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Adam Thompson on July 2, 2009 - 11:57am
As with most states this year, the budget process and response to the recession dominated Colorado's legislative session. Within that lens, lawmakers are getting high marks from Colorado advocates like the Bell Policy Center and the Colorado Center on Law and Policy for advancing key priorities like unemployment insurance, health care coverage and budget reform while limiting the deficit's impact on the state's most vulnerable residents. Notably, lawmakers extended health care to 100,000 low-income and uninsured Coloradans. Still, advocates note some disappointments and missed opportunities, like failing to make qualified undocumented students eligible for in-state tuition rates and neglecting to better regulate payday lenders.
Budget Reform: For years, Colorado lawmakers have been hamstrung by TABOR rules, which include an antiquated provision limiting the annual growth in state general fund spending to 6%. As the Bell Policy Center points out, this tied the hands of lawmakers, limiting their ability to respond to the ups and downs of the economy. In response, lawmakers enacted SB 228 which repeals this spending growth formula. And, lawmakers are finding other ways around TABOR restrictions. In the area of unemployment insurance, lawmakers passed HB 1363 to create the Colorado Unemployment Insurance System as an "enterprise" so that revenue flowing into the trust fund is not subject to TABOR revenue caps.
Stimulus and State Spending: To improve transportation networks, lawmakers allocated $252 million for roads. The federal ARRA's health care provisions generated an additional $300 million in federal Medicaid match for Colorado. In education, increases in funding are constitutionally mandated and lawmakers passed a public education bill that includes the required inflation rate plus 1 percent, as the Bell Policy Center reports. The budget includes almost $2 million for a pilot program designed to help low-performing districts close the "achievement gap" and maintains funding for the statewide preschool program. SJR 56 dictates that CO's share of the $4 billion in federal stimulus funds for education programs be used, in part, for family literacy programs. Cuts in higher education funding were prevented, in part by using federal stimulus funds, and budget levels were kept to 08-09 levels. However, the budget will result in a tuition hike of up to 9% and some cuts to student aid were enacted. Lawmakers also repealed tax deductions for capital gains on the sale of stock. And, as Environment Colorado reports, the stimulus bill brings in $50 million for the Governor’s Energy Office, $80 million over three years for state weatherization programs, and $45 million for local energy efficiency and conservation projects.
Other budget provisions include a series of tax credits designed to spur job growth, economic development, and innovations in growth industries, which some advocates object to on the grounds that they will siphon off general fund resources and shrink the social safety net. In response to criticisms, lawmakers appropriated money for a tax credit for high-risk investments in small, knowledge-based industries out of economic development funds.
While deep cuts to programs were largely prevented this year, the state faces future deficits if economic conditions do not improve, federal support from the ARRA is not extended, and additional changes to the state's budget rules are not made, reports the Fiscal Policy Institute.
Health Care: As noted, a major success this year was passage of HB 1293, the Health Care Affordability Act. This bill, which had the support of hospitals, establishes a hospital provider fee to generate an additional $600 million for the state's investment in Medicaid and SCHIP programs, allowing the state to draw down an additional $600 million in federal match. The bill enables the state to increase coverage to an additional 100,000 uninsured Coloradans.
- Coverage for Immigrants - HB 1353 removes the 5-year waiting period for documented pregnant women and children to be eligible for health care programs.
- COBRA - Lawmakers passed legislation to allow employees of firms of any size to opt for continuation coverage in the event of an involuntary job loss.
- Ease of Enrollment - HB 1020 creates telephone and on-line enrollment for Medicaid and SCHIP to ease enrollment for children and ensure eligible children don't fall through the cracks due to unnecessary administrative procedures.
- Primary Care Shortage - HB 1111 creates a new state agency to oversee efforts to address the shortage of primary care doctors across the state, particularly in rural areas, and to help underserved areas capture more federal funding.
- Autism - SB 244 requires group health insurance cover autism spectrum disorders.
- Prevention - HB 1012 allows insurers to provide incentives for participation in wellness and prevention programs.
- Disappointments - Lawmakers repealed a scheduled SCHIP expansion to 225% of the poverty line because of the budget, but signaled a commitment to increase eligibility to 250% when funds become available. And, lawmakers passed a bill allowing HMOs to offer limited benefit health plans. Despite lower premiums, the plans do not protect individuals from personal economic collapse in the event of a catastrophic illness, a problem highlighted by this New York Times article on the problem of the under-insured and limited benefit health plans.
Education: A notable success was HB 1319, which creates a statewide "concurrent enrollment" system allowing high school graduates to obtain college credits, certificates and associate degrees while securing their high school diploma. HB 1057 makes it easier for parents to take leave from work to attend parent-teacher conferences. However, as noted previously, a major disappointment this year was lawmakers' failure to enact the DREAM Act to make undocumented students eligible for in-state tuition rates.
- Access to Services - SB 55 to support family resource centers which link families to available public and private social programs.
- Domestic Partners - SB 88 is a small step towards equity, as it makes domestic partners of state employees eligible for state employee health care benefits. Lawmakers also passed HB 1260 to extend certain partner benefits to gays, lesbians, and unmarried couples like control of medical decisions and eligibility for survivor benefits like state employee pensions.
- Foreclosures - HB 1276 delays proceeding for 90 days to allow homeowners and mortgage holders to negotiate a deal to prevent foreclosure.
Elections: Lawmakers made several important and notable changes to its electoral process to ensure its democratic integrity and improve access to the voting process. Notable achievements include:
- On-line voter registration, and on-line change of address
- Requiring signature collecting firms to register with the state and outlawing payments to gatherers based on the number of signatures, in order to ensure the integrity of the citizen initiative process
- Moving the state towards an all-paper ballot and restricting purchase of new electronic voting machines
- Improving access to the ballot for residents of group homes
Lawmakers defeated a voter-ID bill but neglected to approve HB 1299 (National Popular Vote), which would have joined Colorado with other states committing their presidential electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote nationwide.
Broadband: SB 162 will help Colorado map broadband connectivity throughout the state. The legislation authorizes the Office of Information Technology to accept public gifts, grants, and donations to support the state's broadband mapping project. It also extends broadband inventory completion date.
Environment: Lawmakers enacted new standards for oil and gas drillers to protect the environment. The laws prohibit drilling rigs within 300 feet of a public water supply, require companies to identify chemicals used while drilling, and require consultation with wildlife and public health experts in drilling areas. Elsewhere, lawmakers enacted a series of bills to improve the fuel efficiency of trucking company fleets, encourage the private use of electronic vehicles, and encourage energy efficiency upgrades at homes and businesses. Successes include:
- HB1298 provides a 25 percent reimbursement to trucking companies who buy and install fuel-efficient technologies and emission-control devices. The bill prorates sales tax on equipment based on the percentage of miles companies drive in Colorado and it makes truckers eligible for enterprise-zone tax breaks.
- HB 1331 expands the pool of vehicles eligible for alternative-fuel tax credits to include those that run on cleaner-burning natural gas and eliminates some hybrid vehicles that are not fuel-efficient.
- SB 75 allows drivers to operate low-speed electric vehicles on most roads with speed limits of 35 mph or lower.
- SB 51, the Renewable Energy Financing Act, improves access to different financing options (3rd party lease, bank, mortgage, state treasury backed investments and loans) for residential and business solar, geothermal, wind or energy efficiency upgrades in payment plans.
- HB1149 requires builders of new homes to offer homeowners the option of making their home solar-ready, as solar energy enhancements are more easily made if the home is solar-ready.
Unemployment: The state made several improvements to the unemployment insurance system, enabling the state to draw down an additional $127 million from the feds for its unemployment trust fund. SB 247 creates an alternative base period to enable mostly low-wage workers eligible for benefits immediately, rather than waiting for three months. Lawmakers also extended benefits for those who remain unemployed and expanded the qualifying reasons for leaving a job due to family crisis.