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The Colorado state Legislature, now about three-fourths of the way through its work season, has tackled some hefty spending measures, buoyed up by favorable economic forecasts.
Meanwhile, a report on workplace culture found a large number of people at the Capitol have experienced or witnessed sexual harassment, and that they’re uneasy with the reporting process.
The regular session — the 120-day term when bills can be passed — started Jan. 10 and will end in early May.
The Colorado state Senate approved a $28.9 billion state budget — about $2 billion more than last year's — over opposition from only four Republicans and four Democrats. The 26-8 vote on April 5, with one senator absent, pushed the plan to conference committee, where differences between the House and Senate versions will be ironed out.
Increasingly favorable forecasts for Colorado's economy greased the wheels for several noteworthy spending measures, with the state's general-fund revenues projected to grow 12.9 percent for fiscal year 2017-18 — a $1.3 billion increase, for a $11.6 billion total — and 3.2 percent for 2018-19, according to state estimates.
Strong economic growth and changes in federal tax policy set the state up to take in more revenue.
Notable measures in the budget included an additional $5 million for affordable-housing construction grants and loans, an additional $3 million from the Marijuana Tax Cash Fund for substance-use disorder services and $2 million for mental-health training for police officers.
Educators will be pleased to see a $150 million boost to K-12 school funding, which House Democrats in a news release called “the biggest buydown since what used to be called the 'negative factor'” — a budget-cut mechanism to school funding — started in 2009.
About $35 million for school-security grants in the wake of the Parkland, Florida, school shooting in February also made it through.
More than one-fourth see harassment
An outside report on the Legislature's workplace environment found that 27 percent of the Capitol's community — including lawmakers, staff, lobbyists, aides, interns and volunteers — said they've observed or experienced sexual harassment.
The April 2 report was done by Denver-based Investigations Law Group, whcih top lawmakers chose on Jan. 24 to conduct a review of the Capitol's workplace-harassment policy, which includes rules on sexual misconduct.
The report gathered data from 528 survey responses collected in February. Most respondents who said they've observed harassment in general in the Legislature workplace said they saw the behavior “several times.”
Of the respondents who have observed harassing behaviors in general — including harassment based on sex, sexual orientation, age, race, religion, disability and other categories — only 13 percent said they reported it. Fear to use the reporting process, harassment not being “severe enough,” not knowing the process and choosing not to report as a victim all were reasons respondents opted not to report.
Interview and survey respondents expressed desire for an independent human-resources body. The report recommended creating an Office of Legislative Culture to address the problems, which would handle complaint resolution and workplace training. The office should have protections like funding and job protections to remain independent from political pressures, the report said.
Hitting the destination
The long-drawn-out process to boost state transportation spending crossed a mile marker when it passed the Senate March 28 — with a unanimous 35-0 vote.
A $500 million one-time commitment based on current revenue gains in part allowed Republicans to avoid voting for new taxes.
“We got something done,” said Sen. John Cooke, R-Greeley, according to a news release by Senate Republicans. “And that's what matters. If the House listens to Coloradans' needs, and the governor signs this bill, we will see more money flowing to Colorado's roads than we have seen in decades, and it won't raise taxes on a single individual, family or business.”
The proposal, Senate Bill 18-001, originally included a permanent 10 percent diversion of existing sales and use tax revenue for future spending, to which Democrats objected, fearing cuts to education and health-care programs. An amendment by Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, D-Arvada, did away with that, setting a maximum commitment of $250 million per year.
Future, further funding has a novel option under the bill: Voters can choose to pass a citizen-initiated ballot measure in 2018 to raise taxes, or, if that measure fails or isn't on the ballot, they'll vote on a measure in 2019 to pass a bond package.
As of 2016, Colorado carried a $9 billion need for additional transportation funding through 2025.
SB 18-001 was introduced in House April 3.
Pushing on PERA
Senate Republicans passed what they called “sweeping new changes” to the state's public-employee pension fund, which lawmakers say is somewhere between $30 billion and $60 billion underfunded. Republicans outlined the issue as one Coloradans would have to bite the bullet on now, or face much steeper problems later.
“Any actions we take now are understandably going to create concerns and cause hardship," said Sen. Jack Tate, R-Centennial, according to a news release. “But these consequences will pale in comparison to what we'll see if the pension program continues on the unsustainable path it's on. We must act now to ensure that current and future employees have a sustainable retirement system that works for them.”
Doing nothing would threaten the state's credit rating and put all beneficiaries at long-term risk, Tate said. The Public Employees' Retirement Association program, or PERA, has been an increasingly dire issue for years.
The portion of public employees' monthly salary that goes to the program — currently 8 percent — would increase to 11 percent for most members by 2020 if the bill passes. It would temporarily freeze cost-of-living adjustments for retirees and raise the retirement age requirement for most new employees to age 65 with a minimum of five years of service, or any age with a minimum of 40 years of service credit.
The bill would also allow many local public employees to choose to participate in the defined-contribution plan, rather than the defined-benefits plan.
Conservative critics have argued PERA should transition from its current structure as a defined-benefits plan — in which the employer guarantees a specific retirement amount and bears the risk of promising the investment will be available — to a defined-contributions plan, like a 401(k), in which the employee chooses to fund the plan, which takes the risk off the employer, or in this case, the government. Democrats have preferred the defined-benefits system.
Senate Bill 18-200 passed the Senate March 27 and was introduced in the House April 3.
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