2014 LEGISLATURE PREVIEW: Lawmakers likely to step lightly this year

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AURORA | Democratic legislators learned plenty last session. Aurora’s legislative delegation — all Democrats — didn’t face historic recalls like their colleagues, and have set their sights on legislation this year dealing with education, not controversial measures that winnowed their majority in the state Senate to a single seat.

Aurora legislators will re-introduce a bill from last year that would allow community colleges to offer a limited number of bachelor of applied science degrees for the 2014 Legislative session. They are also working on bills that address the state’s economy and its mental health system.

Rep. Jenise May, D-Aurora, and Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora, are sponsoring a bill that would allow the state’s 13 community colleges to offer a limited number of bachelor’s degrees in fields like dental hygiene and fire and emergency management.

“This is a unique opportunity for community colleges as there are no other schools in the state offering a bachelor of applied science,” Todd said.

A similar bill was approved by the Senate last year, but failed to pass by one vote in a House Education Committee. It would have allowed community colleges to offer up to seven technical, career and workforce development degrees if they were substantially different from a bachelor’s at a four-year in-state university.

Nancy McCallin, president of the state’s community college system, supported the bill for its ability to help students in higher education. A little more than half of the state’s community college students are either minorities or over 25 years old, and two-thirds work part-time, according to McCallin. Proponents also said rural students would benefit by receiving 4-year degrees from community college campuses located in remote municipalities like Rangely and Lamar.

Legislators were concerned last year that Colorado’s higher education budgets could not support adding four-year degree programs at community colleges, and any financial impact hasn’t been determined so far this year. Don Elliman, chancellor of the University of Colorado Denver, opposed the measure, citing the state’s already squeezed higher education budget. Todd is also working on a bill this year to expand Colorado State University’s Global Campus to offer four-year degrees that students could complete entirely online.

“You’re not paying fees, you’re not paying for housing. It adds a tremendous amount of flexibility. The strongest proponents for that are our returning military students who want that flexibility,” she said.

Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, says she is working on an adult literacy bill for people who have dropped out of high school who don’t have a GED. The bill would provide additional funding for Colorado’s adult education programs. Those programs currently receive only federal funding, she says.

Colorado’s economy grew at a faster pace than the rest of the nation in 2013. An economic forecast from the Governor’s Office of State Planning and Budgeting for 2014 says the state’s economic success is tightly tied to its abundance of educated workers and small firms.

State Rep. John Buckner, D-Aurora, says he’s working on a bill that would provide the state with more data on its burgeoning workforce.

“I’m going to support a job talent survey bill to identify where we have the strongest candidates and what the needs are for businesses,” he said.

Buckner says the bill will also address the skills that unemployed workers have, and what kind of training they need to re-enter the workforce.

State Rep. Su Ryden, D-Aurora, says she will spend this legislative session focusing on Colorado’s small businesses with a bill that will fund procurement technical assistance centers, known as PTACs.

“What the centers do is they focus on helping mostly small, but medium-sized businesses as well, contract with the local, state and Federal government,” she said.

“Aurora has one of these offices at our chamber. It’s really important for Aurora especially, that we keep this program going.” She says the centers help around 3,000 businesses each year with government contracts.

Ryden says she is also working on an international trade arbitration bill.

“What this bill will do is give Colorado the ability to handle arbitration proceedings for companies that are doing business internationally. We don’t have this right now. Arbitration is becoming the preferred method of settling any kind of contract disputes among international companies, and governments with companies,” she said.

Sen. Linda Newell, D-Aurora, says she will focus on the state’s mental health system this session, and will try to set up a legislative commission for suicide prevention.

“We literally have a little over one person in the Office of Suicide and Prevention, and yet it is the leading cause of death for youth and young adults in Colorado,” she said. Last year, the state doled out around $20 million to create a 24-hour statewide crisis hotline as well as more crisis services for rural areas.

“We think some of the clues are that we have a large military and veteran population. We also have rural areas where it’s really hard to get preventive mental health services. We need to find out more,” she said.

Newell will also work with Gov. Hickenlooper on a bill to improve the state’s prescription drug monitoring program, a database available to doctors and pharmacists that houses a patient’s prescription drug history. Colorado ranks second-worst in the nation for prescription drug abuse.

Last session, the Democrat-controlled General Assembly passed divisive gun regulations and a landmark civil unions bill. Former Sen. President John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, as well as Sen. Angela Giron, D-Pueblo, were recalled after helping pass a law that requires background checks on private-sale gun purchases.

This year, John Hickenlooper faces re-election and Democrats hold a one-person majority in the Senate. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, who was elected to replace Morse as Senate president and sponsored the bill, says the background checks are working.

“We believed it was the right thing to do then and we believe it is the right thing now,” Carroll said. “The data show that convicted murderers, rapists, kidnappers and burglars have been prevented from acquiring guns as a result of this law.”

As of December 2013, the Colorado Department of Public Safety reported 72 people with criminal backgrounds being denied gun purchases through private sales.

A Quinnipiac University poll released in November of 2013 showed Coloradans overwhelmingly support background checks for all gun-buyers, but generally oppose stricter gun laws.

Carroll says the recalls have instilled a culture of paralysis in this year’s legislature.

“The recalls have meant that anytime anyone disagrees on any issue, that we can face perpetual and never-ending elections,” she said.

“It risks changing the ‘get it done’ culture of Colorado into the type of 24-hour negative campaigning that we see in DC. It takes time and resources away from solving problems and creates a perverse incentive to do nothing – because doing nothing is safer than doing something that anyone disagrees with.”

Carroll says her focus this legislative session will be on making higher education more accessible, helping Colorado recover from last year’s flood and wildfires and keeping the state’s economy on a positive track.

“Colorado is faring better than most of the country with the fourth-best job growth in the nation, but there is more to do – particularly for those facing long-term, chronic unemployment,” she said.

 

The Associated Press contributed to this story.