning that gas in Japan?
“Yeah, there’s going to be litigation over all of this.”
A change in climate
Becker, a Boulder Democrat, sponsored many of the session's most impactful environmental bills: the Climate Action Plan, curbs on utilities' carbon dioxide emissions, boosts to electric vehicles and a measures to smooth the economic transition from coal to renewable energy.
Time is running out for the planet, and especially the state’s winter sports economy, so doing nothing was not an option, contend supporters of Democrats’ work on the climate.
Those soft-pedaling a bill called the Democratic Climate Action Plan merely a set of aspirational goals. There were no mandates in House Bill 1261, just the goals of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by at least 26% by 2025, at least 50% by 2030 and 90% by 2050, based on 2005 levels.
The tension between Democrats and Republicans over the state’s energy future was evident as the General Assembly looked at reauthorizing the state Public Utilities Commission, which provides regulatory oversight of public utilities in Colorado.
Republicans saw the potential for higher rates for consumers in the Democrats’ hasty retreat from fossil fuels.
The Democrats have instructed the PUC to consider and evaluate the cost of carbon pollution emissions when ruling on future energy projects by utilities it regulates, including Xcel Energy and Black Hills Energy.
And they placed the wholesale rural power provider Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, which generates about half of its power from coal, under PUC oversight.
The legislature also told major utilities to speed up their conversion to renewable energy from coal and authorized them to provide more charging stations for electric vehicles.
Bill Levis, Colorado's state consumer counsel from 2009 through 2013, said despite assurances from leaders in the legislature that green energy will eventually save ratepayers money, there are no guarantees. And everywhere he looks, he sees more cost and surcharges that ultimately are going to wind up on people’s monthly utility bills.
“They keep saying rates are going to go down, but I’m concerned they’re more likely to go up,” Levis said.
Big electricity users and residential customers who can afford the cost of green energy systems may choose to opt off the grid to collect, store, use or sell back their own renewable energy.
“The only people who will be left on the grid are going to be low-income customers and older customers,” said Levis, who often testifies on bills on behalf of AARP Colorado. “I don’t think this was well thought-out.”
The legislature effectively killed competition on electric vehicle charging stations, Levis said, by allowing Xcel and Black Hills to pass the cost of installing those outlets to all their customers in their rates, even though only a small minority drive electric vehicles. Other private competitors to provide charging stations won't have that competitive advantage.
Boulder-based conservation think tank Western Resource Advocates backed the reauthorization of the PUC and to bend its mission to the left.
“By modernizing our electricity grid, helping utilities leverage more affordable renewable energy, and strengthening oversight and consumer protection, Colorado will be better equipped to meet its rapidly changing energy needs," Erin Overturf, deputy director of the group's Clean Energy Program, said in a statement.
“I think the response from the market and the future of the Colorado economy will possibly dictate that,” said Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, R-Parker. “Certainly not for some. The true believers on climate change and those who want 100 percent renewable by 2040 or whatever date, I think those legislators, those advocates, will be back for more.”
Tackling health, education
Reducing the cost of insurance, prescriptions and other burdens of health care was high on the legislative agenda. Lawmakers chiseled away at the problem by passing at least a dozen bills.
The legislature created a reinsurance pool to help insurers cover the cost of those prone to costly claims, ideally reducing premiums for others. Legislation will force hospitals to be more transparent in the pricing, including an end to surprise out-of-network charges.
Patients will be able to buy some prescription drugs from Canada, where they can cost a fraction of what American suppliers charge for the same medication. Colorado will soon have a $100 monthly price cap on out-of-pocket costs for insulin while the state investigates why drugmakers are raising the price so high so fast.
Individuals also will have more options to form coops to negotiate group premiums with insurers, as well.
“I’m proud to say we delivered on our promise to make sure health care was more affordable for Coloradans,” said state Senate President Leroy Garcia.
The legislature also provided money so that institutions of higher learning could keep tuition rates flat next year.
“We all know that we need to do more to make college and higher education more affordable, but freezing tuition is a very important figures step,” Polis said.
While holding tuition rates to 2018-19 levels and putting in the bucks to pay for all-day kindergarten topped Polis’ legislative agenda, lawmakers had other interests as well.
Speaking of education, Colorado students could get the chance to learn about fake news and credible reporting because of a task force in the Department of Education created by House Bill 1110.
The panel will come up with curriculum standards for media literacy, an optional course. The 13-member committee will include teachers from rural and large school districts, a librarian and members of the media, all appointed by the commissioner of education.
It’s the inclusion of teachers that had Republicans arguing in vain, demanding that the teachers not be union members, because the lawmakers claimed it would lead to left-wing bias.
Going to the voters
In some cases, issues dealt with in legislation will now be decided by voters this fall.
Because of the state’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, most of the state's big money decisions are made by the voters. In some years, when the state brings in more revenue than a constitutional spending cap allows, the excess money is returned to taxpayers.
Voters this fall will decide whether to forego those returns. One-third of the money would go to K-12 education; one third to higher education; and one-third to transportation.
Voters in November also will decide whether to approve a 10 percent tax on sports betting, and, in the process, legalize the games in Colorado.
A U.S. Supreme Court decision last year gave state’s the power to legalize, regulate and tax the games. Colorado’s benefit would support the state water plan and behavioral health programs, including gambling addiction.
Pot, justice and more
Colorado’s recreational marijuana industry has been up and running since 2014, but this year the legislature added transformative pieces of legislation.
Bills passed to allow “hospitality” options such as “tasting rooms” to sample the goods at dispensaries, as well as authorizing social club consumption and the ability to buy small amounts at entertainment venues.
The legislature also expanded out-of-state investment and ownership opportunities in the cannabis industry. It also made autism a condition to qualify for medical marijuana and made it clear that any condition for which an opiate painkiller might be prescribed qualifies for medical marijuana.
The legislature also took on the criminal justice system in Colorado this session and pecked away at the social problems and broken safety nets that often land people there.
Coloradans arrested for minor crimes won’t have to pay cash bail, “because poverty is not a crime," Becker said.
Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, sponsored a dozen bipartisan criminal justice bills. Besides waiving bail, her bills lowered the drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor, allowed parolees to vote and will keep some past crimes off job and college applications.
“Thousands of Coloradans awaiting trial for minor offenses have languished in jail simply because they couldn’t afford to get out,” Herod said in a statement regarding the bail bill. “We were caging the poor and the homeless, not for their crimes, but for their poverty.”
The General Assembly also made it easier to seal criminal records after three or five years, depending on the circumstance.