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Divided state legislature has been on a bill-killing spree



The beginning of Colorado's legislative session is a time of births and deaths — of bills that is.

With a divided legislature, both parties' bills walk the plank early in the session, which began Jan. 13 and runs through May 11. As some might remember from their school days, a bill is first introduced in either house, where it is assigned to a committee by either the speaker of the house (in the House) or the senate president (in the Senate). The committee can then approve the bill, amend it, or ditch it. That happens before a bill is ever called up for a vote by the full House or the full Senate. Thus, bills that hold no appeal for the controlling party (or bills whose sponsors hold no appeal) often find themselves assigned to a "kill committee" where they are promptly "postponed indefinitely." Here are some things to look for in a dead bill:

• What house it died in and whether a Democrat or a Republican proposed it. Remember, the Senate is majority Republican and the House is majority Democrat. Parties are not above using their power to kill bills from the rival party.

• What committee it died in. If a bill on day-care providers gets killed in the House Committee on State, Veterans, and Military Affairs, it never stood a chance. Bills are often sent to die in committees that are unrelated to the subject of the bill.

• Did it have bipartisan support? It's rarer for bills with bipartisan support to get axed right out of the gate. Sometimes these bills will reappear, slightly tweaked, later in the session. But not always.

• Is it sponsored by that one guy, again? Some legislators see a lot of their bills killed. This can signal that they have extreme views or that they are very much disliked (usually by the opposing party).

• Did the bill stand a chance? Sometimes legislators introduce doomed bills, often year after year, either to take a stand on principle or pander to their base. Bills that are killed off early in the session could be highly political or daring.

On that last point, both parties have their losses. Sen. Michael Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, for instance, saw both Senate Bill 25 and House Bill 1054, known popularly as the "right to die" bills, expire early. He was a sponsor of both bills, which would have allowed people with a terminal illness to get medication prescribed by their doctor to end their life. The bills were close the Merrifield's heart, because he watched his father suffer horribly leading up to his death from prostate cancer in 2002. Merrifield, who sponsored a similar ill-fated bill last session, also survived his own bout with cancer, and says he'd never want to suffer with a terminal diagnosis as his father did.

Rep. Gordon Klingenschmitt, R-Colorado Springs, meanwhile, was one of the sponsors of House Bill 1123, which would have exempted religious officials from public accommodations laws (in other words, clarified that it is legal for them to discriminate based on religious belief in the case of, say, a gay wedding). Klingenschmitt is a deeply conservative Pentecostal minister and former Navy chaplain who does not believe in gay marriage (to put it lightly). He says his bill was aimed at bringing state law in line with U.S. Constitutional law by ensuring that religious protections are for clergy, not just churches.

"Unfortunately," he says, "the speaker sent my bill to the kill committee."

Both Democrats and Republicans kill a lot of bills (and as far as this reporter could tell, they do it at a similar rate). But often legislators gripe that their bills were axed for little or no cause — they say a simple "D" or "R" next to their names was enough to spell doom. Merrifield, for instance, says many of his bills sent to a kill committee this session hardly smacked of a liberal agenda — they were simple, problem-solving legislation.

"I think a lot of it is partisanship," he says. "Unless [the bill] is totally innocuous — well, I guess that isn't even true — unless it's totally nonpartisan."

Unsurprisingly, Merrifield thinks Republicans are more likely to kill bills without cause, while Klingenschmitt thinks it's the other way around.

"I think the Democrats are far worse," he says. "I think they're brazen. I think they laugh about it."

We took a look at some — though certainly not all — of the bills that met their maker early in this session:

That's criminal

The House kicked a bill to the curb that would have prohibited the sealing of domestic violence convictions by municipalities. Under current law, House Bill 1115 notes, municipal offenses can be sealed, but the bill would have forbidden "sealing a municipal assault or battery conviction or any other municipal conviction, if the conviction involves the underlying factual basis of domestic violence."

The bill, which died on Feb. 8 in the House Committee on State, Veterans, and Military Affairs, was sponsored by Rep. Kevin Van Winkle, R-Highlands Ranch, and co-sponsored by Rep. Paul Lundeen, R-Monument; Rep. Lois Landgraf, R-Fountain; Rep. Dan Nordberg, R-Colorado Springs; and Rep. Polly Lawrence, R-Douglas County.

The Independent contacted Colorado House Democrats Communications Director Dean Toda about the bill, but did not hear back in time for our deadline. El Paso County Republican Party Executive Director Daniel Cole, however, sent the Indy an email responding to the bill's death.

"It was a pro-woman bill, as it would have protected potential victims of domestic violence," he wrote. "It looks like the Democrats killed it out of partisan spite. They'll probably co-opt it and run it themselves at some point."

On a related note, a bill sponsored by Merrifield and Rep. Lang Sias, R-Arvada, that would have allowed a peace officer "to enforce a Canadian domestic violence protection order," and a court to either enforce it or refuse to, was rejected by the Senate Committee on Judiciary. Senate Bill 103 died on Jan. 22.

Interestingly, the House booted a bill that would have eliminated the statute of limitations for sexual assault. House Bill 1072, which had bipartisan sponsorship, died Feb. 11 in the House Committee on Judiciary. However, a similar bill with the same sponsors, House Bill 1260, recently passed the House with only two Republicans voting in opposition. HB1260 extends the statute of limitations for felony sexual assault from 10 years to 20 years.

Over in the Senate, Republican-sponsored Senate Bill 64 died on Feb. 10 in the Senate Committee on Judiciary. It would have allowed nine jurors, instead of a unanimous 12, to impose the death penalty.

Meanwhile, Democrat-sponsored Senate Bill 42 sought to protect people who seek help for an underage person who has overdosed on marijuana or alcohol — in other words, make sure that if the reporting party is also underage, they don't face criminal charges for helping out their friend. The law already provides some protection in these circumstances, but the bill would have protected more than one reporting party; protected them not only from arrest, but also prosecution; and protected the overdosing party from arrest and prosecution. It died Feb. 17 in the Senate Committee on Judiciary.

Finally, there's the very ambitious Democrat-sponsored Senate Bill 98. The bill would have repealed many existing mandatory minimum sentences for imprisonment, fines, and community service; classified certain child abuse crimes and stalking crimes as crimes of violence; increased the maximum range of prison time for Class 3 to 6 felony crimes of violence; and repealed some requirements that a court hand down consecutive sentences rather than concurrent sentences. The attempt to rework the criminal justice system was cut short on Feb. 22 in the Committee on Judiciary. (A simpler bill to remove some mandatory minimum sentences, Senate Bill 102, was still alive as of this writing and had bipartisan backers, including Merrifield.)

Sickness and health

Some bills almost seem to be asking for it. Take House Bill 1007, which would have allowed a prosecuting attorney to issue a homicide or assault charge against someone who caused the death of an unborn child through a criminal act or traffic violation (in other words, the fetus would be considered a full human being for the purpose of criminal prosecution). The bill was sponsored by Rep. Janak Joshi, R-Colorado Springs, and co-sponsored by seven other Republicans, including Klingenschmitt, Lundeen and Landgraf. Deemed a form of "personhood" by opponents, it died Feb. 11 in the House Committee on Business Affairs and Labor.

Then there's House Bill 1113, which would have banned most abortions. The hopeless bill was sponsored by Rep. Stephen Humphrey, R-Severance, and Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, with an impressive 19 co-sponsors in the House and seven in the Senate, including Klingenschmitt, Nordberg, Joshi, Lundeen and Sen. Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs. It died Feb. 11 in the House Committee on Health, Insurance, and Environment.

Of course, Republicans aren't the only ones who propose bills that were built to fail. Democrat-sponsored Senate Bill 33, introduced in the Republican-controlled Senate, would have required retail food establishments to post a public health notice in their window if they did not provide employees at least five days of paid sick leave per year. The notice would have informed the public that because of the failure to provide leave, they might be "at an increased risk of exposure to communicable diseases."

It died Feb. 3 in the Senate Committee on State, Veterans, and Military Affairs.

A more direct attempt to push the sick leave issue, which had a lot of support from Democrats, Senate Bill 114, failed on Feb. 22 in the Senate Committee on State, Veterans, and Military Affairs. It would have required all Colorado employers to provide paid sick leave. (A similar, Democrat-sponsored bill that would force larger companies to provide limited sick leave to employees that need to go to a child's academic events passed the House. However, House Bill 1002 was recently assigned to the State, Veterans, and Military Affairs, which would not appear to bode well for its survival.)

House Bill 1068 seemed to have a better chance of passing, though it was still controversial. Sponsored by Sen. Lambert and Rep. Lundeen, the bill aimed to put more restrictions on methadone clinics. Among the changes, it would have created minimum distances from schools, colleges and residential child care facilities. The clinics also would have had to disclose infractions, and could not be considered medical facilities for zoning purposes. It's no secret that the impetus for this bill is a long-embattled plan to build a methadone clinic in Monument. Many opponents say a clinic would draw drug users to the town, while those in favor say people trying to recover from addiction to drugs like heroin need a place to go.

The bill was killed on Jan. 27 in the House Committee on State, Veterans, and Military Affairs.

Meanwhile, Klingenschmitt says he was perturbed that one of his top bills, House Bill 1015, was killed on Feb. 3 by the House Committee on State, Veterans, and Military Affairs. The bill would have repealed certain parts of the Colorado Health Care Coverage Act if those sections were also repealed from the federal heath care law. Klingenschmitt says he was trying to make "cheap insurance" plans available to Coloradans who lost their plans due to requirements of the law. He was among those, he says, who lost his plan.

"I didn't expect it to be sent to a kill committee; I expected it to be sent to a health committee," he says. "... The fact the speaker sent it to a non-health committee meant that she had a political reason to do so."

Finally, there was Senate Bill 118, which had wide support from Democrats. It was killed Feb. 23 in the Senate Committee on State, Veterans, and Military Affairs. The bill would have directed the state Department of Public Health and Environment to create a screening questionnaire for prenatal substance exposure. The screening results wouldn't have been used for criminal prosecution or to refer a case to social services. Rather, the data would have been used to educate moms and help babies affected by substance abuse early in their lives — when such interventions make the most difference.

Getting around

If you've ever driven a two-lane road through the mountains — and if you're a Coloradan, chances are you have — then you probably understand the impetus behind Senate Bill 18. Sponsored by Merrifield and killed on Feb. 1 by the Senate Committee on State, Veterans, and Military Affairs, the description reads: "The bill prohibits a person driving a motor vehicle from impeding the flow of more than 5 motor vehicles following immediately behind. An impeder must drive in the right-hand lane or pull off the road where it is safe and legal to do so and let the others pass."

Merrifield says that the law was opposed by commercial truck drivers who said the law was impractical, as there often isn't a place for them to pull over.

"I offered to remove professional truckers from the bill and no one took me up on it," Merrifield says.

How you feel about House Bill 1205 probably depends on whether you ride a motorcycle. Sponsored by Klingenschmitt and Sen. John Cooke, R-Greeley, the bill would have allowed motorcycles to split lanes (drive between rows of traffic going the same direction, or along the right hand side of traffic) in cases where the traffic was moving very slowly. The House Committee on Transportation and Energy threw open it's door (so to speak) on that bill on Feb. 17.

Senate Bill 11 was more high-profile and passed the Senate before it was killed on Feb. 17 in the House Committee on Transportation and Energy. The Republican-backed bill aimed to reallocate $5 million worth of the "Funding Advancements for Surface Transportation and Economic Recovery Act of 2009" (FASTER) that currently goes to transit. The money would have instead gone to road safety projects. In other words, money that would have gone to mass transit (such as the regional bus service, Bustang) would have instead gone to roads.

In other transportation bill failures, there is the bipartisan-sponsored House Bill 1029, which was killed on Feb. 3 by the House Committee on Transportation and Energy. It would have allowed small, fuel-efficient Japanese cars and trucks, called kei vehicles, on roads with speed limits under 55 mph. The vehicles would have had to be insured, registered with the Division of Motor Vehicles, and driven by a licensed driver. The bill also required the vehicles to meet certain safety standards. A similar bill died in the last session. The Colorado Independent reported that the Colorado Auto Dealers' Association and the Colorado State Patrol opposed the bill both times. The former, it reported, opposed the legalization of the little vehicles because they don't meet state and federal safety and emission standards.

Finally, there's bipartisan-sponsored House Bill 1020, which was axed by the House Committee on Judiciary on Jan. 26. The bill initially looked like a slam dunk. It's description read, "A person commits introducing contraband in the first degree if he or she knowingly and unlawfully operates any unmanned aircraft system (UAS) within 5 miles of a detention facility with the intent to introduce or attempt to introduce a dangerous instrument, alcohol or an alcoholic beverage, a controlled substance, or marijuana or marijuana concentrate into the detention facility."

But the bill reportedly ran into a number of hurdles including concerns that the bill:

• would have also banned drones near airports.

• might block legitimate use of drones (by, say, photographers).

• might be so broad as to make it illegal to fly a drone near a police car.

• was unnecessary because it's already illegal to bring contraband into a prison.

Help a brother out

One thing you can say about Merrifield: He's persistent. Last session, he introduced a bill to let local governments set a higher minimum wage than the state. It failed. So this year, he did it again. Senate Bill 54 was killed on Feb. 17 by the Senate Committee on State, Veterans, and Military Affairs.

Another bill that has failed in more than one session is this year's House Bill 1191. If you were interested in the city's sit-lie ordinance/Pedestrian Access Act, then this one might interest you.

"The bill creates the 'Colorado Right to Rest Act,' which establishes basic rights for persons experiencing homelessness," the bill's description reads, "including, but not limited to, the right to use and move freely in public spaces without discrimination, to rest in public spaces without discrimination, to eat or accept food in any public space where food is not prohibited, to occupy a legally parked vehicle, and to have a reasonable expectation of privacy of one's property."

The Democrat-sponsored bill perished Feb. 24 in the House Committee on Local Government.

Another bill with bipartisan sponsorship, House Bill 1037, would have created income tax credits for businesses that employ people with certain disabilities. One credit would have paid a percentage of the employee's wages for a set period of time. A second credit would have covered a portion of the cost of maintenance, repair or upgrade of assistive hardware or software needed for the employee to do her job. The bill died Feb. 17 in the House Committee on Finance.

Meanwhile, three bills have already died that were aimed at lassoing those pesky student loans that can really cut into your beer budget (or ruin your chance of building wealth until you're 50 years old).

Senate Bill 24 would have put a cap on the interest rates that a private lender could charge on student loans. It was sent to the Senate Committee on State, Veterans, and Military Affairs where it died on Feb. 10. The bill was sponsored by Sen. Matt Jones, D-Louisville, and Rep. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City. Merrifield was a co-sponsor.

Senate Bill 43 aimed to root out corruption and misinformation in the private student loan industry by: forbidding gifts from lenders to educational institutions in return for favoritism, forbidding school employees from accepting gifts from private lenders, forbidding fees for early pay-off of a private loan, and requiring full disclosure of the loan's terms to the borrower. The Democrat-sponsored bill died Feb. 17 in the Senate Committee on State, Veterans, and Military Affairs.

Senate Bill 45 would have required public schools to teach students about student loan debt and retirement planning as a part of academic standards for financial literacy. The Democrat-sponsored bill was killed Feb. 11 by the Senate Committee on Education.

Fixer upper

If you live in a mobile home park, then Senate Bill 57 would have interested you. The Democrat-sponsored bill aimed to give homeowners within mobile home parks more rights. Under the bill, the state's Division of Housing would have taken a more active role in monitoring mobile home parks (from recording demographics to providing educational courses on the rights of home and land owners), as well as resolving disputes between mobile home owners and the owners of the parks. The bill died Feb. 10 in the Senate Committee on State, Veterans, and Military Affairs.

Meanwhile, Senate Bill 32, sponsored by Merrifield and Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, would have created "the economic development working group for highly distressed urban regions of the state." The goal of the group would have been to improve the areas by planning improvements, seeking tax breaks, and consulting the legislature on possible changes that could speed up development. It died Feb. 2 in the Senate Committee on Finance.

Finally, Democrat-sponsored Senate Bill 59 would have allowed county and local governments to require land developers to mitigate the effects of the growth they cause by building affordable housing. Local governments are currently banned from creating such requirements due to a law that prevents "rent control." It was axed on Feb. 2 by the Senate Committee on Finance.

Guns and drugs

Sometimes, apparently, people just get tired of shooting the same kinds of animals.

Senate Bill 119, which had bipartisan sponsorship, would have allowed landowners to apply for licenses to shoot moose, Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, desert bighorn sheep, and Rocky Mountain goats, in addition to species that are already allowed, like deer, elk and pronghorn. The licenses would have been issued so long as hunting the species in question met "the commission's animal management objectives for the game management unit where the property lies." The bill died Feb. 10 in the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Energy.

Then there was a bill that aimed to loosen our liquor laws. Senate Bill 53 would have allowed, "a licensed spirituous liquors manufacturer to self-distribute up to 9,000 liters per spirituous liquor product of its own manufacture in a calendar year without obtaining a wholesaler's license." Sponsored by Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, and Rep. Dan Pabon, D-Denver, it died Jan. 27 in the Senate Committee on Business, Labor, and Technology.

Finally, there's House Bill 1137 which would have required certain nicotine products that don't contain tobacco (like vaporizers) to have a warning label on the package that states that the product "contains addictive nicotine." Violations of the label requirement would have carried the same penalties as selling nicotine to a minor. The bill was sponsored by Klingenschmitt and Lundberg. Landgraf was among the co-sponsors. The bill died Feb. 11 in the House Committee on Health, Insurance, and Environment.

Klingenschmitt says his bill died despite having multiple Democratic co-sponsors because it's thought that the federal government will soon require labels. Still, he says he's worried that nicotine products are being sold to teens illegally with no warning.

The bill, he says, was "an opportunity for a simple requirement that at least they have truth in advertising."

Question authority

Rep. Perry Buck, R-Windsor, along with a whole bunch of House co-sponsors (including Klingenschmitt), went to bat for oil and gas companies with House Bill 1181. The bill, which was a nonstarter in the House Committee on State, Veterans, and Military Affairs where it died Feb. 24, would have forced local governments that ban fracking to pay oil and gas companies for their losses.

"Every property owner in Colorado should be concerned that Democrats are comfortable with the government taking control of a person's property without just compensation," Buck stated in a press release about the bill's demise.

Meanwhile, Merrifield, a former teacher, and Sen. Vicki Marble, R-Fort Collins, sponsored Senate Bill 105 which would have revoked the recently created state requirement that 50 percent of teacher and principal evaluations be based on their students' academic growth. Instead, only 20 percent would be based on growth and, in some cases, high-performers could be exempted from the student growth evaluation portion of their evaluation for up to three years. The student growth model for evaluations has long been controversial with some saying the requirement is a common-sense way to hold educators responsible, while others say it is unfair to educators and discourages them from working with kids who need the most help. The bill was killed Feb. 18 by the Senate Committee on Education.

If you're a fan of direct democracy, then you would have liked Republican-sponsored House Bill 1071, which was killed by the House Committee on State, Veterans, and Military Affairs on Feb. 1. In Colorado, there's a process through which a regular citizen can get an initiative put on the ballot, which can change state law if it's approved by voters. Before it gets on the ballot, the initiative has to pass through legal and bureaucratic hurdles, and get enough signatures of support. HB1071 would have allowed citizens to propose initiatives at the county level, or even for special taxing districts within counties.

Government accountability

The Senate didn't take kindly to a bill that would have forced public schools (including charters) and their leaders to be accountable for ethical and legal violations. Democrat-sponsored Senate Bill 101 would have created a school board ethics commission (and a code of ethics for school board members). The public would have been able to file complaints with the ethics board if they felt their school had violated ethics or laws (by say, not complying with the Colorado Open Meetings Law or the Colorado Open Records Act). The ethics board would have been able to investigate the complaint and impose sanctions like fines, equitable relief or censure if a violation was found.

The ethics board would have filled a gap, since complaints currently must go through the courts because the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission (IEC) doesn't have jurisdiction over school boards. Kerr introduced the bill as a response to allegations of major abuse of power by several Jefferson County School District board members, who have since been ousted by voters. The bill was killed Feb. 22 in the Senate Committee on State, Veterans, and Military Affairs.

Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, told the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition (CFOIC) that he voted against the bill because the ethics commission would have been "appointed by politicians" (i.e., the general assembly, the governor, and the state board of education).

"I haven't talked to any of my constituents that trust folks appointed by politicians more than they trust their direct access and accountability to (elected) folks," he told the CFOIC.

According to its Ethics Handbook, the voter-created IEC, "consists of five volunteer members, appointed by the Governor, the Speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives, the President of the Colorado Senate, and the Chief Justice of the Colorado Supreme Court respectively. The fifth member must be a local government employee or elected official, and is appointed by the other four Commissioners."

In other words, it too is mostly appointed by politicians.

Meanwhile, Democrat-sponsored Senate Bill 37 died Feb. 24 in the Senate Committee on State, Veterans, and Military Affairs. It would have modernized the Colorado Open Records Act by allowing public access to digitally stored data, which allows for searching, sorting and aggregating. Without digital release spelled out in the law, governments sometimes withhold databases and spreadsheets from the public.

In an article from the CFOIC, the bill's sponsor, Sen. John Kefalas, D-Fort Collins, is quoted as saying that records custodians sometimes, "seem to think the records entrusted to them belong to them and not to the people. I'm aware of situations where it appears that custodians have put up roadblocks to access in order to hide information or to make it harder for requesters to exercise due diligence."

The article also notes that CFOIC, Colorado Common Cause, Colorado Ethics Watch and the Independence Institute all supported the bill while several local governments and the Colorado Secretary of State's Office opposed it, citing cost and data security concerns. The Secretary of State's Office plans to discuss the issue further.

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