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Transportation fees, climate change, health insurance highlight ’21 legislative session

June 10, 2021, 10:05 am
colorado capitol
The Colorado Capitol in Denver.

After one last hours-long debate on the House floor — this one over Senate amendments to a controversial climate bill — the Colorado General Assembly adjourned for the 2021 session shortly before 8 p.m. Tuesday.

It was the third year when Democrats held a trifecta of power in the House, Senate and governor’s office. Lawmakers also had unexpected and unprecedented revenue to use to restore cuts made last year, at the onset of a coronavirus-triggered economic downturn. Those in power also hoped to use the extra money to “build back better” by targeting health and economic disparities worsened by the pandemic.

“This is one of the most historic sessions that I can remember, and we clearly made history,” House Speaker Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, said during a video news conference Wednesday.

While Democratic leaders cheered their accomplishments this session, some progressive lawmakers and advocates came away disappointed they weren’t able to accomplish more.

Democratic Gov. Jared Polis influenced some legislation, including a major climate policy he threatened to veto.

“It’s no secret that the governor is pretty hands-on. His background is being a legislator. He’s a policy guy,” Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat, said during the news conference. “Sometimes some members may get frustrated with that, but at the same time I think … in the end it’s good — it probably creates better outcomes for the people of Colorado.”

Newsline rounded up some of the key developments from the last days of the session.

New transportation fees

On June 3, lawmakers in the General Assembly gave final approval to a $5.3 billion transportation funding package, sending the historic measure to Polis’ desk to be signed into law.

Senate Bill 21-260, which sponsors say will provide a “future-proofed” funding source for transportation through a variety of new fees levied on consumers, passed the Democratic-controlled House on a party-line, 40-24 vote, following approval by the Senate in May.

Under the bill, Coloradans would pay a new per-gallon fee on gasoline sales, starting at 2 cents per gallon next year and rising to 8 cents by 2028. Ride-hailing services and online deliveries would also be subject to a range of new fees, and registration fees on electric cars would be raised in an effort to ensure “parity” with the fees and taxes paid by drivers of gas-powered vehicles.

Many Republicans argued that the bill didn’t spend enough money on roads and highways, criticizing its funding for vehicle electrification and multimodal infrastructure.

“Our cities developed around the automobile and should respect the automobile,” Rep. Matt Soper, a Republican from Delta, said on the House floor. “We’re going to be tying up the state’s resources, we’re taking more hard-earned dollars from Coloradans, and we’re not necessarily going to be putting this where it needs to be.”

While SB-260 divided lawmakers along party lines — with Democrats voting in favor and most Republicans opposed — prominent backers included business groups and local governments.

“All the major business organizations for the most part at the Capitol really were standing with us to support that, and helped us even craft those policies to make sure they struck the right balance,” Fenberg said at the end-of-session news conference a week after SB-260 passed.

Climate change

On Tuesday night, House Republicans wielded a series of delay tactics one last time in an attempt to stall a major greenhouse gas emissions bill. GOP lawmakers protested the last-minute changes to the bill while repeatedly making false claims about climate change.

House Bill 21-1266 won approval from the House on a 37-27 vote, sending the measure to Polis. The bill had been heavily amended earlier in the week as part of a compromise between Polis and top Democratic lawmakers, and it contains large sections salvaged from Senate Bill 21-200, which Polis had threatened to veto.

“Twenty-five pages on an amendment that brought language that was never considered by this body — think about that,” House Minority Leader Hugh McKean, a Republican from Loveland, said on the floor. “We just got a brand-new bill. A brand-new bill that has not had a hearing in committee.”

Fenberg discounted Republican claims that Democrats were trying to push through legislation without giving people time to read it.

“I don’t think that there was a major process foul given that we were very open and transparent about the fact that that language was going to be put in 1266, and that was how we were going to try to get that policy done,” he said.

Another significant piece of climate legislation came with House Bill 21-1162. The legislation phases out single-use plastic carryout bags and foam food containers and allows local governments to enforce their own plastic policies that are stricter than the state’s.

The bill earned final approval Tuesday and heads to Polis, whom industry opponents including the American Chemistry Council have urged to veto the bill.

Justice and policing

On Tuesday, lawmakers passed a bill that would restrict first responders’ ability to administer ketamine, a powerful anesthetic that causes dissociation, when responding to a call for service.

House Bill 21-1251 would require emergency medical services providers, in situations with law enforcement present, to administer ketamine only to someone after weighing the individual or after having three trained people estimate the individual’s weight, to make sure the right dose is delivered. The paramedic would have to try to get verbal permission from the EMS director before administering ketamine.

A bill to build on parts of Senate Bill 20-217 — law enforcement-focused legislation spurred by widespread protests against police killings of Black people — earned final approval in the House Tuesday. The bill, House Bill 21-1250, was substantially amended in the session’s last days. It heads to Polis’ desk.

Senate Bill 21-88 provides a way for survivors of child sexual misconduct to sue their abusers and institutions that covered up the crimes, even if the statute of limitations has already expired.

Sen. Jessie Danielson, a Wheat Ridge Democrat who sponsored the bill in the Senate, said she was proud of the legislation despite limitations House lawmakers added before they passed it on Monday. Danielson expects Polis to sign the final version of SB-88.

“It’s a solid path forward for these victims,” she said in an interview. “Finally, for the first time in about 30 years, the Legislature chose to stand with the children instead of the sexual predators and the institutions who covered it up.”

Another bill that sought to limit arrests and the use of cash bail for people accused of committing low-level, nonviolent offenses died in the House Finance Committee on Monday.

The legislation, Senate Bill 21-273, was a slimmed-down version of Senate Bill 21-62, a controversial jail depopulation bill that Senate Democrats abandoned over fear that misinformation was clouding their messaging. One advocate for the bail reform policy, Denise Maes of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, called the death of SB-273 “shameful.”

“Obviously, with Senate Bill 273 there was disappointment that it didn’t get across the finish line,” Garnett acknowledged Wednesday. “However, I assume that folks are going to continue to work on” the policy. He pointed out that other bills have required multiple attempts to pass.

Health care

Colorado Democrats didn’t succeed in establishing a public health insurance option, which became one of the most expensive battles of the legislative session. But the sponsors of the bill that originally could have triggered such a program rewrote the bill with input from the health care industry. The revised bill passed Monday with support from most Democrats, despite fierce opposition from Republicans.

House Bill 21-1232, if signed by the governor, would direct the state’s insurance commissioner to establish three tiers of a standardized health plan that private carriers would be required to offer on the exchange, Connect for Health Colorado, starting in 2022. Standardized plans would have to include certain mandatory health care services and would have the same benefits and cost-sharing across carriers.

Under HB-1232, carriers would need to reduce their premium rates on the individual and small-group standardized plans by a total of 15% over three years, starting in 2023.

No one would be forced onto the standardized plan, and it would only be available to people who shop for insurance on the exchange. But Democrats say it will save those people money on their health insurance, and make it easier for uninsured people to buy plans.

Republicans worried HB-1232 will hurt hospitals with low profit margins, because it requires most hospitals to provide care for people on the standardized plan no matter how much they are paid by an insurance carrier for a person’s care.

Stimulus cash

This year, Democratic lawmakers “decided that it wouldn’t be enough to just rebuild our state to the place where it was before the pandemic hit, but that we would go further and think bigger and be bolder,” House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar, a Pueblo Democrat, said during Wednesday’s news conference.

Colorado lawmakers put millions of dollars in state and federal economic stimulus money toward some priorities they said were critical in “building back better” from the pandemic, including housing, economic development and more.

A few examples of where the surplus state revenue will go:

• House Bill 21-1288, which allocates $30 million for a new “Colorado Startup Loan Program” that will distribute grants and loans to entrepreneurs from communities historically underserved by the banking system
• House Bill 21-1290, dedicating $15 million to the Office of Just Transition, which helps coal workers and local economies historically driven by coal find new opportunities as the state shifts to clean energy
• House Bill 21-1260, to provide $20 million to the Colorado Water Conservation Board to implement the state Water Plan

While lawmakers have already allocated around $2 billion from the latest batch of federal relief funds, there’s lots more work to do. Legislative leaders will establish three task forces that will meet this summer and consider public feedback to recommend where the remaining $1.8 billion should go. Then, lawmakers will vote on the task forces’ proposals next year.

“The public is going to have ample opportunity to weigh in,” Garnett said. “We’re also going to reach out to (interested parties) and local government leaders and agency folks who have a lot of expertise in this area to make sure that they have a seat at the table, so those details should be coming soon, and we’ll keep everyone apprised as we know more.”

The next legislative session is sure to bring its own unprecedented challenges. Lawmakers on the Joint Budget Committee will have to craft a 2022-2023 budget “that takes into account the changing economic conditions while integrating the recovery spending areas,” wrote Sen. Chris Hansen, a Denver Democrat on the committee who helped develop the $34.1 billion budget package for next year.

In addition to his work on the JBC, Hansen sponsored two bills that would overhaul the state’s tax code by adding new and expanded tax benefits for low-income workers and families, while reducing or eliminating many tax credits for businesses and the rich. Those bills — House Bills 21-1311 and 21-1312 — represent another key achievement for Hansen, along with a Senate Bill 21-293, a last-minute, bipartisan bill to temporarily lower property taxes.

“We have created a much more fair and less regressive system based on these three bills,” Hansen said in an email.

Newsline reporters Chase Woodruff and Moe Clark contributed to this report.

Editor’s note: This article first appeared on Colorado Newsline, which is part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: info@coloradonewsline.com. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.

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