On a state-level, it was described as a time of missed opportunities and dismal failures, with the governor even threatening to summon a special session later this summer.
Lawmakers couldn’t craft agreements on such key areas as affordable housing, presidential primaries, transportation woes and the Taxpayer Bill of Rights.
But from the perspective of Teller County officials, the 2016 legislative adventure didn’t fare too bad, or with limited damage for the gaming and mining industries, and with a few pro-veteran assistance measures. As county and city leaders celebrated Memorial Day last week, reactions are still mixed regarding the recent legislative session with hundreds of bills getting proposed and local elected office-holders again aggressively seeking to defend their interests.
During last week’s regular meeting, Teller County Commissioner Dave Paul touted a new assistance bill passed by lawmakers and signed recently by Governor John Hickenlooper that will help military veterans in the region as they make the transition into civilian careers. He said the pilot program, managed through the Pikes Peak Workforce with an initial annual pot of $500,000, will provide a positive impact for veterans in the area. “It is a big issue for us in the Pikes Peak area,” stated Paul, especially in lieu of the many veterans who live in Teller County.
He hopes this will accelerate a trend in the area, with more focus on assisting veterans in their job pursuits, after they retire from the military, and recover from extended stints in Afghanistan and Iraq. He said several key businesses are jumping on the pro-veterans bandwagon.
A ceremonial bill-signing for the veterans’ job assistance measure was held at the Pioneers Museum in Colorado Springs. “The governor even wore a tie,” quipped Paul, in describing the attire of Hickenlooper, who is known for his more casual dress code during bill-signing ceremonies.
On a more serious note, the commissioners and city leaders in Cripple Creek have expressed satisfaction with the 2016 legislative season, despite the reported failures of the session highlighted by media reports.
For the first time in recent history, the county leaders succeeded in crafting a legal way to ban future betting devices at racetracks. “If it quacks and looks like a duck, then it is a duck,” said Paul, in describing the success of a measure that should kill any end-run antics to bypass the Colorado constitution by authorizing mini-slot machines at racetracks.
Racetrack operators have usually proposed their own legislation to try to permit various forms of slot machines and betting devices at select venues and to have the Colorado Lottery Commission regulate these activities instead of the Division of Gaming. These plans have gotten met with little success. Votes against housing video lottery terminals at racetracks have been overwhelming.
However, for years the gaming communities and counties and casino associations have been forced to play defense, often at the 11th hour of the legislative session.
“This was really our first pro-active legislative effort to prevent this,” said Paul.
Meanwhile, Cripple Creek leaders have succeeded in their effort to force the state’s hand in having an audit of the use of historic preservation monies in the three gambling communities. Although not mentioned in the bill, this marks the first successful effort to possibly put a clamp on possible abuses of historic spending reportedly occurring in Black Hawk and Gilpin County.
The bill had bipartisan support and featured testimony by Mayor Bruce Brown, Finance Director Paul Harris and City Administrator Ray DuBois. For several years, Cripple Creek leaders have contended they want a clear playing field in the way these monies are used, and in the way casino projects are handled.
In a slight victory for Cripple Creek, the lawmakers agreed to open the door for state audits regarding the use of historic preservation monies in the gambling towns. These funds, distributed annually, are part of the tax revenue generated from losing wagers at Colorado casinos.
Not all great news
However, Paul acknowledges the legislative session had shortcomings, with a number of unresolved issues. “I would like to see us do more in cleaning up our constitution. “You end up with contradictions,” said the commissioner.
One of the surprising last-minute failures dealt with the failure of lawmakers to reach an agreement on plans to turn Colorado from a caucus state to one that holds presidential primaries. Critics of the current system complain that many Coloradoans were denied a voice in picking a presidential nominee last spring.
However, the commissioners say that isn’t true, but concede that the current caucus system is extremely confusing. For Republicans, no presidential preferential straw polls were held last March during the caucuses, with the final state GOP verdict occurring at the Colorado Republican Assembly a month later by the casting of tallies by delegates. This process even sparked major complaints from Republican front-runner Donald Trump, who called it a rigged system. And for Democrats, the caucus process was quite chaotic with long lines, and ill-equipped meeting areas.
As a result, state leaders of both parties lobbied for having presidential primaries in 2020. Based on this support, it looked like a done deal. So what went wrong?
“There was a lot of pollution with the details,” admitted Paul.
Arguments persisted over whether Colorado should have open primaries and give more leeway to unaffiliated voters, or just limit the primaries to registered Democrats and Republicans. The latter choice was favored by the commissioners.
Other concerns dealt with the impacts for small counties like Teller and even the extra costs associated with presidential primaries. On the fiscal side of the issue, Paul believes some progress occurred in the proposed presidential primary legislation. “This wasn’t going to be an unfunded mandate for us. That was one good thing that came out of this,” explained Paul.
Still, county clerks had concerns.
At least for now, Colorado will retain its image as a caucus state for future presidential races. However, there are several proposed initiatives that could change this scenario
Another big legislative failure mentioned by local leaders deals with not reaching a compromise on the touchy issue of lawsuits pertaining to construction defects. This could play a role in the development of more multi-unit affordable housing projects.
The issue of future transportation improvements and funding woes associated with the Taxpayer Bill of Rights also remain unresolved.
Hickenlooper says he may call for a special session to deal with some of these issues.