If you’re looking west to the State Capitol for answers to Colorado’s growing and pressing problems, it’s later than you think.
Colorado’s 180 days of legislating ‘til you drop is nearing the finish line, this year pegged for May 11.
Amid the virtually forgotten pandemic, legislators are plowing through ways to address mushrooming crime and violence, mostly in urban areas, which has given Colorado a highly unwanted place on the national registry of crime.
Connected to that is an equally unwanted crisis and reputation regarding drug overdoses and deaths, especially related to a growing fentanyl scourge.
A partisan tug of war in the state House and Senate has emerged with one side pushing for more arrests and more and lengthier prison sentences. Others say the “lock ‘em all up” scheme is nothing but a tried and true failure for reducing crime.
“We’re not talking about old, failed policies that did not work,” Aurora Democratic State Sen. Janet Buckner said recently, addressing a state crime bill. She and others want to see funds distributed to local communities to address the problems they see. “The city of Aurora is strapped to find ways to improve crime prevention and safety. I live in Aurora, and I’ve done my homework.”
Crime — or the perception of rising crime — and the soaring cost of living are key issues this midterm election year. Colorado’s minority Republicans in the Legislature have seized upon a national GOP playbook to argue that policy reforms after George Floyd’s killing in 2020 have led to a dramatic rise in violence in Democrat-led cities such as Denver and Pueblo.
Outside of that, some bills are addressing how to fund schools, especially those like in Aurora, which are bound to teach large populations of students from immigrant and struggling families.
While some big bills, such as a guarantee of abortion rights and top-line spending priorities are done or on their way to being solved, issues such as how to legislate a growing drug overdose problem and bring the state into the dilemma of local homelessness are far from over.
Here are some highlights of the session so far.
Juneteenth made a state holiday
Lawmakers passed a bill designating Juneteenth, which celebrates the end of slavery in the U.S., as an official state holiday, and Gov. Jared Polis is expected to sign it.
Aurora lawmakers created Juneteenth as a paid city employee holiday earlier this year, deciding to also eliminate the day after Thanksgiving as a paid holiday.
The House on Monday overwhelmingly passed legislation recognizing the June 19 paid holiday. It easily passed the Senate in March.
Juneteenth, also known as Emancipation Day and Freedom Day, commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers told enslaved Black people in Galveston, Texas, that they were free. It was two months after the Confederacy surrendered and more than two years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.
The federal government made it an official holiday last year.
Nearly all states recognize Juneteenth in some fashion, and at least nine states have designated it in law as an official paid state holiday.
“We have to reckon with our very tough past of slavery and what this country was built upon. But we also have to honor the freedoms that have come and the liberation that is here,” said Democratic Rep. Leslie Herod, a bill sponsor.
Juneteenth would be Colorado’s 11th state holiday, with most schools and state offices closed. — THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Colorado lawmakers reject bill to protect natural gas use
Lawmakers rejected state Republican attempts to protect the use of natural gas as cities across the U.S. move toward decarbonization and renewable energy requirements in new buildings.
The bill, sponsored by Republican Rep. Dan Woog, would have protected private and public use of natural gas, propane, solar panels, micro wind turbines or small hydroelectric power for cooking, hot water, heating or electricity.
The measure, which had little hope of passing out of committee, was ultimately rejected by the House Energy and Environment committee.
Opposition to the bill said its inclusion of renewable energy options is purposefully deceptive and part of a larger scale attempt to prop up the fossil fuel industry.
“This legislative concept fits really well into a nationwide campaign launched by fossil industry interests to buck up their profits, their bottom lines, at expense of American consumers,” said Alejandra Mejia Cunningham who testified in opposition to the bill on behalf of the Natural Resources Defense Council.
But Woog said the goal of his bill was to address affordability and preserve Colorado residents’ ability to “heat their home and still put food on the table” — citing increased energy costs as adding to the state’s unaffordability.
Proponents of the bill testifying for the fossil fuel industry said the bill is important for consumer choice.
“Bans on natural gas would prevent American families from using a domestically-produced, cleaner-burning, affordable and reliable fuel source and jeopardize the very things they’ve come to depend on,” said Justin Prendergast, spokesperson for the American Petroleum Institute. — THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Polis signs Colorado law codifying the right to abortion across state
Colorado joined a handful of other states earlier this month in codifying the right to abortion in statute, a party-line response to efforts across the country to limit abortion access in anticipation of a pending U.S. Supreme Court ruling on a challenge to the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that banned states from outlawing abortion.
Gov. Jared Polis signed into law the Reproductive Health Equity Act, which passed the Democratic-led Legislature after dozens of hours of testimony by residents and fierce opposition by minority Republicans. The law guarantees access to reproductive care before and after pregnancy and bans local governments from imposing their own restrictions.
It also declares that fertilized eggs, embryos and fetuses have no independent rights. That’s a response to failed ballot initiatives that sought to restrict abortion by giving embryos the rights of born humans. In 2014, voters rejected a proposal to add unborn human beings to the state’s criminal code, allowing prosecutors to charge anyone who kills a fetus with a crime.
Colorado was the first state to decriminalize abortion in most cases in 1967, and it allows access to abortion but had nothing in state law guaranteeing it. New Jersey, Oregon and Vermont had previously codified the right to abortion throughout pregnancy, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that supports abortion rights.
Republicans would still be able to introduce legislation and ballot measures to reverse the new law. For that reason, abortion rights groups are weighing a 2024 constitutional ballot measure, much like Nevada did in 1990.
Colorado Democrats cited the high court’s consideration of a Mississippi case that could overrule Roe v. Wade, as well as a new Texas law banning abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy. If Roe is overturned fully, at least 26 states are likely to either ban abortion outright or severely limit access, the Guttmacher Institute says.
Idaho and Oklahoma have enacted laws modeled after the Texas statute. Missouri lawmakers have introduced a bill to make it illegal for the state’s residents to get abortions in other states. Arizona’s legislature has approved a ban on abortion after 15 weeks and, like other states, has a law that would automatically ban abortion if Roe is overturned.
In California, Democratic leaders are considering more than a dozen bills this year to prepare for a Roe reversal. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law last month to make abortions cheaper for people on private insurance plans. Washington state enacted a law banning legal action against people who aid or receive an abortion, responding to the Texas law’s provision allowing people to sue abortion providers or those who assist them.
— THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Colorado panel advances security bill for elected officials
Spurred by an increase in threats against public servants, Colorado legislators are advancing a bill that would provide extra security to the state’s chief elections officer and other statewide elected officials.
The bill would allow the Colorado State Patrol to assign at least one officer to the secretary of state, the attorney general and the state treasurer up to 80 hours per week, upon request, with additional security resources available if the chief of the patrol deems it warranted.
State lawmakers may request security under procedures to be developed by legislative leadership and the patrol, which is entrusted with security at the Capitol and surrounding state government offices.
Sen. Faith Winter, a Democrat, and Kevin Priola, a Republican, said their measure is designed to respond to thousands of threats against Democratic Secretary of State Jena Griswold, who’s become a nationwide advocate for secure elections and a prominent debunker of fraudulent claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from President Donald Trump.
Women — and especially Black, Indigenous and women of color, as well as transgender women — are dissuaded more and more from seeking public office because they worry about their own and their families’ safety in an increasingly vitriolic political environment, Winter and Priola told the Senate State, Veterans, & Military Affairs Committee on Tuesday.
“I see this as a direct threat to our democracy,” Winter said. “We’ve seen increased threats against all 100 of us. Not just one side,” she said, referring to Colorado’s 100-member Democratic-led Legislature.
The secretary of state, attorney general and treasurer must request security for public appearances or for travel through the governor’s office.
An original version of the bill gave discretion to the state patrol to decide the merits of each request. A version that passed on a party-line 3-2 vote on Tuesday would ensure the 80 hours of protection and allow the patrol chief to decide if more is warranted.
Legislative economists estimated about $825,000 would be needed to pay for the added security under the original bill.
Griswold noted that the Department of Homeland Security issued a bulletin in January warning of potential of violence by political extremists relating to election-fraud conspiracies heading into the 2022 midterm elections and beyond.
Griswold cited a few of the threats she’s received: “You will never walk the streets in peace again,” and, “What is your neck size?”
“You shouldn’t have to worry about your safety. Let that be with us, and do your work for the state of Colorado,” said patrol Capt. Mike Hahn, whose agency worked on the legislation with Griswold and Democratic Gov. Jared Polis’ office.
Republican Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg said he had problems making a patrol escort mandatory for the three statewide elected officials, instead of allowing security experts at the state patrol to determine when it is warranted. He ultimately voted against the bill, as did GOP Sen. Cleave Simpson. — THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Bill increasing penalties for fentanyl possession making its way through legislature
Following several years of skyrocketing fentanyl overdoses in the state, the Colorado legislature is seeking to pass a controversial bill increasing the penalties for possessing the deadly drug.
Proponents say the new legislation is necessary to combat the preponderance of the drug, while others say it’s just a return to the “war on drugs” mentality that has incarcerated many people while failing to curb addiction.
Fentanyl is a super-powerful synthetic opioid about 50-100 times more potent than morphine. What makes it especially dangerous is that many times, people don’t even know they’re taking it, as drug dealers mix it into everything from opioid pills to cocaine and meth. In 2020, more than a third of overdose deaths in Colorado involved fentanyl.
The new bill would make it a level 4 felony to knowingly possess at least one gram of fentanyl, fentanyl analogues or compound pills or powder that contain fentanyl.
People who manufactured, distributed or sold fentanyl or its analogues to someone who then died of an overdose would face 1st degree felony charges.
The bill made it out of the House Judiciary Committee last week one day before lawmakers heard over 14 hours of testimony on the bill from members of the public, some who viewed the bill as too lenient and others as too punitive and unlikely to deter people from possessing the drug.
“This bill fails to fully address the crisis we’re in. The smallest amount of this drug is powerful enough to kill and this bill does not do enough to confront that reality,” 18th Judicial District Attorney John Kellner said earlier.
Speaker Alec Garnett, the bill’s prime sponsor, said that the bill was not a “silver bullet” but that something had to be done to address fentanyl deaths. The bill must next go before the entire House for approval. — Carina Julig, Sentinel Staff Writer
Victims’ Rights Act update would allow victims to attend hearings remotely
One of the hardest things that state Sen. Rhonda Fields sat through during the trial of her son’s murderers is listening to the tape of the 911 call from the neighbor who found his body.
“The piercing of her voice and her plea for help and describing what she saw and she heard left a lasting impression on me,” Fields said.
Fields’ son, Javad Marshall Fields, was shot and killed along with his fiancee Vivian Wolfe in 2005 as retaliation for agreeing to serve as a witness in the trial of his best friend’s murder. His death spurred Fields’s entrance into politics, and in 2010, she was elected to the Colorado House of Representatives, and then in 2017 to the state senate.
From under the gold dome, Fields has continued to be an advocate for victim’s rights, and this legislative session is co-sponsoring an update to Colorado’s Victim’s Rights Act. The bill is pending approval again in the Senate after it passed the House with amendments on April 18.
“This gives the victims the right to be heard, to be present and to be informed,” Fields told The Sentinel. “And all of that is the responsibility of the prosecution.”
If passed, Senate Bill 49 would update the act to allow victims to attend court proceedings remotely in perpetuity, something that began during the pandemic as a significant portion of the state’s legal proceedings were moved online. That’s important because court cases can drag on for years, Fields said, and if the victim has moved away, or even out of state in the meantime, they can incur significant expenses.
The update would also require the defendant to be present during the reading of the victim impact statement, a statement that the victim (or their family, in murder trials) has the opportunity to read to the judge at the end of a court case about the ways the crime has affected them.
In a statement, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser said that the bill is “a meaningful update to the rights guaranteed in our laws to support victims, and I’m proud to support this bipartisan bill.”
“As attorney general, I’m committed to enforcing the Colorado Victims Rights Act and ensuring our criminal justice process protects, supports, and respects all crime victims,” he said.
Other updates include requiring the victim to receive translation or interpretation services if necessary, guaranteeing that victims have a right to attend parole board hearings and ensuring that prosecutors explain defendant sentencing terms.
Sentencing can be complicated for victims because prison terms can be reduced for good behavior and other factors, Fields said, leaving some people to be upset if a perpetrator is released earlier than they were led to believe.
This update guarantees “a level of information sharing in reference to, that that sentence doesn’t mean they’re going to serve all that time,” Fields said.
Fields’ co-sponsor is Sen. Bob Gardner, a Colorado Springs Republican, and the bill has garnered bipartisan support in both chambers, which is important to her.
“Because when you’re a victim you don’t get a chance to declare what party affiliation you’re from,” she said. “Nobody raises their hand and says ‘I want to be a victim today.’”
— CARINA JULIG, Sentinel Staff Writer
Polis, Democrats roll out package of public safety bills to reduce crime
A collection of public safety bills endorsed by Sen. Janet Buckner, Gov. Jared Polis and others would devote $113 million to improving public safety over the next two years.
Colorado ranks 23rd safest in the nation for violent crime and 29th for property crime compared to other states, according to the governor’s office.
“That’s not good enough for Colorado,” Polis said at a news conference in February announcing the rollout. “We deserve to be one of the safest places to live and raise a family and this package of bills will help get us there.”
The bills include efforts to improve retention of law enforcement, reduce recidivism and increase behavioral health resources. Polis stressed that the approach will be “data driven” and said that the state plans to create an online dashboard soon that will track crime in Colorado.
Buckner, D-Aurora, is one of the legislators introducing bills that are part of the package. She is cosponsoring Senate Bill 1 along with colleagues Naquetta Ricks, Leroy Garcia and Kerry Tipper, which would allow local governments to apply for about $10 million in grant money to make infrastructure upgrades in high-crime areas.
The legislation will create more co-responder programs in Colorado as well as devote more resources towards violence interrupter programs and programs deterring at-risk youth from entering the criminal justice system.
“Rising crime is not an easy topic to address,” Buckner said. “That’s why we have put in the legislative work to ensure these reforms will be fair, equitable and effective.”
Senate Bill 1 passed the Senate in late March and is currently under consideration in the House.
State Sen. Chris Kolker (D-Centennial) is cosponsoring a bill to invest in school safety, providing school districts with grant funding to improve safety and mental health among students.
“We know we must do more, and these measures will go a long way towards improving security at school and keeping our kids safe,” he said.
Senate Bill 147 has passed the Senate and was introduced in the House on April 4.
The package earned the endorsement of 17th Judicial District Attorney Brian Mason, who called it a “historic” investment in community safety and mental health concerns in particular, which he said “disproportionately impacts the criminal justice system.”
Specifically, he praised the package’s investment in law enforcement co-response, violence interruption, trauma screening for children and intervention in domestic violence, which he said has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This package will allow us to address mental health problems before people get into the criminal justice system and seek to keep them out of it altogether,” he said.
On the other hand, the Colorado Association of Chiefs of Police, County Sheriffs of Colorado and the Fraternal Order of Police’s Colorado State Lodge declined to endorse the package in an open letter to Polis.
“At this time, our organizations do not have an official position of support on your public safety budget package in its entirety due to its failure to advance policy changes alongside ongoing budgetary proposals,” they wrote.
The letter went on to blame increases in certain crimes on recent legislative changes, saying the “inability to arrest and hold offenders results in offenders continuing to commit criminal acts,” and that “confusing and rapidly changing legislative standards on policing have caused officers to question what they can and cannot do to address a threat, protect victims and the community, and protect themselves in violent situations.”
— CARINA JULIG and MAX LEVY, Sentinel Staff Writers
Colorado bill for new state behavioral health agency seeks sweeping safety-net
State lawmakers are in the process of determining the role of a soon-to-launch behavioral health agency and the extent to which it will reform Colorado’s tattered mental health safety net system.
A bill introduced this session seeks to carve out responsibilities for the Behavioral Health Administration and for the private contractors paid hundreds of millions of federal and state tax dollars a year to provide mental health and substance abuse care statewide.
Dr. Morgan Medlock, the crisis care psychiatrist Gov. Jared Polis hired out of Washington D.C. to lead the new cabinet-level agency set to launch in July, promised to help carry out “a complete transformation of a system that we know is failing so many of our families, friends and neighbors.”
The Colorado News Collaborative detailed those failures in an investigation published in December.
One of the most ambitious reforms in the 232-page bill would prohibit publicly-funded mental health safety-net providers from refusing to treat clients based on their insurance status, level of aggression, involvement in the criminal justice system or the complexities of their cases. The need for that rule stems from an established pattern by some of Colorado’s 17 regional community mental health centers (CMHCs) of “firing” hard-to-treat or indigent clients, with impunity from state regulators. The centers have been paid higher rates than other providers because they have been expected to serve as caregivers of last resort.
But the bill does not clearly state that the centers would, in fact, be subject to the no-right-of-refusal rule.
The bill also instructs the new agency to contract with regional organizations that would coordinate behavioral health care for clients with complicated needs.
The bill also seeks to:
Develop for the first time a set of comprehensive statewide standards for quality of care, including timeliness of service (although the specifics of those standards would be decided later).
Ensure that regional mobile crisis teams respond to people in need within two hours. Currently, response times run from five minutes to half a day, and some teams don’t show up at all.
Improve data collection and analysis to identify gaps in services and improve treatments and outcomes
Reduce bureaucracy by using one “universal contract” rather than many different ones for state mental health and substance abuse care providers
Update payment models so providers’ compensation reflects their performance and the quality of their care, and doesn’t reflect unreasonable administrative costs
Enhance reimbursement to safety-net providers other than the CMHCs based on access to and quality of care
Work to diversify and expand Colorado’s behavioral health workforce
By 2024, the bill seeks to make it easier for the public to file complaints about care providers. Again, the specifics of how this would work are absent. Among those missing details: whether a dedicated investigative staff would handle grievances and regularly inspect and audit state mental health contractors – including community mental health centers – for problems with quality of care, contract compliance, failure to serve indigent clients or accept sliding scale payment, and possible fraud.
With such language in the bill, enforcement would hinge on the culture Medlock or her successors create within the new agency and their willingness to insist on compliance with the new standards. Colorado’s Department of Human Services (and its Office of Behavioral Health) as well as the Department of Health Care Policy and Financing have for decades caved to pressures from community mental health centers to avoid stricter rules around transparency and accountability, and failed to enforce existing rules. More on this bill at www.sentinelcolorado.com. — SUSAN GREENE, COLORADO NEWS COLLABORATIVE