Legislators funded creation of the state’s own firefighting air corps, passed a torrent of legislation to assist recovery from last fall’s deadly flooding, and poured mega millions more into supporting primary, secondary and higher education.
The Colorado General Assembly, however, adjourned without addressing what likely will become the most vexing of the upcoming issues affecting the state: The ability of local governments to regulate oil and gas drilling within their boundaries.
Unless negotiation results in a compromise, it will be up to voters to sort through the 11 different ballot proposals in what promises to be a brutal battle between oil and gas companies advocating for statewide standards and residents insisting on local control to address health and safety concerns.
“This industry is the most significant in the state, creating tens of thousands of jobs,” said state Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud. “This is really a political issue and not a policy issue.”
That unresolved matter not withstanding, Northern Colorado legislators characterize this year’s session of the General Assembly as a productive one lacking the rancor of the 2013 session, which was dominated by bitter debate over gun regulation.
Just why depends on who you ask.
“The session is a little milder than last year because it was managed better,” said Lundberg, who will seek re-election. “All the Republican bills were killed in committee the first month,” he continued tongue-in-cheek.
But state Sen. John Kefalas, D-Fort Collins, insisted the increased civility resulted from a greater sense of bipartisanship that prevailed in 96 percent of the votes that passed bills.
For example, Kefalas said he worked with Lundberg and a 12-member committee to deal with the aftermath of last year’s flooding.
Kefalas said they teamed up on legislation expediting the process for replacing or repairing the more than 100 irrigation head gates destroyed or damaged in the flood. He and Lundberg also collaborated on a bill providing immunity to Good Samaritans attempting to assist in an emergency.
“I thought in general it was a good session. We made a significant contribution on flooding,” agreed Rep. Randy Fischer, D-Fort Collins.
Northern Colorado legislators remained focused on longstanding priorities.
Fischer — chairman of the Agricultural, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee and whose district includes much of the Colorado State University campus — has focused heavily on water and education matters.
“I’ve always thought agricultural water should stay in the hands of agriculture as long as possible,” he said. “We don’t want to dry up and buy up agricultural land.”
In that regard, Fischer said he has worked toward greater flexibility in water issues. But in his final year because of term limits, he met with strong pushback by traditionalists and was disappointed that many of his efforts were scuttled.
Still, Fischer did successfully sponsor a bill requiring that all plumbing fixtures sold in the state by 2017 meet national conservation standards. He said that action should save 40,000 acre-feet of water annually.
He also joined Kefalas, Joann Ginal, D-Fort Collins, and the overwhelming majority supporting the College Affordability Act. This measure provides an additional $100 million for student financial aid and support to institutions of higher education. The act also limits tuition increases to 6 percent annually.
Kefalas said that would mean an extra $12 million to CSU, and President Tony Frank already indicated to him that tuition will increase no more than 5 percent next year.
There was less enthusiasm for a bill Fischer carried that would have raised the salary of part-time adjunct instructors. He said these instructors teach up to 70 percent of college classes and earn less than $18,000 a year. Fischer said he hopes others will take up the cause in the next session. Kefalas confirmed that he would.
Kefalas said his emphasis remains supporting working families, encouraging economic opportunity and reducing poverty. “I’ve been pretty consistent. How do you create an economy that works for everybody?”
Last year Kefalas noted that he chaired the Economic Opportunity Poverty Reduction task force. Among the seven bills coming out of that effort was one providing a child-care credit for families earning $25,000 or less annually.
On the other side of the equation, this year he was among the senate sponsors of a bill that would provide income tax credits to “angel investors” funding start-up enterprises. “That’s an example of helping small business,” Kefalas noted.
He also was pleased that the General Assembly provided an additional $550 million to increase the per-student base for pre-K-12 education.
Responding to constituent complaints about excessive property transfer fees, he also co-sponsored a bill requiring property managers to inform homeowners association boards of all charges and fees annually. He also was among the sponsors of bills limiting the cost of public-records searches and the ability of government to access health records.
Ginal successfully carried the so-called Right to Try bill allowing terminally ill patients to use experimental treatments. It indemnifies health-care providers and insurers if users of those unproven treatments still die.
Lundberg once again took up a lonely battle when he unsuccessfully proposed legislation to abolish the state’s health-care exchange.
Calling it “a complete disaster,” Lundberg said he had gotten only “politically doctored” answers to his questions. “It does nothing more than what brokers have been doing for years.”
Lundberg did take some satisfaction that a bill he sponsored prohibiting law enforcement from tracking citizens with global positioning satellites without first obtaining a warrant passed on the last day of the session.
Among the other allocations in the $23 billion state budget was almost $20 million to lease or purchase firefighting helicopters and tankers. Another $18 million was allocated for compensation to those whose homes were destroyed by the Lower North Fork Fire started accidentally by the state. Legislators also created a system of cooperative entities to handle financial transactions for marijuana growers.