In a work season buoyed up by unforeseen revenue, Colorado lawmakers passed a deal to put more money toward the state's deep transportation needs, gave the green light to a last-minute compromise on …
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In a work season buoyed up by unforeseen revenue, Colorado lawmakers passed a deal to put more money toward the state's deep transportation needs, gave the green light to a last-minute compromise on its public-retirement system and made progress on curtailing the opioid epidemic.
As conservative lawmakers note, the Legislature passed heavy spending lifts without a tax hike — enabled by favorable forecasts to the tune of a $1.3 billion increase in state revenue from last fiscal year. Strong economic growth and changes in federal tax policy set the state up to take in more revenue.
But Democrats and Republicans still battled on how to split that pie, and compromises left both sides without their ideal path forward.
Meanwhile, developments were less noteworthy on affordable housing, as prices continue a years-long spike.
The regular session — the 120-day term when bills can be passed — ended May 9. Here's a look at some of what was accomplished.
Wheels turn on transportation
Colorado landed itself in a $9 billion hole as of 2016, according to state projections of transportation-spending needs through 2025, and lawmakers aimed to chip further away at that price tag.
“Transportation was a — if not the — priority for Republicans this session,” said state House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, R-Castle Rock. Roads and bridges had been “neglected by the Democrats for 13 years,” he added.
For the Democrats' part, state House Speaker Crisanta Duran supported an unsuccessful bill last year to ask voters to raise sales and use taxes by 0.62 percentage points to raise about $375 million per year for the Colorado Department of Transportation, with other revenue going to counties and municipalities.
Senate President Kevin Grantham, R-Cañon City, supported that bill along with Duran, D-Denver.
This time around, lawmakers passed a $645 million boost over the next two years in a bill that would also ask voters in 2019 to approve about $2.3 billion in bond funding for transportation. That option would put Colorado on the hook for up to $3.25 billion in borrowing costs over 20 years.
But before that, outside groups may ask voters in 2018 to approve either another spending requirement without taxes, or allow a sales-tax increase.
“The Legislature will have no choice, I think, but to spend more on transportation and spend less on other things” if the first option passed, said Chris Holbert, state Senate majority leader. Holbert, R-Parker, was skeptical of the tax increase passing, “given the voter reaction to prior tax increases.”
Senate Bill 18-001, the deal lawmakers passed, headed to the governor's desk May 17.
Small steps on housing
Housing affordability, on the other hand, didn't see a grand bargain that would move the needle much.
“There was more lip service than anything else,” said Eric Sondermann, a Colorado independent political analyst.
Democrats unsuccessfully tried to pass a tax on shopping bags to fund affordable-housing assistance, while Republicans focus on what they say are regulations that make construction unaffordable.
“House Republicans are optimistic that the construction-litigation reform law passed in 2017 will spur more affordable home construction, but we need to give the market time to adjust before enacting more legislation,” said Cole Wist, state House assistant minority leader, R-Centennial.
Lawmakers passed a bill that extends the state's ability to allocate affordable-housing tax credits through the year 2024. It would have expired at the end of 2019, according to the Legislature's website.
It was a welcome move, but Coloradans need more support, state Rep. Faith Winter said.
“I'm excited that we were able to (extend) affordable-housing tax credits so that more affordable-housing projects can get off the ground,” said Winter, D-Westminster. “However, the response from the Legislature was woefully inadequate in addressing the affordable-housing crisis in Colorado.”
The Legislature passed what state Rep. Chris Kennedy called a “renters' rights bill” that would require landlords to provide a copy of a lease to each tenant, as well as receipts for cash rent payments, he said.
Senate Bill 18-007, the bill that extended tax credits, headed to the governor's desk May 11.
PERA gets fix
Senate Republicans passed in March what they called “sweeping new changes” to the state's public-employee pension fund, which lawmakers say is at least $30 billion underfunded. The bill eventually passed both chambers of the Legislature on the session's final day.
The program manages about $44 billion for more than 560,000 current and former public employees — teachers, police, and other local- and state-government employees — or about 1 in 10 Coloradans.
Doing nothing would have threatened the state's credit rating and put all beneficiaries at long-term risk, state Sen. Jack Tate, R-Centennial, has said in the past. The Public Employees' Retirement Association program, or PERA, has been an increasingly dire issue for years.
Senate Bill 18-200, “which was my legislation, accomplished this task of 'stopping digging the hole while trying to fill it' with an approach of shared sacrifice, solid financial fundamentals and better governance,” Tate said.
It adjusts the program to keep it on track to pay off its unfunded debt within 30 years, putting $225 million annually toward paying down that debt.
A bill that drew ire from the state teachers' union, it eliminates cost-of-living raises for two years, and afterward, annual raises will continue at 1.5 percent, cut from the current 2 percent. That rate could automatically adjust to help keep the system financially in check, said state Sen. Kevin Priola, a Republican who represents the south part of Thornton.
The bill has a “ratchet effect” built in so that employer and employee contributions increase automatically if challenging conditions — increased life expectancy, financial-market issues or others — occur, to “keep things from spinning out of control,” according to Sondermann.
“The bill was certainly half a loaf, but I don't think anyone really expected more than half a loaf,” said Sondermann, who co-heads a group called Secure Futures Colorado, which has pushed for reform of the program.
The deal was painful, but passing it was the right thing to do, Kennedy said.
“Retirees in 30 years are going to feel the benefit because their pensions will be there for them,” Kennedy said. “In the shorter term, employees are going to notice a dent in their paychecks, and retirees are going to see smaller cost-of-living adjustments, unfortunately.”
Opioids, health costs
Before the session began, lawmakers put together six bills to address opioid abuse, including to allow for supervised-injection facilities — where people with substance-use disorders could safely inject and be referred to treatment — and to expand access to residential, or live-in, substance-abuse treatment.
Lawmakers rejected the injection-facility bill, but a bill to limit the amount of opioids that can be initially prescribed passed, Priola said.
“I did run an (electronic) prescribe bill that didn't make it,” which “would have helped reduce doctor-shopping and forged prescriptions,” Priola said.
A bill to add inpatient and residential substance-use treatment as a Medicaid benefit — House Bill 18-1136 — passed May 7.
“These measures are the direct result of the hard work by (state) Rep. Brittany Pettersen,” said Winter, referring to the Lakewood Democrat who has pushed to address the opioid crisis and widely talked about her mother's struggle with a substance-use disorder.
Also passed was a measure to implement more education to medical providers about prescribing opioid drugs. Pettersen said the package of bills passed has “put Colorado on the map as a national leader.”
“This is the most important work I have ever had the opportunity to be a part of and might be the most important work in my lifetime,” Pettersen said. “Our package of bills will begin to close the barriers we face in addressing this public-health crisis. We are going to save thousands of lives.”
Elsewhere on health care, lawmakers passed bills to increase price transparency for free-standing emergency departments — which patients often confuse with urgent-care facilities, only to be charged emergency-room fees that can cost hundreds and even thousands of dollars more.
Senate Bill 18-146 requires FSEDs to provide individuals with information on cost of treatment, the individual's right to reject treatment and ability to ask questions about costs and options. The bill also requires an FSED to post a sign that states, “This is an emergency-medical facility that treats emergency-medical conditions” and indicate whether the facility contains an urgent-care clinic.
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