Before we get into potential legislative issues, the General Assembly is welcoming two newly-minted members to the House of Representatives. Rep. Tim Hernandez who represents House District 4 in northwest Denver is a teacher and community activist. He lists housing, education funding, and gun violence as top priorities and appeared before legislative committees in 2023 on issues related to affordable housing.
Within coming days, Tonty “Manny” Rutinel will be sworn in to fill the vacant seat of now-Senator Dafna Michaelson Jenet. Selected by a vacancy committee on October 2, Rutinel is a former Earth Justice attorney who now heads the climate organization ReFarm, advocating for plant-based agriculture to protect the climate. The new House members are from the Progressive wing of the Majority party, so their proposed bills will likely be ambitious and controversial.
Sen. Michaelson Jenet took her seat in the Senate earlier in September upon the resignation of Dominic Moreno, who joined the Denver mayor’s office as deputy chief of staff. Moreno’s role as Senate Majority Leader will be filled by Sen. Robert Rodriguez of Commerce City.
We are roughly ninety days out from convening the 2024 General Assembly and speculation is swirling round the bills to be introduced by key players. Interim committee bills will, of course, play an important role in shaping the coming year. Equally or more important are those issues that remain unfinished from 2023 or were the subject of constituent promises and pressure from the Governor’s office. These include affordable housing, air pollution, climate, water, taxation, and budget. Here is a quick run-down of potential legislation, based on requests by various constituent groups appearing before legislators during the Interim. These issues are separate from bill drafts requested by Interim Committees, which will be voted on at the end of October.
Air Quality and Climate
Ozone, Toxins, Greenhouse Gases, Health Effects, and financial contributions to offset pollution were among topics raised in testimony before the Ozone Air Quality interim committee. The committee was established in the 2023 legislative session, but was not provided with drafting authority. Therefore, although no “interim committee” sponsored bills will be forthcoming, any or all these issues could be introduced by individual committee members as part of their five allowable bill titles.
Restrictions on lawn and garden equipment in the north front range are part of a new Regulation 29 before the Air Quality Control Commission. However, separate legislation could also come to address related matters such as timing and funding, or a potential ban on the sale of fossil fuel fired equipment. A controversial settlement with Suncor resulted in some private funding for electric lawn mowers, but commercial landscaping operations are highly critical of the proposal, citing the cost as a major deterrent to the adoption of electrified equipment.
Transportation is now the largest emitter of Greenhouse gases in Colorado according to the Colorado Energy Office. Three separate presentations by CDOT and NGOs on October 3 touched on the need for extending the Clean Cars standard (zero emission vehicles) and stricter Transportation Planning standards to focus on non-vehicular travel options such as bicycles, walking, and transit. Tax incentives for transit passes, perhaps paid for by employers, could be on the horizon by legislators anxious to get commuters out of their cars to reduce air emissions and ease highway congestion, thus eliminating the need for additional road construction.
Water Quality and Drought
The State wants to control the deposit of dredge and fill materials into state waters. The Sackett decision the Spring narrowed the scope of review under the Clean Water Act leaving, in the State’s view, a “gap” in regulation. Colorado statute currently does not provide for a permit program and the State is anxious to obtain legislative authority for its development. Meanwhile, drought mitigation, security of supply, and flexibility of water rights continue to be explored by the Drought Task Force, which is directed to produce legislative recommendations by December 15. Separately, the Water and Agricultural Review Committee has several bill drafts being prepared which will be voted on October 31 before moving forward.
The Governor has announced his intention to seek a more expansive approach to supply affordable housing in Colorado following the demise of last year’s SB 213. At the same time, a group of local governments and developers have been engaged in discussing potential approaches to expand housing supply. In presentations to the Tax Oversight Committee this summer, several think tanks suggested approaches including expansion of rental assistance, state funded housing development and tax incentives. A point was made that simply increasing structures built will not ensure affordability.
Taxation and Budget
Tax Oversight Committee members and the Governor want to change the property tax treatment of short-term rentals to increase equity with commercial lodging facilities and potentially free up housing. Committee members requested a draft bill to establish a permanent fund from severance tax revenues, which saw a spike in collections this year. While revenues are strong, the September Budget forecast indicated that excess reserve available for General Fund to save or spend will be $23 million, as TABOR refunds and increased needs for Medicaid and K-12 education deplete the General Fund. Therefore, budget limitations (absent passage of Prop HH which could allow for more state revenue to be retained) could impact any new programs proposed in 2024.
Proposition HH was referred to the November ballot by the legislature and provides limited property tax relief while raising the TABOR revenue cap. The excess revenue retained by the State would be used to backfill local governments that lose revenue due to the property tax cut and for a variety of other purposes including education and rental assistance. The increased revenue cap continues for ten years with an additional 1% added each year, leading to potential elimination of all TABOR refunds. At the end of the ten year period, the legislature may continue to retain the excess money without a vote of the people.
Open Meetings Reform
Following dissension among House members at the end of the 2023 session including a lawsuit filed (and later settled) by two legislators against the leadership of both caucuses, comments were made indicating possible 2024 legislation to “modernize” the state’s Sunshine Act. This law covers a wide range of elected officials and deliberative bodies in Colorado, so any change will be closely monitored for impact.
This is just a sampling of the major issues we could see in January and is better than any ghost story to keep you awake at night. Of course, the closer we get to January the more information we will have. Happy Halloween!