2014 Session: In the Books
The 2014 legislative session ended May 7, and 15 of the bills I sponsored during the session were signed into law. The following newsletter went out in mid-May, and it's got a lot of information about some of the key bills and topics we worked on in 2014. Also, you can read any bill that was introduced this year on the General Assembly Web site, www.leg.state.co.us.
A DOWN-TO-BUSINESS SESSION
Our 2014 legislative session ended May 7, and I'm proud to report that it was a very productive 120-day period. Our Senate Majority entered the session with three main broad objectives: 1) to continue our economic recovery, 2) to recover from our recent catastrophic floods and wildfires, and 3) provide quality, affordable educational opportunities for Coloradans. I believe we achieved success on all three fronts, and this newsletter will provide summaries on some of what we accomplished.
Speaking at a 2014 press event, with Senate President Morgan Carroll, Speaker of the House Mark Ferrandino and House Majority Leader Dickey Lee Hullinghorst (from left)
We also made a conscious effort to work in a bipartisan manner, and I think we succeeded there as well. This is not to say members of the two parties agreed on everything, but of the bills that passed this year, about 97% of them had at least some bipartisan support while many had bipartisan sponsorship. In the Senate, we held weekly meetings between the members of Democratic and Republican leadership, which helped us work together where agreements were possible and work out manageable problems ahead of time.
Now that this session has ended, most legislators will be able to take brief vacations or spend more time in their districts. We've been operating at a very high level at the Capitol in Denver for the past four months, and it's always nice to get a change of pace and to see other parts of our state or the rest of the world. However, those of us who will be back in 2015 will start considering possible new legislation for next year over the summer or fall. As always, feel free to contact me or my office if you have thoughts on what we can accomplish to help our great state of Colorado continue to move forward.
As many of you know, I regard education as the most important investment we can make in our future. Unfortunately, the financial collapse and recent recession forced us to cut state education budgets for several years running. Thanks to a slow but steady economic recovery, we were thankfully able to restore a sizable amount of education funding this year, and we simultaneously kept our long-standing focus on strategies to maintain or improve on our statewide levels of academic performance.
Higher Education: The Senate demonstrated its commitment to higher education by making the College Affordability Act its first bill of the session - Senate Bill (SB) 14-001. This bill increased funding to the Department of Higher Education by about $100 million, with about $40 million dedicated to financial aid. Also, since so many modern graduates leave school with a mountain of debt, SB-001 put a cap on allowable tuition increases at 6% yearly. Higher education is clearly one of the most important things a person can do to make themselves marketable in the workforce, and SB-001 will help keep higher education an affordable option for students of lower or moderate financial means.
K-12: Between our normal yearly School Finance Act bill (House Bill 14-1298), our Student Success Act (HB 14-1292), and other bills, we were able to increase K-12 education funding by more than $450 million this year. HB-1292 will also allow about 5,000 more Colorado kids to attend preschool or full-day kindergarten, increase instructional support for English Language Learners, provide support for early literacy programs, and directly reverse some of the state funding cuts to our ongoing budget from years past.
Other Significant Education Bills: SB 14-150 will help decrease our ratio of students to school counselors, which will be especially valuable since counselors can help steer students in the right direction. HB 14-1085 will allow more Coloradans to participate in adult literacy and education programs. SB 14-002 preserves the Safe2Tell program, which provides an anonymous and safe outlet for people to report tips on safety or security threats, potentially helping authorities thwart acts of school violence. SB 14-124 creates a School Turnaround Leaders Development Program, which will help lower-performing schools develop strategies geared toward better academic achievement.
Flood Recovery: In Boulder County, we all understand the devastation we suffered as a result of the extreme September 2013 flooding. During and immediately following the disaster, our affected areas fortunately received a great deal of financial assistance from the state and federal governments, along with tremendous efforts from emergency personnel, highway crews, caseworkers, volunteers and neighbors. I can't say enough about how Coloradans banded together to help each other in this time of crisis, and I'm confident that our determination will carry over into the recovery process.
Last fall, the General Assembly created a bipartisan Flood Disaster Study Committee to review what happened and consider new bills for the 2014 session. At least 10 flood-related bills passed this year. HB 14-1001 established an income tax credit for homeowners who had property destroyed by natural causes. SB 14-007 allowed county governments to transfer money from general funds to road and bridge funds in case of a declared natural emergency. HB 14-1287 requires the state to assess post-emergency school damage, and authorizes disaster assistance funding for capital construction at schools. HB 14-1002 created a state Natural Disaster Grant Fund for the purpose of repairing or replacing wastewater or drinking water systems damaged in a disaster.
Fire Mitigation: Boulder County and other areas of the state, notably Larimer and El Paso Counties, have suffered catastrophic wildfire damage over the past several years. Members of our Wildfire Matters Review Committee and other legislators proposed a number of bills this year to help minimize the damage of inevitable future wildfires.
SB 14-164 will allow Colorado to create its own aerial firefighting fleet, with money available to acquire or contract for air tankers and establish personnel and management systems. Time is of the essence once a wildfire breaks out in a dry, remote location, so this fleet should be of great value once established. SB 14-046 creates a grant program for investments in firefighting equipment and firefighter training. HB 14-1210 requires state agencies that own wildlands to enter into fire management agreements with the counties in which the land is located.
Colorado and the rest of the nation suffered as a result of one of the worst financial collapses most of us have ever witnessed in 2008. Since then, the General Assembly and many stakeholders across Colorado have made economic recovery a primary focus. Colorado has added 193,600 jobs since Jan. 2010, the trough of the recession, and we added 63,000 jobs between Dec. 2012 and Dec. 2013 alone. This is good news, but we all know we can keep improving, so we continued to introduce and pass economic legislation in 2014.
SB 14-166 authorizes the state to contract for the creation of an app that will help mobile device users locate businesses owned by Coloradans. The "By Colorado" app should help us keep a certain amount of economic activity in our state, as opposed to letting our money go to out-of-state corporations. SB 14-011 will provide funding for the Colorado Energy Research Collaboratory, a partnership between CU-Boulder, CSU, Colorado School of Mines, and National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The Collaboratory has conducted cutting-edge research that has brought contracts, partnerships, matching funds and jobs to Colorado, and SB-011 will help the Collaboratory continue its amazing work.
Our telecommunications package, HBs 14-1327 through 1331, will help with economic development in rural Colorado by increasing access to high-speed internet service. Broadband service is essential for those hoping to do online business, as a purveyor or consumer, and it's as important for online education or dissemination of information. The Rural Economic Development Initiative of HB 14-1241 will also help by encouraging rural communities and local governments to band together on projects such as community infrastructure, private facilities, and job training grants.
In past years, I have sponsored a number of jobs and economic bills, including the Job Growth Incentive program established in HB 09-1001, and the Advanced Industries Acceleration program in HB 13-1001. This year, we passed bills to extend or enhance those successful programs. HB 14-1012 creates a tax credit for qualifying investments in Advanced Industries sectors, such as aerospace, bioscience, advanced manufacturing and others. HB 14-1014 modified the Job Growth Incentive program in several ways, including extending the length of the allowable tax credit claim period.
MY FIRST SESSION AS MAJORITY LEADER
In October 2013, I was elected Senate Majority Leader, and the former Majority Leader Sen. Morgan Carroll was elected Senate President. While I was already reasonably familiar with the duties of the Majority Leader before being elected, actually performing the job was interesting and challenging.
Our 2014 Senate Majority leadership team, from left: Assistant Majority Leader Irene Aguilar, Caucus Chair Jeanne Nicholson, Senate President Morgan Carroll, Majority Leader Rollie Heath, President Pro Tem Lucia Guzman, Majority Whip Gail Schwartz
We started every morning in meetings to plan the day's schedule for floor work in the Senate, and to discuss key pieces of legislation up for consideration. My schedule included regular weekly meetings with Republican Senate leadership, leadership in the House of Representatives, our nonpartisan staff, several Senate committees of reference, and more.
Before becoming Majority Leader, I was able to devote large quantities of time primarily to the bills I sponsored and the committees I served on. This year, I was involved in discussions on key bills sponsored by all 18 Democratic Senators, and still sponsored 17 bills of my own. I assigned members to this year's committees of reference, President Carroll and I approved and signed hundreds of bill forms, and the General Assembly completed deliberations on roughly 700 bills, resolutions or memorials over the course of 120 calendar days. In short, serving as Majority Leader was a very satisfying and rewarding experience.
FAREWELL TO FRIENDS
On the last day of this year's session, we honored six Senators who will not serve with us next year due to term limits or personal decisions. Democratic Senators Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass, and Lois Tochtrop, D-Thornton, are term-limited. Sen. Schwartz was my first office mate at the Capitol in 2009-10, and Sen. Tochtrop has served in the legislature since 1999, beginning as a member of the House of Representatives. Departing Republican Senators Greg Brophy, R-Wray, Steve King, R-Grand Junction, Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley, and Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, were also honored for their service on May 7.
For this reason, the last day of the 2014 session was somewhat bittersweet. For at least four months out of every year, our legislators generally spend more waking hours with each other than we do with friends and family. We learn each other's passions, pet peeves, life stories, thought processes and mannerisms. Whether we worked closely together as political allies or did battle on certain issues as adversaries, I will miss all of my colleagues listed above. They served with honor, and I wish them nothing but the best.
As of May 19, we are involved in discussions regarding a possible special legislative session on issues pertaining to oil and gas exploration. Also, a host of citizen ballot initiatives have been drafted, primarily on 1) mandatory setback distances between wells and occupied buildings, 2) allowing local regulations to be stricter than state regulations, and 3) initiatives declaring natural resources such as air and water to be common property of all Coloradans, and empowering local governments to take action if the resources are fouled. It is not yet obvious whether the General Assembly will reconvene or if voters will get a chance to decide on these issues at the ballot box in November, but it is obvious that we will see spirited debate on oil and gas exploration in the coming months.
Meanwhile, I am looking forward to spending time in beautiful Boulder County over the summer and fall, and seeing as many of you as possible.
All the best,
Senator Rollie Heath
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