Source: Denver Business Journal
Business groups — unable to persuade Democrats to kill or significantly amend bills they consider bad for private companies — are asking Gov. John Hickenlooper to veto as many as five Democrat-sponsored bills that could land on his desk.
Begging a Democratic governor to go against his own party isn’t new. Business leaders did that nearly every year former Gov. Bill Ritter oversaw a Democratic-controlled General Assembly from 2006 to 2010.
But there’s more optimism about obtaining vetoes this year on legislation involving discrimination lawsuit awards, oil and gas regulations, renewable-energy standards and unemployment benefits given during defensive employer lockouts.
That’s because officials believe Hickenlooper’s business background as a brewpub and restaurant owner, and as a geologist, makes him more empathetic to their pleas.
“I still believe he has an interest in protecting Colorado jobs,” said Loren Furman, senior vice president of state and federal relations for the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry (The Colorado Chamber). “Ritter had certain interests related to renewable energy and other topics … I think this governor is much more interested in the overall economic vitality of our state.
The Colorado Chamber, the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), the Colorado Retail Counciland other groups say they’ll ask members to call and email the governor’s office about several bills. They are:
• House Bill 1136, which expands the types of damages that can be awarded against businesses of 14 or fewer employees in discrimination lawsuits.
NFIB and The Colorado Chamber sent letters to Hickenlooper on April 30, seeking a veto on this bill. The Legislature sent it to him on April 26, meaning he has until May 6 to sign or veto it.
Business leaders worked with Democrats to make several changes to the bill, including capping punitive damages at $25,000 and requiring that discrimination must be deemed to have been done intentionally.
Senate Majority Leader Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, said the changes were made in part to ease Hickenlooper’s concerns about the bill.
But Tony Gagliardi, NFIB state director, said the bill does nothing to prevent the $150,000 average cost that small businesses have to spend defending against lawsuits, which he said would be more likely if Hickenlooper signs the bill and plaintiffs’ lawyers can receive attorney’s fees if they win.
Roger Hays owns Premier Employment Services, a five-worker professional employer organization in Centennial.
He said he’s writing the governor and asking his clients to do the same because he doesn’t believe the smallest companies will survive if faced with the financial burden of a lawsuit.
• HB 1304, allowing workers who are locked out of their jobs defensively to receive unemployment benefits.
Business leaders think this bill is the most likely to get vetoed.
The nonpartisan Legislative Council estimated such benefits could cost the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund (UITF) $3.4 million a week — important because Hickenlooper’s executive director of the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment was key in UITF reform the past two years to make the trust fund solvent again.
Ritter vetoed a similar bill in 2009.
Chris Howes, president of the Colorado Retail Council, said his members have been communicating with Hickenlooper’s office since introduction of the bill, which has passed the House but not yet the Senate, seeking amendments to ease the impact.
The precedent Ritter set in saying it could interfere with negotiations between grocers and their union workers — talks expected to occur again in 2015 — should help their case, too, he said.
Sponsoring Rep. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, said the bill is about bringing fairness to labor negotiations.
• House Bills 1269, which removes promotion of the oil and gas industry from the mission of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, and 1316, which would ramp up groundwater sampling in the Greater Wattenberg Area, a busy oil and gas area north of Denver.
Hickenlooper is concerned about legislative efforts to undermine the COGCC. HB 1269 would bar him from appointing anyone employed in the oil and gas industry to the commission, and HB 1316 would overturn a January decision by the COGCC to exempt the most oil-rich area of the state from groundwater sampling rules applying throughout most of Colorado.
The House has passed both bills, and they await Senate consideration.
Stan Dempsey, president of the Colorado Petroleum Association, said if the bills make it to Hickenlooper’s desk, industry leaders will argue that they infringe upon his ability to oversee the commission and have the COGCC make decisions without fear of political consequences. But Dempsey also is hopeful that moderate Senate Democrats will kill both bills in that chamber.
• Senate Bill 252, which increases the percentage of energy sales by cooperative electric associations derived from renewable-energy sources.
Business leaders have railed against what they believe will be increased energy costs because of this bill, which the House and Senate passed. But they admit getting Hickenlooper to veto it is a long shot, as his Colorado Energy Office testified for SB 252.
Hickenlooper declined to comment on any specific bills, saying his staff is working on compromises on legislative efforts that concern him.
“You always end up having to sign some bills that you’re not crazy about, but we so far have not found ourselves in a position to veto anything,” he said in an interview.
Democrats who are negotiating with the governor are optimistic.
“We work hand in hand with the governor’s office on a lot of these bills,” said House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver. “I think … we are going to be able to find common ground with the governor.”
Hays said he’s worried that Hickenlooper has so many potential vetoes of his own party’s bills that he may have to limit them on measures such as HB 1136 to avoid political animosity.
“If there were a few other things not on the table, I might not be so nervous,” Hays said.
Ed Sealover covers government, health care, tourism, airlines and hospitality for the Denver Business Journal and writes for the “Capitol Business” blog. Phone: 303-803-9229.