Colorado editorials: May our state legislators continue to embrace what’s missing nationally
January 11, 2018
May our state legislators continue to embrace what's missing nationally
Reading Colorado Public Radio's review of significant new state laws from the 2017 legislative session, two shared characteristics stand out.
The first is the amount of clear bipartisan support for the bills behind the new laws, and the second is their commonsense nature.
In stark contrast to the partisan circus that characterized the U.S. Congress in 2017, these laws provide adequate answers to legitimate problems worked out by legislators from both parties. They are not onerous, secretive or unnecessary measures motivated by partisan zeal.
A good example is a new law limiting the number of marijuana plants a medical marijuana patient (or a caregiver) can grow at home. The previous limit of 99 was excessive, and law enforcement officials were concerned that plants were being diverted for illegal sales. House Bill 17-1220, sponsored by Democrats Rep. KC Becker and Sen. Rhonda Fields, and by Republicans Rep. Cole Wist and Sen. Bob Gardner, provides a solution. The new limit of 12 plants, with an exception of up to 24 for seriously ill patients, addresses the diversion threat while preserving the right to grow at home.
Others include the Transparency in Health Care Prices Act (Senate Bill 17-65, sponsored by Democrat Rep. Susan Lontine and Republican Sen. Kevin Lundberg), a law requiring health care providers to publish price estimates for common procedures so patients can get a clearer idea of the expenses they may incur in dealing with an illness, and a bipartisan law (from House Bill 1338) ensuring timely court hearings for defendants held in local jails on less serious charges who are unable to afford bail. Under the new law, defendants who do not pose a public safety threat must be brought to court within two calendar days after a judge is informed of their detention, eliminating long, unjustified stays in jail.
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Notably, the Juvenile Sexting Crime law, HB-1302, resolves an issue that has proven difficult over the last five legislative sessions, providing a degree of flexibility in dealing with the problem of teens sending nude photos of themselves or other teens via cellphones or other electronic devices. Previously, such cases were dealt with by a single, serious charge: sexual exploitation of a child (a Class 3 or Class 6 felony). For minor offenders, the charge carried adult consequences including jail time and permanent listing on a sex offender registry. As a result, many district attorneys declined to press charges, alarming victim advocates, parents and school officials. The new law provides more flexibility, acknowledging the difference between an adolescent sending a nude image of himself or herself to a boyfriend or girlfriend, and a case where that boyfriend or girlfriend shares that image with others without his or her consent after the relationship ends, motivated perhaps by revenge.
Common sense has prevailed: appropriate punishment can more aptly fit the offense, and the age of the offender, and one rash act will not ruin a young person's future.
As the 71st Colorado General Assembly opens the 2018 session – with Republicans holding a slim 18-17 lead in the Senate, and Democrats in possession of a 37-28 advantage in the House – we are hoping a similar atmosphere of cooperation prevails.
May more common-sense solutions to the state's pressing problems emerge.
The Durango Herald, Jan. 10
Use big surplus for transportation
When state politicians cry poverty, and say they can't fix roads without a new tax, call them out for a bald-faced lie.
"It's going to be hard this year like it is every year," said House Majority Leader KC Becker, D-Boulder, as quoted Jan. 8 in The Colorado Independent. It should not be hard to manage an unanticipated pile of money that can and should help meet the state's most pressing need: transportation improvements.
Colorado legislators begin the 2018 General Assembly with projections of 2018-19 surplus of more than $1 billion. Politicians will wallow in cash partly because of the hot economy, and because of the historic tax cuts signed into law by President Donald Trump. By sending less money to Washington, we have more to spend in Colorado.
"Yes, we've got the money," said Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert, a Douglas County Republican, in a meeting with The Gazette's editorial board. "We're in a position to tell the voters we can do better with what you're already giving us, and the question is what are House Democrats willing to commit to transportation? What's their number, and for how long?"
Republicans question the resolve of their Democratic colleagues with reason. Voters approved Referendum C in 2005, giving the Legislature a 5-year timeout from restrictions of the Colorado Constitution's Taxpayer's Bill of Rights. The measure allowed the Legislature to keep and spend revenues in excess of the constitution's limits. The retained capital was to pay for health care, public education, local fire and police pensions, and transportation.
Referendum C retained $18.8 billion, and Democrats held the governorship and majorities in both legislative chambers during most of the years it was collected and spent. Only $49 million — 0.26 percent — went for transportation.
Senate President Kevin Grantham, R-Cañon City, said it is time for legislators to improve highways immediately.
"We've listened to the mantra that we can't use existing funds because it takes away from everywhere else," Grantham said. "Well, now we have those funds and it doesn't take away from anywhere else. So, we're ready to move. Let's fix the roads now. We have it sitting there in front of us right now. There are no excuses left, to be perfectly honest. We can fix it right here, right now, and we have the money."
Urgent needs include widening the I-25 "gap" between Castle Rock and Monument, and portions of the freeway between Denver and Fort Collins. Improvements to I-70 west of Denver should also rank, along with crumbling roads and bridges throughout rural areas. The surplus should buy transportation triage for every region of Colorado.
"Now is the time to take advantage of this unique opportunity to start solving the transportation challenges that our businesses tell us are driving up their costs and hindering their economic competitiveness," said Dirk Draper, president and CEO of the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Corp. Draper cited record-setting traffic fatalities, calling the need for highway spending "a matter of life and death." Nothing about this is difficult, complicated, controversial or "hard." Our notoriously bad highways, roads and bridges pose lethal dangers, harm our economy. Transportation is in crisis. Use this new money to help solve it.
The (Colorado Springs) Gazette, Jan. 10
CHP-plus program for low-income kids receives a bipartisan reprieve, for now
It is very fortunate for many Colorado children that late last month the state stepped up to provide financial support for a critical insurance program for low-income families.
Because of inaction by Congress – each party blames the other — the federal Children's Health Plan Plus (CHP+) program, which in Colorado covers 75,000 children 18 and younger, and pregnant women 19 and older, has received short-term support, but could still lose its funding at the end of January.
Colorado's action, an emergency budget appropriation of $9.6 million approved by the Joint Budget Committee, will continue the program through February to give Congress another month to do the right thing and vote for the long-term funding the program requires.
The JBC, which shapes most of the state's spending, is purposely balanced between Republicans and Democrats.
The federal government provides 88 percent of the insurance funding for Colorado.
The health insurance program is for individuals who make too much money for Medicaid and do not have private insurance, which could be 214 percent or more of the federal poverty level. That percentage, at least twice the poverty level, is an indication of how expensive health care coverage – driven by uncontrolled medical costs — is in this country.
Participants pay an enrollment fee of $25 or $75 depending on income, and have very low co-payment obligations, perhaps $5 to $30.
One example of the covered need, described by a state administrator, is the family that earns $72,000 annually and has a child who requires $2,200 in monthly diabetes treatment.
That expense, for just one condition for one child, could bring the family to its knees financially.
In Montezuma County, 570 children are enrolled in the program, and 950 in La Plata County. Nationally, about 9 million low-income children are enrolled, underlining the importance of the program.
Members of both parties say how important the program is, but jockey for political advantage and refuse to continue it for any length of time. If federal funding is reauthorized, Colorado's $9.6 million commitment may not be needed.
Health care is extraordinarily expensive and, thus, so too is the insurance that covers it.
Witness the surprisingly high enrollment of more than 8 million people in the final week of registration for the Affordable Care Act, even after the registration period had been cut in half and the advertising for it dramatically reduced.
Coloradans are fortunate that the JBC is providing at least a short-term bridge for these kids' insurance coverage.
Now, Congress needs to make its long-term commitment to the health of all our nation's most vulnerable children.
Cortez Journal, Jan. 9
Time for Congress to act on marijuana
By rescinding the Cole memo — the Obama-era policy guidance that allowed lucrative state-sanctioned recreational marijuana markets to take root without fear of a federal crackdown — U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions just created intolerable uncertainty.
Colorado voters have made it clear where they stand on ending the prohibition on pot. In the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump said he thought states should decide whether to decriminalize the drug.
But then Trump nominated Sessions to be the nation's top law enforcement official and Sessions all but promised to enforce federal law. He made good on the threat last week, removing the only thing that holds back federal prosecutors from pursuing marijuana cases in states that have made it legal — the Cole memo.
But Sessions didn't say he was directing U.S. attorneys to crack down on legal marijuana operations. He merely gave them the discretion to do so. So, a U.S. attorney in California might continue to look the other way, while another could roil established markets and regulatory schemes. More confusion.
Colorado's U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner rightly condemned Sessions' action. Not only are protections for law-abiding pot consumers and businesses in jeopardy, Gardner took pains to solicit a pledge from Sessions before his confirmation hearing that he wouldn't rescind the Cole memo.
Gardner didn't support legalizing recreational pot, but when his state and constituents were implicated in a unilateral decision that seems to defy the president's own position, his reaction was justifiable anger.
U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, and Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colorado, also criticized Sessions' move as ignoring the will of voters and sowing chaos.
Thankfully, nearly all of Colorado's officials and lawmakers are united in voicing displeasure with Sessions on this issue. Colorado's U.S. attorney has suggested that his office won't go out of its way to interfere with legitimate retail operations.
But it's not just Colorado officials who are dissatisfied with Sessions. As of late Friday, Politico could not find a single member of Congress who had issued a statement in support of Sessions' action.
If anything, Sessions appears to have galvanized a nationwide movement to remove marijuana, once and for all, from the federal government's list of prohibited drugs.
The Obama administration offered a strategy on how to change federal law. You kick enforcement to the states, which act as test kitchens for policy and regulation. Eventually best practices emerge with responsible enforcement and a new source of revenue.
It's time for Congress to consider the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act, sponsored by Virginia GOP Rep. Thomas Garrett, now with 15 cosponsors. It would remove marijuana from Schedule I and eliminate federal penalties for anyone engaged in state-legal marijuana activity.
The (Grand Junction) Daily Sentinel, Jan. 9