Legislative session a contentious one

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By Greg Romberg

The 2018 session of the Colorado General Assembly ended last week. It was a contentious session that was distracted by sexual harassment allegations, but that ultimately made progress on the highest priority issues.
For the fourth year in a row, the fact that the House of Representatives was controlled by Democrats while the Senate was controlled by Republicans created an environment where each side pushed philosophical agendas. A major theme was each party pursuing agendas that were popular with the more extreme members of their constituencies, but that had no chance of ultimate success in the other chamber.
Larger-than-expected state revenue estimates gave the legislature the opportunity to address three high priority issues. The increased money was a result of an improving economy and an increase in state tax revenues because federal tax reform reduced state exemptions that are tied to federal law. Because the state tax rate didn’t change, an unintended consequence of federal tax reform is higher state tax revenues. The higher funds were directed largely to transportation funding, K-12 education and attacking the unfunded liability of PERA, the state’s public pension program.
Sexual harassment complaints against four lawmakers played a prominent role throughout the session. The House expelled Democratic Rep. Steve Lebsock by an overwhelming bipartisan vote. Lebsock had been accused of several harassment violations. In defending himself, he attacked the motives of his accusers. While there was consternation among many House members about the extraordinary step of expulsion (the last time it happened was in 1915), Lebsock’s fate was sealed by the way his colleagues reacted to how he responded to the complaints. While complaints were filed against three Republican senators, those against Sen. Randy Baumgardner gathered the most attention. After Lebsock’s expulsion, Senate Democrats began daily demands for a vote to expel Baumgardner. Those demands were rejected by Senate leadership for most of the session. A vote near the end of the session was unsuccessful when only one Republican supported the effort. Additional information that became available after the expulsion vote resulted in Baumgardner being stripped of his committee assignments.
As usual, final decisions on the hardest issues didn’t happen until the very end of the session. A successful agreement to make more funds available for transportation was passed on the second to last day. There still may be a ballot initiative to make more funds available.  While the legislature found more money for education, expect a vote on a proposal for additional funding in November. Efforts to make structural changes to PERA were approved with less than an hour remaining in the session with a compromise that shared the pain of making the fund solvent on all parties.
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Morrison resident Geoff Wilson has been honored with the prestigious Sue O’Brien award from the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition. The O’Brien Award recognizes government officials who’ve done extraordinary work to make public records available. Wilson, the long-time general counsel of the Colorado Municipal League until he left the position in 2016, walked the almost impossible tightrope of being an aggressive advocate for Colorado’s cities and towns while never losing track of the fundamental truth that government should exist only to provide services to the public and that public records belong to the people. Colorado is a better place for his service, and the award is much deserved.

Greg Romberg is president of Romberg and Associates, a government relations and public affairs firm. He lives in Evergreen with his wife, Laurie.