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Mystery fliers about candidates in elections that don’t say who paid for them will still be allowed in Colorado after a law supporters said would plug a disclosure loophole died on a party-line vote in a GOP-controlled committee.

“They’re exploiting a loophole to keep voters in the dark,” said Democratic Sen. Rachel Zenzinger of Arvada about political groups who pay for anonymous fliers during election season.

She would know.

Last November she found such fliers, glossy negative hit-pieces that didn’t say who was behind them, fluttering around her district. She said if she won her election she would introduce a law to close what she called a loophole that allowed them.

Related: Mysterious dark-money fliers target highly contested Colorado House and Senate races

But her bill died 3-2 with Republican Sens. Vicki Marble, Owen Hill and Jerry Sonnenberg voting against it. Zenzinger and Democratic Sen. Lois Court voted in favor.

Debate over the proposed law revolved around philosophical differences among lawmakers who want more disclosure in elections and others who don’t— arguments that have percolated in state legislatures since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling that opened the floodgates for unlimited corporate, union and nonprofit spending in elections.

Supporters of closing Colorado’s dark-money loophole noted how eight of the nine High Court justices in that ruling were in favor of disclosure in election spending.

Colorado requires people and groups who spend money to influence an election to report their financial activity to the state via an online database. But state law doesn’t require them to say who paid for fliers on the fliers themselves. The bill would have required them to do so.

“The simple idea is any mailer or flier or billboard or advertisement to voters in your district that mentions a candidate in the window at the end of the election cycle must place on the piece what person or entity paid for that ad,” Peg Perl, senior counsel for Colorado Ethics Watch, told lawmakers during Wednesday’s committee hearing.

The bill passed the Democratically controlled House earlier this month.

Related: In Colorado, lawmakers clash over a dark money loophole

But the proposed law ran into a buzzsaw in the Republican controlled Senate committee Wednesday when the Secretary of State’s office, run by Republican Wayne Williams who administers elections in Colorado, opposed it.

Deputy Secretary of State Suzanne Staiert told lawmakers she worried the measure was too broad. She wondered if she would have to say who paid for wedding invitations sent out during election season if they mentioned a candidate for office.

Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, wondered whether reporters who write stories or broadcasts about elections would be subject to so-called electioneering communication under current law or if the new law passed.

No, Staiert said, there is an exemption for media in Colorado.

“How do we define media?” Hill asked. “Is that specifically defined in our laws?”

It is, Staiert said, adding there is also case law about it in Colorado.

Whether to declare who paid for fliers that mention candidates during campaign season flared up during Colorado’s November 2016 legislative elections when mysterious fliers were found in districts with some of the state’s most hotly contested races.

The anonymous glossy fliers lacked the “paid for” disclosures typically seen on election season political leaflets and carried no information at all about who was behind them. It was beyond just dark money, and at the time, political observers called the tactic a new and troubling development in state elections— but not necessarily an illegal one.

And it will remain that way heading into an even larger statewide election in 2018.

Says Perl: “If nothing is done very early next session, expect an explosion during the gubernatorial primaries and general election seasons next year.”

 

Photo by Neubie for Creative Commons on Flickr.

Colorado newspaper publisher: No lawsuit against senator for ‘fake news’ claim after all

Your weekly roundup of Colorado local news and media

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Well, that escalated quickly— and then fizzled out.

It turns out Grand Junction Daily Sentinel publisher Jay Seaton, who made national news two months ago with a threat to sue a local lawmaker for calling his newspaper “fake news,” announced he will not file suit. I covered the threat in February for Columbia Journalism Review’s United States Project, writing how Seaton’s “intention” was to slap Republican Sen. Ray Scott with a defamation suit for his social media postings that called Seaton’s paper fake news. “This industry has taken it and taken it and taken it over the last several years,” Seaton told me. “And now we get diminished as fake news, going to the core of what we do. And we don’t push back. Well, I’ve had it. I’m not going to take it anymore.”

The news blew up nationally. A newspaper suing a politician for defamation? A truly man-bites-dog story. And here was a small regional newspaper that would try to get a legal determination about the term “fake news.” So all eyes were on Seaton. In March, he even went on 9News and said he was still considering the lawsuit.

But the crusading publisher has backed down, explaining to readers why in a column. His reasoning is three-pronged. One, because the public could pick up the tab of a lawmaker’s legal defense, Seaton doesn’t want to “cost taxpayers a bunch of money.” Two, a lawmaker can use a legal strategy by claiming legislative immunity and maybe tie up the courts for two years with appeals. And three, “there is the defense that words no longer mean what they have always meant.”

From Seaton’s column:

This is the defense that the definition of the term “fake news” has lost its objective meaning and now represents some kind of general pejorative for things we don’t like. It’s a good defense because it would mean that a label of “fake news” applied to a legitimate news organization is actually protected opinion, not defamation.

Fighting “fake news” is a worthy cause, the publisher believes, but he ultimately decided a lawsuit is not the way to do it.

But speaking of real newspaper lawsuits…

The Denver Post filed one this month. But not against a lawmaker. Or anyone close. Colorado’s largest newspaper is suing its former senior vice president of advertising and two other ex-employees, “alleging they tried to steal advertising clients and use the daily newspaper’s trade secrets to form their own, competing digital ad company,” according to The Denver Business Journal.

More on the suit from The Post itself:

The lawsuit, filed in Denver District Court, alleges the employees, before they resigned from The Post, solicited business from at least one of the newspaper’s advertisers. … The defendants had access to confidential information and trade secrets as employees of the newspaper’s advertising division, including customer lists, revenues and profits and proprietary technology, the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit says the former employees launched an ad agency called Digible “within hours of resigning their employment.” The suit seeks to recoup any money the newspaper paid them “during the period that they breached their duties of loyalty,” and to stop them from further harming the paper in their endeavor. The Denver Post wants a jury to determine how much money the paper should get if its allegations are proven true.

Here are three Colorado serial newspaper projects to bookmark for your weekend #longreads

I read a lot of Colorado local news throughout the week and realized at least three newspapers have been running a series about different issues in recent weeks or months. So I thought I’d round them up all in one place for you to bookmark for when you have time to really dig in.

First is “High Country, High Costs,” a six-part series on health care in Colorado’s mountain communities, which is one of the most expensive places to buy health care in the nation. Former longtime Rocky Mountain News health, science and environment reporter William Scanlon, now retired, produced the series for Colorado Mountain News Media’s papers in Aspen, Vail and Glenwood Springs. “The focus was supposed to be on ‘de-mystifying’ the reasons for the high costs,” Scanlon told me. He started by reviewing the letters to the editor on the subject and found “a lot of passionate people— mostly angry about the high costs in the individual market of Obamacare.” Response to the series was generally positive, he says, “although there is a lot of entrenched thinking on the subject. There was a feeling among every demographic that everyone is getting a better deal than me. … Many of the responses echoed the sentiments of the president— who knew that health care could be so complicated.”

Another series is “Whiteout,” produced by The Summit Daily News, about “the uphill struggle to uncover the human toll of Colorado’s ski industry.” To decode that, let’s look at the series URL: “news/skierdeaths.”

An excerpt from the first installment:

At least 137 people died in accidents at the state’s ski resorts since the 2006-07 season, according to a database compiled by the Summit Daily News. Who they were, where they lived, as well as where they died and what caused it — all of that has been accounted for in each case. That is, with a single exception: the unknown skier, No. 130, a statistic without a name.

Finally, check out “On Unsolid Ground” at The Gazette about why Colorado Springs residents are “losing their homes to landslides despite decades of warnings.” Reporter Billie Stanton Anleu says the series is “the first in-depth, sustained coverage of the issue and led to an overhaul of the city ordinance governing what developers must do to protect against this natural disaster.” The series’ landing page won a top multimedia award from the Colorado Press Association. All the continuing stories get sent here, so, again, bookmark.

On localizing the Bill-O story with a ‘biggest jerk in Denver’ headline

As Bill O’Reilly’s ouster from Fox News amid a sexual harassment scandal reverberated across the media landscape, some of the ripples licked back into Colorado where he used to work. “Was Bill O’Reilly the biggest jerk in Denver TV history?” asked the city’s alt-weekly Westword. Reporter Michael Roberts looked at the no-spin-zoner’s time at KMGH-TV, which O’Reilly apparently loved. “But according to a former co-worker in Denver, O’Reilly was widely disliked at the station because of behavior that could be rude, egomaniacal and underhanded, and on multiple occasions, he was pranked by colleagues who left aromatic food to rot in his desk,” Roberts writes. Hard to believe, I know.

So, Colorado police departments are still denying access to their internal affairs reports 

The Greeley Tribune is encountering a “common practice” for police departments across the nation— and across Colorado: their willingness to deny reporters and the public access to reports of internal affairs investigations into officers. The Tribune is seeking information about a detective who left the force after the city settled for $150,000 with a woman who accused him of lying in an arrest affidavit for suspicion of prostitution. The police won’t release the internal affairs investigation because they think it’s not in the public’s interest and will dissuade people from talking in future investigations if they know what they say might become public.

This is, however, “the third time in a month a Colorado police department has declined to release any information about internal affairs investigations, according to an email from Steven Zansberg, the president of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition,” reported The Tribune.

Oh yeah, and speaking of transparency: A Colorado First Amendment and whistleblower award

I’ve written before in this newsletter about an effort to bring the Colorado Open Records Act more in line with the digital world we live in— and specifically a current bill moving through the legislature to do that. No one this year was better at showing readers why such a law might be needed than reporter Nick Coltrain of The Coloradoan in Fort Collins, who was awarded a regional Society of Professional Journalists First Amendment award last week for his work.

Meanwhile, Leslie Weise, a clean air advocate, received The Colorado Independent’s annual Whistleblower Award for her court battle and personal struggle for records involving air quality related to a downtown coal-fired power plant in Colorado Springs.

“Leslie’s fight for the power plant data took moxie and guts,” said Indy editor Susan Greene. “As Coloradans, we all benefit from this kind of dogged pursuit of public information. It’s in all of our interests to support whistleblowers in exposing what government is trying to hide from us. Leslie has a long record of blowing the whistle in the public interest. This award is our small way of honoring her efforts.”

What you missed on the front pages of newspapers across Colorado on Sunday

You know what you did on 4/20. And that’s why you can’t remember what was on all the Sunday front pages three days laterThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel produced a cover package about local police body camsThe Longmont Times-Call looked at the human tragedy of a house explosionThe Greeley Tribune reported on what keeps some homeless vets from seeking helpThe Loveland Reporter-Herald profiled a local butterfly sanctuaryThe Coloradoan in Fort Collins found 60 percent of Colorado State University’s lowest paid faculty are womenThe Steamboat Pilot Today & Sunday ran an installment of The Summit Daily News ‘Whiteout’ seriesThe Boulder Daily Camera reported on the county’s long, elusive road to a municipal electric utilityThe Durango Herald covered a plan to bring more outdoor lighting to DurangoVail Daily reported on the end of the local ski seasonThe Denver Post fronted coverage of the march for scienceThe Gazette covered prom night in Colorado Springs.

A focus on local news got a big nod at the reporting-in-the-age-of-alternative-facts conference

In a write-up on last week’s CU-Boulder journalism conferenceColorado University Independent managing editor Jake Mauff reported how the importance of local news played an outsized role. Also writing about the conference, student Emily McPeak​ quoted New York Times metro editor Joe Sexton saying this about Donald Trump: “He calls the Times a failing newspaper but goes to bed at night hoping to wake up to a positive story about him.”

Why The Boulder Daily Camera edited a letter to the editor 

The Camera does not condone or endorse violence or property destruction of any kind.” That’s an editor’s note that appears above an online letter to the editor about “a philosophical question the Camera believes is worthy of community conversation in the context of the ongoing discussion over fracking.” The original letter, according to a cached version, asked, “If the oil and gas industry puts fracking wells in our neighborhoods, threatening our lives and our children’s lives, then don’t we have a moral responsibility to blow up wells and eliminate fracking and workers?” The letter, the Camera reports, “was edited to delete references that may have been construed to expressly advocate violence or property destruction.”

The paper’s editorial page editor, Dave Krieger, wrote a column addressing the situation.

Here’s part of it:

My mistake produced an internal conversation that took much of the day and got pretty profound. I have written before, on behalf of the editorial board, that we consider these opinion pages to be a free-speech zone within the limits of First Amendment law and of decency and good taste. So beyond the propriety of the language in question, one of the issues was whether it was appropriate in a free-speech zone to permit advocacy of a position that law-breaking, and even violence, was justifiable to oppose a perceived moral wrong, in this case, oil drilling in or near residential neighborhoods that oppose it, and all the potential harm to residents and the environment that carries with it.

Oh, “Free speech zones?” Well, that jumped out at me, because…

Colorado abolished free speech zones on college campuses this month

And I was invited to talk about it with Ryan Warner of Colorado Public Radio on his statewide show Colorado Matters. Listen to our conversation here about how so-called “free speech zones” came about, and how a hyper-polarized legislature came together over the First Amendment to abolish them in our purple state.

And the Kicker of the Week goes to…

Forget “Headline of the Day,” the “Kicker of the Week” goes to John Frank of the The Denver Post in a story about how lawmakers failed to come together on a major transportation bill some thought could be the year’s grand bargain. Here’s how he closed out his piece: “In a conversation with reporters, Sen. Lucia Guzman, a Denver pastor, twice dropped the F-bomb in frustration.”

Now for some news on the local media front from CJR’s United States Project

Gwyneth Doland wrote how a free press lawsuit against New Mexico’s governor is nearing its end. Tony Rehagen showed how city magazines, dependent on print, are facing an uncertain future amid a wave of deals. Trudy Lierberman, who watchdogs health care coverage, wrote about how town hall crowds want clarity on GOP health plans and whether reporters can provide it. I talked about the fate of Warrenn Buffett’s chain of local newspapers for a podcast, and wrote about the sale of the independent alt-weekly Missoula Independent to Lee Enterprises, Montana’s largest daily newspaper chain, and about whether it can still report critically on its new owner.

*This roundup appears a little differently as a published version of a weekly e-mailed newsletter about Colorado local news and media. If you’d like to add your e-mail address for the unabridged versions, please subscribe HERE.

Photo by Jon S for Creative Commons in Flickr.

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This story originally appeared in High Country News

“San Juan County is now the epicenter of a brutal battle over public lands,” Orrin Hatch, the senior senator from Utah, said as he stood before the Senate on April 24 and railed against former President Barack Obama’s end-of-term designation of the Bears Ears National Monument.

Hatch spoke in anticipation of President Donald Trump’s order to “review” all national monuments designated since 1996, announced Wednesday, starting with Bears Ears, located in rural San Juan County, Utah. The review will also include dozens of other monuments established over the last 21 years. As he signed the executive order, Trump praised the Utah senator and parroted some of Hatch’s points.

Hatch’s own speech was peppered with the type of Sagebrush Rebellion rhetoric that Utah politicians have spouted since Cal Black, the late San Juan County commissioner, threatened three decades ago to blow up ruins, bridges and trucks to retaliate against purported overreach by federal land managers. But in making his argument for abolishing the new monument, Hatch also relied on outright falsehoods or, in the nomenclature of the current administration, “alternative facts.”

Here, we fact-check the main arguments made by opponents of the Bears Ears monument, including Trump and Hatch.

Hatch: “As evidence of his disdain, President Obama issued this declaration with no open debate, no public hearing, and no vote in Congress.”

Fact check: The notion that Obama sprung this “midnight monument” on the locals without warning or consultation is one of the main arguments against the designation. It’s also false.

Efforts to preserve this remote corner of Canyon Country in one way or another — along with attendant public debates — stretch back to the 1930s. When it became clear that a dysfunctional Congress would never move on the proposals, the Obama administration included Cedar Mesa, the heart of the Bears Ears monument, on a 2010 list of sites for possible protection under the Antiquities Act.

That launched informal and formal discussions on how to preserve the area, and prompted the birth of Utah Diné Bikéyah, a group of local Native Americans interested in preserving the ancestral homeland of numerous tribes. That effort grew into the intertribal coalition that in 2015 formally asked Obama to designate a 1.9 million acre monument.

The proposal was debated publicly and openly for months. The administration had numerous exchanges with Utah officials, revealed by documents obtained by the House Oversight Committee at the request of Utah congressmen. Finally, in July 2016, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and several other top federal land management officials traveled to southeastern Utah, met with local officials and held a public hearing in Bluff, which was attended by approximately 1,000 people.

Hatch: “In making this unilateral decision, our former president either failed to heed the concerns of San Juan County residents, or ignored them completely.”

Fact check: This statement has two inaccuracies. First, the supposition that all local residents are opposed to the monument is not true. Utah Diné Bikéyah was born locally, with a board made up of local Navajo and Ute Mountain Ute people; six of seven Navajo chapters in San Juan County officially support designation; and many residents spoke in favor of the monument at the Bluff hearing. In designating the monument, Obama was responding to their concerns as well as those of the five sovereign tribes in the coalition.

While a majority of the county’s white residents and some Native Americans, particularly Mormons, oppose the monument, it’s clear from the details of the final monument designation that their concerns were heeded as well. Obama left nearly 600,000 acres out of the original proposal, land that holds the potential for motorized recreation, uranium mining, limestone quarrying and other natural resource development. Many local Native Americans were worried about a monument hampering their ability to gather herbs, piñon nuts and firewood; to ease those concerns, the proclamation explicitly preserves such traditional uses.

Hatch: “The county schools have been strapped for cash ever since the Bears Ears Monument designation, because that designation rendered this land useless.”

Fact check: This is an outright fabrication, referring to state trust lands that are within the monument boundaries. In Hatch’s alternative universe, those lands were generating oodles of dollars for the local schools until the monument designation cut off the cash flow. That’s not how it works. Proceeds from the lease or sale of state trust lands are distributed to public schools across the state, regardless of which county the state lands are in. Those funds make up a tiny portion of a school district’s overall budget — 1 percent for San Juan County’s school district in 2016 — and they weren’t affected by the monument designation.

Nor did the monument designation render those lands “useless.” The state retains control over the parcels. The Obama administration wanted to negotiate a swap for the lands, so that the monument wasn’t checkerboarded with inholdings. The state land board declined. Such an exchange is still possible under the Trump administration; the state schools got $50 million from the feds received as a result of the Grand Staircase-Escalante designation.

Ironically, the San Juan School District’s website touts the plethora of public lands and national parks and monuments lying within the county’s borders.

Hatch: “President Obama … lock(ed) away an entire quarter of San Juan County, an action that undermines the local economy.”

Fact check: This is a widely used argument against the monument, that the designation enacts restrictions that will shut down a vibrant extraction economy within its boundaries. A variant of this argument — the monument will hold a bevy of drill rigs at bay — is used to argue in favor of designation. Both claims are dubious.

San Juan County does rely on extractive industries. Oil driller Resolute Natural Resources is its No. 1 taxpayer. But that company operates in and around the Aneth Oil Field, well outside the monument’s boundaries. The Daneros uranium mine was within the proposed boundaries, but it and a huge swath of nearby land, rich with paleontological resources, was left out of the final designation, as was most of Lime Ridge and the Raplee Anticline, where oil drilling historically took place.

In recent years a couple of exploratory drill rigs have popped up on Cedar Mesa, but they were either on state land, or on already leased federal land, and came up empty. The monument only stops new mineral leases, so these existing drilling rights will not be affected. Advances in drilling technology or extremely high oil prices could someday make drilling, or even tar sands development, feasible within the monument, but there were no pending projects or leases when the monument was designated.

Grazing won’t be affected by the monument at all. Not only does the proclamation preserve existing grazing leases, but also allows for new ones. The only extractive industry that might be hampered by the designation is the looting of ancient artifacts — but that is already illegal on federal land.

So no jobs will be lost and the economy won’t be harmed by the monument. If anything, the tourist economy will get a boost, as monument status makes an already well-visited area more marketable. Indeed, even as Utah’s politicians try to kill Bears Ears, the state tourism office is actively promoting the new monument.

Trump: “The previous administration bypassed the states to place over 265 million acres of land and water under federal control through the abuse of the monuments designation.”

Fact check: Nope. All of the land was already managed by federal land agencies. No private, state or other land was “seized” or “grabbed” in Bears Ears or other monuments. Nor did the locals lose any control over the land in question. In fact, in the case of Bears Ears, local tribes (meaning those with deep ancestral ties to the land in question) gained more control as high-level advisors to the monument manager. While this was a lesser role than the co-management one the tribes hoped for, they do have a louder voice now than they had without a monument. 

Hatch: In designating over 1 million acres, Obama overstepped his authority under the Antiquities Act to set aside “the smallest area compatible with proper care and management of the objects to be protected.” 

Fact check: False. The monument does cover a huge swath, but it also encompasses a landscape that is home to the physical remnants of over 12,000 years of human occupation — from a Clovis camp, to tens of thousands of Puebloan sites, to the Hole in the Rock Trail — as well as vast paleontological resources. Many of the landforms, including the Bears Ears and Comb Ridge, are spiritually significant to the Navajo, Ute and Pueblo people.

This cultural landscape stretches across the new monument and far beyond its borders. In fact, the smaller monument Obama ultimately proposed already excluded some significant sites. Further diminishment would result in more important antiquities being left out. If anything, the new monument is too small to include all of the relevant cultural landscape — it should stretch eastward to connect with Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in southwestern Colorado.

Whatever the review, spearheaded by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, comes up with, the Antiquities Act gives Trump the power to expand the Bears Ears monument to encompass a greater cultural landscape. It does not, however, give him the power to abolish or significantly diminish the monument.

Back in 1938, when President Franklin Roosevelt pondered abolishing the Castle-Pinckney National Monument, created by Calvin Coolidge, his attorney general said it couldn’t be done. “The grant of power to execute a trust,” he wrote, “… by no means implies the further power to undo it when it has been completed.” And in 1976, when it passed the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, Congress decreed that the secretary of the Interior (or the president) can’t “modify or revoke any withdrawal creating national monuments” under the Antiquities Act.

If Trump wants to abolish or shrink Bears Ears, he’ll either have to convince Congress to do it, or commit himself to a brutal legal battle against the local tribes that fought so hard to get the monument designated.

Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is currently writing a book about the Gold King Mine spill.

Photo by Bureau of Land Management for Creative Commons in Flickr.

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The Home Front: Investigators confirm probe into gas well near house explosion

Your morning roundup of stories from the front pages of Colorado newspapers

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“Investigators confirmed Wednesday that they’re looking at a 24-year-old well operated by Anadarko Petroleum Corporation as part of their probe into the house explosion that killed two men in Firestone last week,” reports The Longmont Times-Call. “That revelation followed an announcement by Anadarko that it has shut down more than 3,000 similar vertical wells across northeast Colorado, including the well that sits about 170 feet from the home at 6312 Twilight Ave. that exploded April 17. Investigators have not announced the origin or cause of the explosion.” (Indy Editor’s note: Oil and gas resources are accessed by drilling vertical, horizontal or multi-lateral wells. Read The Colorado Independent’s own breaking news coverage from yesterday.)

“The Interior Department is to review large-scale national monuments in Colorado and Utah under an executive order that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said gives new voice to rural Americans,” reports The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel. “Finally, rural America has a voice again,” Zinke said Wednesday as President Donald J. Trump announced the executive order to study the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in Colorado and Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears national monuments in Utah. Trump’s order also calls on Interior to study the 1906 law under which those monuments and others were established, the Antiquities Act. U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., criticized the order as an “unprecedented attack on national monuments.”

“Weld County Coroner Carl Blesch has identified the man who police believe was the victim of a homicide Tuesday morning,” reports The Greeley Tribune. “Alberto Ruiz, Jr., 33, of Greeley was the victim of what police believe may have been a road rage incident that turned deadly. Blesch was still unable to confirm the cause of death, and said the investigation is continuing. Ruiz’s Facebook profile is largely private, but it does state that although he lived in Greeley, his hometown is San Elizario, Texas. It’s the latest public development in a story that sent ripples through Greeley on Tuesday.”

“A tougher U.S. policy on North Korea seems to be getting some results because that nation hasn’t done any missile or weapons testing on its two most recent holidays, Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner said after leaving a White House briefing Wednesday on the tense relations with North Korea,” according to The Pueblo Chieftain. “I came out of the classified briefing with a pragmatic but sober realization that we face a significant threat from North Korea but we are changing course and are going to put more pressure on that regime,” the Republican senator said. Gardner chairs a Senate subcommittee on East Asia and has become an often-quoted authority on North Korea.”

“Fort Collins could see Sunday public transit service beginning in August, although where Transfort buses would roll still needs to be decided,” reports The Coloradoan in Fort Collins. “City Council members say they support running buses 365 days a year, but they are divided on how many routes should operate on Sundays and holidays given the availability of funding. Transfort currently runs Monday through Saturday. Officials presented three options for expanded service during a council work session Tuesday that included a variety of routes and cost estimates.”

“Local state lawmakers who co-sponsored a bill that could have injected billions of dollars into transportation shared their frustrations after the bill failed to pass committee Tuesday,” reports The Steamboat Pilot & Today. “As you can imagine, I was very disappointed,” said State Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush, a Democrat. “All of us had hoped … that at least one (Republican) member of the Senate Finance Committee could vote ‘yes’ and move it onto the floor.” The two Democratic committee members voted in favor of the bill. The three Republican members were fundamentally against raising taxes.”

“One student at Garfield Elementary School piled his lunch tray with cherry tomatoes. Another added two bananas and a pile of cucumbers, while still another chose broccoli, lettuce, green peppers, carrots, oranges and pineapples,” reports The Loveland Reporter-Herald. “That, school district officials said, is the beauty of a salad bar — students can choose what and how much fresh fruits and vegetables they want at lunch. “It seems like we’re throwing away less,” said faculty assistant Michelle Ellis, who works in the lunchroom at Garfield, which rolled out its salad bar a week ago. “They can choose what they want. They’re eating tons of fruits and vegetables.”

“The controversy over the treatment of prairie dogs on the future site of a north Boulder housing development was to have been settled eight months ago,” reports The Boulder Daily Camera. “It’s roared back to life, though, as prairie dog allies have made new allegations against the developer, who’s responded by calling them defaming “extremists.” In late August, Boulder made the announcement that a colony of more than 100 prairie dogs would be spared, after a very public, monthslong spectacle in which animal rights advocates pressured developer Bruce Dierking not to kill the critters simply because they lived on his construction site. Dierking says he has spent close to $100,000 to date on the relocation of the animals from north Boulder’s Armory site, 4750 N. Broadway, to city open space on the southern end of town.”

“An Aspen city councilman said this week he erred by voting in favor of potentially damming Castle and Maroon creeks, but he failed to persuade his fellow elected officials to rescind their unanimous decision from October,” reports The Aspen Times. “Bert Myrin conceded that it was “my mistake” when he voted in favor of the city’s pursuit of preserving its water rights on the two pristine streams. Myrin’s proposal, which was not on the council’s Monday meeting agenda and had not been formally noticed to the public, came eight days before the May 2 municipal elections.”

“A Mexican man who lived in the basement of a Denver church seeking sanctuary from deportation for nine months until July 2015, when he was told he was no longer an immigration priority, was arrested Wednesday morning by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement,” reports The Denver Post. “Arturo Hernandez Garcia was taken into custody without explanation while he was working as a flooring contractor, according to Jennifer Piper, of the American Friends Service Committee in Denver. “I was at work when my brother called me,” Hernandez Garcia’s wife, Ana Sauzameda, said. “He and Arturo were together. They had gone to the shop to pick up materials, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement detained Arturo when he was coming out.”

“The future of the local detox center that harbors substance abusers is again in limbo,” reports The Gazette in Colorado Springs. “Reportedly facing pressure from local hospitals, El Paso County is considering major changes to its 40-bed detox center, including finding another organization to run the program. County officials say UCHealth Memorial and Penrose-St. Francis Health Services hospitals, which provide about $600,000 a year of the center’s roughly $2.1 million expense, have warned the county that they won’t help foot the bill past 2017 if the program doesn’t evolve into a model that’s able to provide more medical services and admit a greater range of patients. But officials from the hospitals denied that the institutions threatened to pull their contributions.”

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Donald Trump says his new tax plan would do what Ronald Reagan’s never did, and what George W. Bush’s never did, which is to pay for itself. There is a long line of economists, including many conservative ones, who would beg to differ. As one said, “It would just be dropping cash out of helicopters on corporate headquarters for a couple of years.” Via The Washington Post.

Trump’s proposed tax “plan” is one whole page long, but in case you need the page further broken down, The New York Times explains the seven key elements of the “plan,” which is more like an outline of a plan that is not just short on numbers, but just plain short.

Now that the White House seems to have reached a deal on healthcare reform that should win the Freedom Caucus votes, the fate of the House bill rests with the so-called GOP moderates, including many of those seen as most vulnerable in the 2018 midterms. We’re talking about you, Mike Coffman, who supported the first Obamacare repeal-and-replace bill but now says he is undecided. Via The Atlantic.

Maybe you were confused by the stories citing administration sources saying that Trump was considering pulling out of NAFTA. I’m sure Mexico and Canada were confused. So in a conference call, Trump cleared up the matter: The United States is not pulling out. For now. Probably. Maybe. Via The Los Angeles Times.

How did the big North Korea confab with busloads of senators at the White House go? One Republican senator described it as “80 sets of invisible eyes rolling.” Via Vox.

Trump’s strange interview with the Associated Press proves at least one thing, says Amy Davidson in The New Yorker: There’s no point in trying to connect Trump’s actual words to reality. On the other hand, as Ross Douthat writes in The New York Times, however badly you might think Trump’s first 100 days are going, you have to consider how much worse they could be.

Katha Pollit: Demanding answers on Trump, Russia and the election is not McCarthyism, or anything like it. Donald Trump, she writes in The Nation, is not a high school teacher who once subscribed to The Daily Worker; he’s the president of the United States.

From The National Review: George Will believes that France is about to elect as president its own version of Barack Obama. In case you had any doubts, Will doesn’t mean that in a good way.

The Washington Post offers up four reasons why Obama shouldn’t take the money from Wall Street for a speech. No. 4: Because Obama himself has warned against the corrupting influence of money on politicians.

 

Official portrait of President Reagan, 1981, via Matthew Yglesias on Flickr:Creative Commons

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Former Republican U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez, who ran for governor in 2014, should have registered a nonprofit as a political committee, a judge ruled.

The decision came in response to a dark-money lawsuit filed by Matt Arnold, a non-attorney who prosecuted the case before an administrative law judge last month, arguing that Beauprez had run a political committee masked as a tax-exempt 501(c)(4) “social welfare” nonprofit.

Reated: A dark money lawsuit, a colorful cast of characters, and Colorado’s citizen campaign finance cop

Administrative Law Judge Robert Spencer ordered Beauprez’s nonprofit, Colorado Pioneer Action, to pay $17,735 to the state. The damages could have been 10 times worse— more than $170,000— but Spencer said he had discretion to reduce it. He said that high a fine would be “grossly excessive” because Beauprez’s “failure to register and report was due to an erroneous interpretation of the definition of a political committee, rather than an intentional violation of the fair campaign practices law.”

For his part, Arnold calls that “bullshit,” saying he believes the Beauprez group got off easy.

Furthermore, Spencer ruled Colorado Pioneer Action will have to register as a political committee and “file the required contribution and expenditure reports for calendar year 2016 and forward.” (Read the judge’s full ruling here.)

Beauprez’s attorney, Douglas Abbott, declined to comment, saying he had just gotten the ruling today.

That this GOP titan was lanced in court by a citizen campaign finance watchdog shows the unique nature of the way Colorado enforces campaign finance laws.

In most states, if a politician or political group is believed to have run afoul of campaign finance laws, a government panel or commission would screen an official complaint. An attorney general, an ethics agency, or the state police might investigate.

But not in Colorado. Here, anyone who lodges a complaint about a suspected campaign finance violation has to prove his or her own case against an alleged violator in a courtroom setting that at times can feel like a full-blown trial. It’s a system its critics say discourages average citizens from bringing complaints against powerful people or well-funded groups. But if you do file a campaign finance complaint and go to court, you can subpoena witnesses and gather evidence.

And that is what Arnold, who runs a company called Campaign Integrity Watchdog, did, spending the better part of a year on the case against Beauprez.

In June, Arnold filed a complaint against Beauprez’s nonprofit Colorado Pioneer Action, at the time saying it “may be the campaign finance case of the year in Colorado.”

Now, given the $17,000 ruling against Beauprez, Arnold calls it the largest campaign finance penalty in state history. (Former GOP gubernatorial candidate Dan Maes paid $17,500 in campaign finance violations in 2010.)

Beauprez ran CPA as a (c)4 nonprofit “social welfare organization.” Such nonprofits can raise unlimited amounts from people, corporations, unions, and other nonprofits. And they can get involved in politics, but the major purpose of their work cannot be to support or oppose candidates in an election. Groups that do have a major purpose of influencing an election by supporting or opposing candidates, like Independent Expenditure Committees, or IECs, are required to disclose their donors. So, if a nonprofit social welfare organization gives money to an IEC, the IEC can disclose that it took money from that (c)4, but the source of the funds are still secret.

Judge Spencer ruled, however, that supporting or opposing candidates was Colorado Pioneer Action’s major purpose, so it should have been registered as a political committee subject to disclosure.

One of the races Beauprez’s’ nonprofit got involved in was a GOP primary in a state senate race between Gordon Klingenschmitt and Bob Gardner in Colorado Springs. Klingenschmitt is now hopeful he will find out who secretly funded Colorado Pioneer Action, which spent money he believes affected the outcome of his unsuccessful race.

Following today’s ruling, Klingenschmitt called on his successful opponent, Gardner, to resign, saying he stole his Senate seat. 

Garnder said he would not be stepping down, and that he disagreed with the judge’s ruling. Colorado Pioneer Action, he said, was not involved in his campaign and he had nothing to do with Beauprez’s groups. The bitterness from that bruising campaign, however, might still be lingering.

“I’m used to responding to the absurd when Mr. Klingeschmitt is involved,” Gardner said when initially asked for comment.

As for Arnold, he hopes for quick disclosure.

“We are going to find out, assuming that they actually comply with the judge’s order, the source of all the money that came in to Pioneer Action,” Arnold says about the outcome of his lawsuit. “So they will have to disclose the identity of their secret contributors.”

Whether that will actually happen remains to be seen.

While the state constitution gives administrative law judges like Spencer the power to issue sanctions like the $17,000 fine and requirement to disclose financial activity, those judges have limited powers to enforce their decisions, says Chris Jackson of the Sherman & Howard L.L.C. firm in Denver who specializes in campaign finance and political law.

“The Secretary of State can file an enforcement action; if he doesn’t, the person who filed the complaint … may file a private cause of action in state district court,” he says. “So, if Colorado Pioneer Action doesn’t comply with the ALJ’s (administrative law judge’s) order, look for the Secretary of State or [Arnold] to file an enforcement action in Denver District Court.”

The judge also said Arnold would have to pay $1,000 in attorneys fees for leaking court documents to a reporter around the time of last month’s hearings.

Colorado currently faces a pending federal lawsuit from a Washington, D.C.-area legal nonprofit that attacks Colorado’s private-party enforcement system as unconstitutional. The nonprofit law firm Institute for Justice claims such a system “empowers political insiders to silence any ordinary speaker they disagree with.” The law firm represents a Colorado mom who was sued twice by her local school board after she placed ads in her local newspaper to alert readers to the upcoming board elections.

Today’s news drew even more attention to the way Colorado enforces campaign finance law when deputy Secretary of State Suzanne Staiert called Judge Spencer’s action a “bad ruling.”

Staiert said she was having a hard time understanding what appeared to her as conflicting statements and decisions in the ruling that deal with the way money in politics is enforced here.

“I think campaign finance is very complicated and … we’re getting these bad rulings that affect campaign finance statewide,” she said.

Possible link between Anadarko-operated gas well and fatal Firestone home explosion

Oil and gas giant Anadarko has shut down some 3,000 wells in northern Colorado in the aftermath of the fatal explosion of a home some 200 feet from one of its old wells.

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Despite suggestions that plumbing work may have led to last week’s fatal house explosion in Firestone, it looks as though a leak related to a nearby gas well may have been the cause.

In a statement this afternoon, oil and gas giant Anadarko acknowledged that it operates a vertical well that’s about 200 feet from the newly built house on Twilight Avenue that exploded April 17, killing brothers-in-law Mark Martinez and Joseph William Irwin III, both 42, and severely injuring Erin Martinez, Mark’s wife. A GoFundMe page has been created for the family.

The Frederick-Firestone Fire Protection District and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) are investigating the cause of the blast.

A source has told The Independent that personnel and trucks bearing Anadarko’s logo responded soon after the explosion, and that company personnel at and near the scene over the following days came in unmarked vehicles and clothes. They were apparently paying special attention to a feeder line that may have been severed near the home.

Anadarko spokesman John Christiansen wouldn’t respond to that report, nor to questions on other aspects of his company’s possible involvement.

“There’s a lot that we don’t know and I’m not going to comment other than what’s in the press release,” said Christensen, who’s based in Texas but is in Colorado this week.

Mark and Erin Martinez.

Mark and Erin Martinez.

The company says the nearby vertical well was drilled in 1993 by what it noted in its statement was “a previous operator.” (Editor’s note: Oil and gas formations are accessed worldwide by drilling vertical, horizontal or multi-lateral wells.)

As a result of the explosion, Anadarko has shut down some 3,000 wells in northern Colorado in what it calls “an abundance of caution.”

Firestone is in Weld County, about 30 miles north of Denver. Housing tracts are being built in on the heavily-drilled land there.

News stories after the explosion reported that Irwin, a master plumber, was helping Mark Martinez install a hot water heater, apparently at or near the time of the explosion. The insinuation was that their work may have led to their deaths.

But that narrative sounded immediately curious to those who knew Irwin and his work, and became less plausible when Colorado’s Public Utilities Commission passed the investigation on to the COGCC, which regulates the oil and gas industry.

In a statement, the COGCC said that it has been investigating the incident since Friday, April 18. The investigation includes “directing environmental sampling and inspecting oil and gas wells in the vicinity, including an Anadarko oil and gas operation located approximately 170 feet southeast of the property, and reviewing their history.” The Commission says it is also evaluating additional steps to review activities in the region.

The 170-foot distance the COGCC cited is less than the 200-foot estimate Anadarko cited in its statement.

“While the well in the vicinity is one aspect of the investigation, this is a complex investigation and the origin and cause of the fire have not been determined,” Theodore Poszywak, Firestone’s fire chief, said in a statement that indicated his department is continuing to gather and analyze evidence to determine the cause of the blast. The department says it will release the findings to the public “without delay” when they are complete.

We will update this story when more information becomes available.

If you have information about the Firestone explosion, please email Colorado Independent editor Susan Greene at susan@coloradoindependent.com.

Tina Griego and Kelsey Ray contributed to this report.

Featured image by Dennis Herrera. 

Major transportation bill dies in Senate committee, lacking Republican support

Bill’s defeat leaves provider fee bill last major measure standing with transportation funding

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With just two weeks to go in the 2017 session, Republicans last night defeated a bill that would have gone to voters to ask for money to tackle part of the state’s $9 billion backlog of road and transit projects.

The bill’s defeat, in the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday night, leaves just one other major legislative solution on the table.

Senate President Kevin Grantham of Cañon City said last week he didn’t have the support of any of the three Republican members in the finance committee for the bill that would have asked voters for a sales tax increase. And he was right. The measure died with the three Republicans opposed and two Democrats supporting the bill.

“We need to exhaust our options before going to the voters,” said Sen. Jack Tate of Centennial. He also said he believed the situation was not as urgent as portrayed by some, pointing to information from the Colorado Department of Transportation that showed it was making progress on fixing bridges and roads with the worst problems.

The bill would have asked voters to increase the state’s sales tax from 29 cents on a $10 purchase to 34 cents on a $10 dollar purchase. That would have generated $233 million in 2017-18 and $467.5 million the following year. That money would have been used to pay for $3.5 billion in bonds to help cover some of state’s $9 billion backlog of road and transit projects statewide.

In an effort to sway Tate, who was thought to be the swing vote, Mayor Cathy Noon of Centennial brought letters and petitions from his district, and she, along with other supporters, asked that the full Senate be allowed to vote on the bill. Backers of the measure believed it would have passed the Senate with bipartisan support had it cleared the committee.

Noon warned that failure to pass the bill would allow “special interest groups” to put forward a variety of ballot initiatives, and that the better solution would be a measure fully vetted by the General Assembly. Those ballot measures, proposed by the Colorado Contractors Association and the LIbertarian-minded Independence Institute, would bypass the legislature and go straight to the voters to ask for money for transportation projects.

So far, eight ballot initiatives have been filed with the Secretary of State, dealing with transportation funding. The six ballot measures from the contractors seek approval for hiking both sales and gas taxes in order to fund transportation. The Institute’s two measures do not seek tax increases, instead requiring the state to use the annual funds used to pay for a 2000 transportation bonding measure approved by voters. Those bonds have now been paid off, but future dollars were to be dedicated to maintaining those projects.

Finance committee member Sen. Lois Court, a Denver Democrat, said she was “beyond frustrated” with the bill’s defeat. She applauded the sponsors, Grantham and Republican Sen. Randy Baumgardner of Hot Sulphur Springs, for going out on a limb with the measure. “They have come to the conclusion…that this is the best solution to this problem with two weeks left in the session. We don’t have time to find another solution that has been as thoroughly vetted. Why we would think there is another magic solution out there that these gentlemen have not considered, is beyond me.”

Pete Maysmith of Conservation Colorado, which had backed the measure, also expressed frustration, pointing out the voter-approved Taxpayer Bill of Rights allows voters to choose whether to raise taxes and the three Republicans on the committee stood in the way of that choice. 

“Coloradans from across the state weighed in and said they wanted a way to fix our roads and bridges, build safer sidewalks and routes to schools, and  invest in infrastructure to move people, not just cars.”

But others said they believed voters would have rejected the measure, including Sandra Hagen Solin of Fix Colorado Roads. Her group, a coalition of business groups, was officially neutral on the bill Tuesday. But Solin said the group believed the measure had “vulnerabilities that would have made it difficult for voters” to approve, mostly that the measure doesn’t provide enough money for the major interstates in Colorado and that the sales tax increase sought may be too large. “This measure would make promises to the voters that it can’t keep,” she told the committee.

There are still a couple of bills seeking to fix the state’s transportation funding problems, but none are likely to gain enough support in one chamber or the other to pass.

Lawmakers do have one other, albeit smaller, transportation solution available: the bill to reclassify the hospital provider fee. The measure, titled Sustainability of Rural Colorado, is an omnibus bill that covers transportation, hospital and rural schools funding, and money for capital construction in higher education.

The provider fee is a funding mechanism for Colorado hospitals. The hospitals pay a fee to the state based on the number of overnight patient stays and outpatient services. The dollars are then matched by federal funds and redistributed to hospitals providing healthcare to low-income Coloradans. Under the bill, the provider fee would be reclassified to a government-owned business and that stream of money would not longer be counted against the state’s revenue limit. Without reclassification, the fee pushes the state over its revenue limit, triggering tax refunds.

The transportation piece of the bill allows the state to enter into lease-purchase arrangements in order to pay for about $1.35 billion in projects, with 25 percent of that total dedicated to counties with populations of 50,000 or fewer. A lease-purchase allows the state to sell off buildings and then lease them back, using the proceeds for other purposes.

Republicans generally have been opposed to reclassifying the fee, seeing it as a dodge around the state’s constitutionally set revenue limits. But some have been willing to entertain the idea — as long as those limits are lowered once the fee is reclassified. The effect would be to keep a continually tight leash on state spending.

The bill originally suggested lowering the limit by $670 million, roughly the same amount that would be reclassified if the fee becomes a government-owned business. That was a non-starter with Democrats. Negotiations in recent weeks have focused on finding a number both sides of the aisle can stomach. Sources have told the Colorado Independent that negotiations also could include additional dollars for transportation, but much will depend on whether that could win enough support from lawmakers in both chambers.

The provider fee bill is scheduled to be heard in the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday.

Photo credit: TheKarenD, creative commons license, Flickr

The Home Front: One condo in Colorado’s Steamboat Springs is selling for $1,446 per square foot

Your morning roundup of stories from the front pages of newspapers across Colorado

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A condo in Steamboat Springs sells for $1,446 per square foot, reports The Steamboat Pilot & Today.

“The opening public salvo in a potential 2018 Greeley ballot question came Tuesday in the form of a city council work session presentation identifying more than $550 million in capital construction projects and other costs during the next 20 years,” reports The Greeley Tribune. “City staff plans for months of resident input, but the ultimate goal for city officials is to renew quality of life and public safety sales taxes first passed in the early 2000s. Those taxes, totaling 0.46 percent, don’t expire until 2022 and 2024, respectively, but the city can ask voters to renew the taxes any time between now and then.”

“Longmont’s City Council gave initial approval Tuesday night to an ordinance that would prohibit people from standing or sitting on medians where local officials have adjudged it to be unsafe,” reports The Longmont Times-Call. “The vote was unanimous, and the council did not discuss the proposal. The ban — if it gets final council approval after a public hearing and final council action scheduled for May 9 — would amend Title 11 of the Longmont Municipal Code’s provisions about traffic medians to add a new chapter about ‘Pedestrian Access to Medians.’ Violators convicted of the offense could be ordered to pay a fine of up to $500, or to serve up to 90 days in jail, or both.”

“President Donald J. Trump’s review of national monument designations since 1996 amounts to an attack on monuments in general, say conservation groups,” reports The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel. “The executive order affecting monuments of 100,000 acres or more was to be issued today and in Colorado could affect the Canyons of the Ancients in southwest Colorado. Two other recent designations, Chimney Rock near Pagosa Springs, and Browns Canyon, near Salida and Buena Vista, are smaller than 100,000 acres, so they are not included in Trump’s order.”

“The Republican-backed plan to require Colorado counties to cooperate with tougher immigration enforcement policies from President Donald Trump’s administration passed out of the state Senate on a 18-17 party-line vote Tuesday,” reports The Pueblo Chieftain. “Senate Bill 281 would let the federal Department of Homeland Security designate whether a state or county was offering “sanctuary” to undocumented immigrants — triggering a cutoff in federal and state funding. The bill now heads to the Democratic-majority House where it could be killed because Democrats passed a measure earlier this session to push back against the Trump administration’s focus on ‘sanctuary’ communities.”

The Coloradoan in Fort Collins asks why more police officers don’t care the life-saving overdose spray Narcan in the midst of an opioid epidemic.

“Former Johnstown doctor and surgeon Kenneth Pettine pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor drug charges on Tuesday and was sentenced to five years of probation plus 200 hours of community service,” reports The Loveland Reporter-Herald. “Pettine, 63, originally faced felony allegations that he obtained drugs fraudulently by forging other doctors’ signatures on false prescriptions. He was arrested in June 2016 after the Denver office of the Drug Enforcement Administration opened an investigation on suspicion of prescription fraud against Pettine dating from January 2013 to spring of last year. Pettine agreed with the Colorado Medical Board to cease practicing medicine in May 2016, documents show, and will be unable to resume practicing medicine in Colorado or any other state as part of the criminal convictions.”

“The Boulder City Council on Tuesday night voiced support for increasing the wages of seasonal and other ‘nonstandard’ city employees,” reports The Boulder Daily Camera. “Last summer, the council gave direction that the minimum wage for all full-time, part-time and temporary city employees should be bumped to $15.67. Not included among those workers are people performing “nonstandard” roles for Boulder, such as junior park rangers, camp counselors and those generally hired on seasonal or demand-based terms. During Tuesday night’s study session, the council stopped short of moving these roughly 700 employees up to the $15.67 floor applied to other employees. Doing so would add about $2 million to the city’s budget — nearly eight times the amount Boulder will spend by the end of 2017 to bring all “standard” employees up to the new minimum wage.”

“There’s good news in a study of weekend travel patterns on Interstate 70 from the Denver area to mountain resorts. There’s worrying news, too,” reports Vail Daily. “The I-70 Coalition — a nonprofit group of governments and business interests along the three-county mountain corridor — commissioned a study of highway users in February and March of this year. The study firm, Boulder-based RRC Associates, surveyed highway users at the “dinosaur” park-and-ride parking lots on the west end of the Denver metropolitan area. The study — a continuation of similar research done in 2012 and 2014 — showed efforts to cut congestion are paying some dividends.”

“Harrison K-8 School Principal John Pavlicek was put on paid administrative leave Tuesday morning by the Cañon City School District, hours after the school board voted not to renew his contract,” reports The Cañon City Daily Record. “Superintendent George Welsh said the decision was made based on legal advice the district received after Monday’s school board meeting, where a crowd of Pavlicek’s supporters shouted questions and chants at board members. “Mr. Pavlicek has been placed on paid administrative leave for the remainder of the school year,” Welsh wrote in an email, the paper reported. “This was based on a recommendation by legal advisors, taking into consideration the emotion that surrounded the recent decision on his contract.”

“Denver Police Chief Robert White on Tuesday said federal immigration agents have become ‘more assertive’ since the Trump administration took office and that more Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents have been seen on the city’s streets,” reports The Denver Post. “Still, White assured about 60 residents concerned about hard-line immigration enforcement that his department was not out to detain people living in the country illegally unless they have committed a crime. Then, they would be treated like any other criminal, he said. ‘We can’t police ICE, and ICE can’t police us,” White said. “We’ve made it clear we’re not in the business of doing ICE’s work.'”

“In their first regular meeting, the new Colorado Springs City Council unanimously approved a land swap that members see as a kick-start to revitalize southwest downtown,” reports The Gazette in Colorado Springs. “Council members and downtown boosters were jubilant after the 8-0 vote. Councilman Bill Murray had an excused absence. “I think we came up with a great plan here that’s going to make a big difference for our community,” said Council President Richard Skorman. Skorman, jokingly calling himself “an instigator,” served on the council in 2001 when downtown’s southwest quadrant was designated an urban renewal area. But, he noted, America the Beautiful Park had been the only result since.”

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Donald Trump’s tax plan, set to be revealed today, significantly cuts tax rates for corporations and also for businesses just like Trump’s. What the plan doesn’t include, according to The New York Times, is Paul Ryan’s border adjustment tax, which would have raised revenues to offset the tax cuts.

The White House has reached an agreement with the conservative House Freedom Caucus on an even more conservative healthcare plan. But it remains unclear whether that means there are enough votes to get the plan through the House, much less the Senate. Via The Washington Post.

Once again, writes The New York Times, Trump’s own words have led to a judge ruling against the president — this time on the executive order to withhold funding from so-called sanctuary cities. Here’s The National Review’s take on the judge’s ruling: A mostly meaningless ruling on a mostly meaningless executive order.

The real lesson in Trump’s decision to back down from the government shutdown showdown with Congress on the border wall may be as simple as this: He’s just not a very good negotiator. Via The New Yorker.

Why is Trump starting a trade war with Canada? The question is easier to answer than you might think. Because it’s a trade war he can win. Via Politico.

Trump’s “America First” policy could well mean an end to foreign aid as we know it. The proposed budget, writes Foreign Policy, would direct funds that are traditionally assigned to development assistance going instead to national security.

Ann Coulter is headed to UC-Berkeley whether, she says, she is invited or not. And when she gets there, she may be speaking at Sproul Plaza, home of the Free Speech Movement in the 1960s. Via The Los Angeles Times.

Barack Obama has accepted a $400,000 Wall Street speaking gig, which Matt Yglesias writes in Vox, would make him just one more politician cashing in. Is that really what Obama wants to be in his post-presidency? Yglesias says Obama should give the money to a good cause.

Breitbart News is unable convince a press committee to give the conservative news site permanent credentials to cover Congress. It seems the denial may have something to do with Breitbart’s connection to, yes, Steve Bannon. Via The Atlantic.

The problem with the march for science, says one scientist, is that most pro-science supporters don’t really know what they’re supporting. Via Slate.

Photo by Michael Fleshman via Flickr: Creative Commons

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In places along the South Platte River, people are suffering from too much water.  Basements are flooding, sewage systems are being damaged, and the rising water is destroying farmers’ fields. A report from H2O radio: http://h2oradio.org/SouthPlatte_Highwater.html

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In July 2012, Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, citing his Christian beliefs. The couple filed a discrimination complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which ruled in their favor. Phillips appealed to the state Supreme Court and lost, and the appeal is now awaiting a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court on whether to review the appeal.

In response, a proposed law was introduced in the current legislative session by Sen. Kevin Lundberg of Berthoud, a frequent sponsor of conservative “message” bills. He asked the Senate to approve his measure to “clarify” the difference between state laws on discrimination and the right to disagree with the law as it applies to businesses that offer services to the public.

“Message” bills are those that lawmakers carry that have almost no chance of passage in the other chamber but convey an ideological message to that lawmaker’s base of support.

The bill cleared the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, a group that includes some of the more conservative members of the Senate.

It was another matter when it got to the Senate floor. Democrats railed loudly against the bill, claiming it would create a license to discriminate.

Quietly listening to the debate, the Senate’s “Mod (as in ‘moderate’) Squad”: senators who don’t always vote along party lines. The bill failed on a 17-17 tie vote (18 is needed to pass) with 14 Democrats voting “no,” joined by three Republicans.

In 2017, the bloc of Republican centrists grew from its steady two (Sens. Beth Martinez-Humenik of Thornton and Larry Crowder of Alamosa) to five or even six.

Crowder has been notable for his support for a bill reclassifying the hospital provider fee, a favorite of Democrats in 2016. He’s expected to be a “yes” vote on the 2017 version, if and when it reaches the Senate floor. Martinez-Humenik was the deciding “no” vote on an anti-abortion bill in 2015 in a Senate health committee. She’s still on that committee this year, as is Crowder, and coincidentally, some of the bills that might have gone through that committee have ended up elsewhere, such as the bill to repeal the Colorado health benefits exchange and an anti-abortion bill, similar to the one killed in 2015.

Martinez-Humenik represents a swing district in Adams County where unaffiliated voters outnumber Democrats by almost 6,000 and outnumber Republicans by more than 10,000 voters. She’s up for reelection in 2018, in a district that likes either moderate Republicans or moderate-to-conservative Democrats, who had represented the district for the previous 20 years.

Joining the Republican centrists this year: two rural Republicans, Sens. Don Coram of Montrose and Kevin Priola of Henderson. Capitol observers also point to Sen. Jack Tate of Centennial as a centrist, depending on the issue.

Other bills that bit the dust in this session with “no” votes from the Mod Squad:

• The bill to allow businesses to withhold services from customers based on views they don’t agree with: Coram, Tate and Martinez-Humenik voted with the Democrats to kill the measure on a procedural vote.

• An anti-abortion bill that would have required a one-day’s delay for the procedure so that doctors could provide information on abortion risks, including information that isn’t scientifically-based. Voting against on the Senate floor: Coram and Martinez-Humenik.

A bill that opponents characterized as an “anti-Sharia” measure died in the Senate Judiciary Committee, with Coram casting the deciding “no” vote.

• A measure that would have allowed parents to write a letter to their children’s school when opting them out of immunizations, instead of using a state form, died on a procedural vote in the state Senate last week, with Martinez-Humenik voting with the Democrats.

It’s a marked difference from the 2015 and 2016 sessions when the Colorado General Assembly was rated the most polarized in the country, based on lawmakers’ ideology.

Senate President Kevin Grantham of Cañon City says he doesn’t see anything different from the last two years. Any shift, he says, is coming from prior Democratic Senate presidents who “locked down” the caucus on certain issues.

“The shift for me, we allow our members to vote their conscience, their position,” said Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert of Parker. “It’s been my view since I came here in 2011. You answer to your constituents.”

The Senate is considered to be the more thoughtful and deliberate body, and one usually more suited to compromise than the House. But that changed in 2013 when Democrats, who controlled both the House and Senate, pushed through a slate of gun control laws and a renewable energy law considered unfriendly to rural Colorado.

The summer after the 2013 session, Republican activists launched recall efforts that led to the removal of two Senate Democrats, including the Senate President. A third Democratic senator resigned rather than face a recall.

In the 2014 elections, the chamber switched from majority Democrat to an 18-17 Republican advantage. With the House controlled by Democrats, it meant that to get anything done, lawmakers had to compromise and they were in no mood to do so on some of the state’s biggest issues: transportation, hospital provider fee and the budget. Sen. Vicki Marble of Fort Collins named the eight most conservative Republican lawmakers in the caucus as “the Hateful, Dissident Eight.”

Seven of the “Hateful Eight” are still in the Senate, but some of the bills they have put up this year aren’t even making it out of the Senate, due to the slim one-seat majority Republicans hold and Republican lawmakers whose views lean toward the center on some issues.

On the other side of the aisle, Republicans have long been able to count on at least one Democratic vote on business issues, from Sen. Cheri Jahn of Wheat Ridge. This year, she’s joined by Sen. Angela Williams of Denver, a pro-business Democrat. Also joining to support Republican business measures: Sen. Rhonda Fields of Aurora. All three voted in favor of the Senate Republican’s top priority bill for 2017, which sought fiscal relief from state rules for small businesses. The bill later died in the House.

Another bill where Republicans have picked up Democratic votes in the Senate: repealing the state’s 2013 limit on the size of ammunition magazines. While it was destined to fail in the House, three Democrats (Jahn, Sen. Leroy Garcia of Pueblo and Sen. Kerry Donovan of Vail), joined with Senate Republicans and the measure passed 21-13 with one absent.

The centrists also have helped move bills that wouldn’t normally pass a more conservative Senate, including a measure adding physical or mental disability and sexual orientation to the categories in the state’s bias-motivated harassment statute. The bill passed the Senate on April 11 and is headed to the governor for signing. Coram and Democratic Sen. Dominick Moreno of Commerce City carried the measure in the Senate. Among the other four Republicans who voted for it: Crowder, Tate, Martinez-Humenik and Priola.

Coram’s votes stand out, to the point where some have referred to him (some as a compliment, others not so much) as the 18th Democrat. But Coram says his votes reflect his Senate district, which includes more moderate locales like La Plata County and its largest city, Durango. This is Coram’s first year in the Senate, after serving three terms in a more conservative House district.

The senior Republican of the Mod Squad is Crowder, who handily won reelection last November and whose district is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, with unaffiliated voters a distant third.

Crowder makes no apologies for his moderate votes. “I’m an issues guy,” he said. “We’ve had some people come over from the House, from rural Colorado, who see things a little differently (referring to Priola and Coram). It’s incumbent on us to vote on the issue rather than on ideology” and represent the people of the district.

Jahn also acknowledged that there are more centrists on the Republican side of the Senate, but indicated that there may be a price to pay for those centrist votes: seeing their bills sent to unfriendly committees, such as the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, aka the “kill committee,” for example.

Williams said what’s on the minds of lawmakers is the 2018 election, but “we are more focused, as much as we can be with opposite ideologies, on policies. I’m really enjoying that, voting on policy and I think the Republicans do the same. We can walk across the aisle, have the conversation,” and she said she sees the environment as being “not so partisan.”

 

Photo credit: Jeffrey Beall, Creative Commons, Flickr. 

Colorado secretary of state on 2016 Electoral College vote: ‘They’re investigating’

“I think it’s going to come down to whether the state law is valid,” one lawyer says

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“They’re investigating.”

That’s what Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams said this week about the state attorney general’s office and a probe into what happened during Colorado’s Electoral College vote last year— four months after it took place. 

On Dec. 19, 2016, during a traditional ceremony where the state’s nine national electors cast their official votes for president, one of them, Micheal Baca, did not cast his for Colorado’s popular vote-getter Hillary Clinton, and was stripped of his duties and replaced. 

Four of Colorado’s nine electors— all of them Democrats— made headlines after Donald Trump’s election when they joined a national movement called the Hamilton Electors. The effort aimed to thwart Trump’s path to the White House through the Electoral College. The plan was to get enough electors nationwide to band together and vote for an alternate candidate— someone like Ohio Gov. John Kasich— and keep Trump from taking office.

To do so would would mean electors in 29 states would have had to violate state laws that require electors to vote for whichever candidate won their state’s popular vote. In Colorado that meant Clinton.

Related: The Electoral College plan to stop Trump explained

When the time of the vote came during a ceremony at the capitol in Denver, one elector, Micheal Baca, voted for Kasich instead of Clinton. Doing so made Baca the first elector in Colorado history to vote for someone who did not win the state’s popular vote. Secretary Williams immediately stripped Baca of his duties and Baca was replaced with another elector who cast a vote for Clinton.

Days later, Williams asked Republican Attorney General Cynthia Coffman’s office to investigate Baca.

“We had an individual who took a specific oath and then immediately violated the oath,” Williams said in an interview this week with The Colorado Independent. “And so I think we want the AG to investigate both the refusal to do our statutory duty and also the violation of the oath.”

Since December things have been quiet for the electors. They each went back to their normal lives after more than a month in the national spotlight.

In recent weeks, however, a state investigator has called at least three of them saying he is looking into what happened. The investigator declined to talk about it with The Independent, referring questions to the AG’s spokesperson. AG spokeswoman Annie Skinner declined to comment.

Related: Why is a state investigator sniffing around Colorado’s Electoral College vote?

“They’ve asked us some questions,” Williams said about the attorney general’s probe. He said his office has compiled data and provided copies of documents, but he didn’t elaborate about what they were.

“I think first and foremost Coloradans need to be able to trust that the people they elect are going to do their job,” Williams said when asked what he hopes comes of the probe. “People need to have the confidence that people aren’t going to lie and try to throw away their vote and discard the vote of 2.9 million Coloradans. So what I hope happens is, as with most sanctions, that it deters other people from trying to thwart the will of the people of Colorado.”

Micheal Baca declined to comment. His attorney, Mark Grueskin, did not immediately respond to a voicemail message.

State laws requiring national electors to vote for the presidential candidate who wins their state’s popular vote started popping up around the 1950s. Since then no one has been criminally prosecuted for violating such laws.

Three presidential electors in Washington State became so-called “faithless electors” when they chose to vote for someone other than Clinton. A judge last month upheld fines— $1,000 each— against them for doing so.

Before the Electoral College vote, filmmaker Michael Moore said he would pay the fines for electors who went rogue.

What could happen to Baca if the attorney general pursues charges against him is unclear.

“I think it’s going to come down to whether the state law is valid,” says Jason Wesoky, a Colorado attorney who is part of a legal group called Hamilton Defenders. In other words: Baca might not have voted for Clinton on Dec. 19 as state law required, but what if that state law was unconstitutional?

Wesoky was the lawyer who argued on behalf of two other Colorado electors, Colorado Springs Math teacher Bob Nemanich and former Denver lawmaker Polly Baca (no relation to Micheal), who sued Colorado in federal court saying the state law was unconstitutional.

That lawsuit is still pending.

State law allows Colorado to replace electors who go rogue, Wesoky says, but the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals has indicated it is unlikely Colorado could remove an elector after voting already began.

“The Constitution is pretty darn clear it is Congress that counts the votes, not Secretary Williams,” Wesoky says.

Bottom line: The saga of Colorado’s Hamilton Electors might not be over.

 

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The first step toward creating a level playing field for mineral rights owners won a preliminary okay from the House Tuesday, but faces an uncertain future should it reach the state Senate.

It’s called “forced pooling.”

Related: Forced pooling is not mandatory swim practice

It works like this: an oil and gas company decides to drill for oil and gas in a large area that may be owned by multiple landowners, such as near a housing subdivision with hundreds of homes. The operator obtains consent to lease those resources from one of the landowners, but maybe the rest say no. So the operator goes to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), which can then order the landowners to accept the lease, with compensation.

Democratic Rep. Mike Foote of Longmont calls forced pooling a form of corporate eminent domain. It’s happened to thousands of mineral rights owners over the years. Exactly how many is unknown; even the COGCC doesn’t keep track once they issue the order, Foote said.

In 2016, the COGCC granted 227 forced pooling orders, with each order covering hundreds of mineral rights owners. “These are mineral rights owners who are forced to lease their rights,” when they might prefer to hold out for a better deal or sell out at a later time. If they’re forced pooled, they’re forced to lease, Foote explained.

In the Wildgrass subdivision near Broomfield, 12 homeowners said okay. The rest of the subdivision homeowners, another 488, objected. No matter. The rest were forced pooled.

Under a bill sponsored by Foote and fellow Democratic Rep. Dave Young of Greeley, homeowners subject to forced pooling must receive a 90-day notice, rather than the 35-day notice currently required by law. The bill originally also sought to require a majority of mineral rights owners to agree to the lease, rather than just one. That’s similar to what other states require.

But under pressure from the oil and gas industry, Foote and Young agreed to amend the bill to go back to the original law on consent; instead of a majority, even if just one person agrees to the lease, the rest of the mineral rights owners can be forced to accept the leases.

Attorney Matt Sura has represented more than 600 homeowners threatened by forced pooling near Windsor. “No one disputes the need for forced pooling,” Sura told the House Transportation and Energy Committee last week. One holdout who refuses to sign the lease shouldn’t hold up the process. “But the process is being abused,” he said,and  “used as a negotiation tactic to force people into leases or to cut out the competition that could allow for a better lease and better compensation.”

The rules are written in favor of the oil and gas companies, Sura said. And on behalf of the 600 mineral rights owners near Windsor, Sura was able to negotiate a better deal.  

The bill, not surprisingly, drew strong opposition from the oil and gas industry. Ken Wonstolen, senior vice president for the Bill Barrett Corporation, refuted Foote’s claim that forced pooling is a form of eminent domain. Title to the minerals remains with the homeowner, he said. Once all the costs are recovered from a drilling operation, the rights revert back to the homeowner, he said.

Those in support of the bill claim the payouts are minimal and they fear damage to their homes from contaminated water, or even earthquakes from drilling activity beneath their homes.

Two neighborhoods, one in Broomfield and the other near Windsor, took center stage during the hearing. Ann Byers of Broomfield disputed claims by the industry that they want to keep the balance in the process, but that doesn’t exist, Byers indicated. Her neighborhood, in the Wildgrass subdivision, got one of the industry letters and was told to sign it within 15 days or be forced pooled. The mineral rights owners are also forced to accept liability for the well, in exchange for $500 and 15 percent of the profits. That comes out to about $6000 in the life of the lease, she said. “This is not Jed Clampett money and it’s not fair. We’re supposed to have due process.”

Kathy Mendt of Windsor explained that the legalese in the documents sent to homeowners defies ordinary understanding. Only after her neighborhood contacted an attorney was it clear what they were up against. She told the committee that “not all oil actors are good actors. We should have time to understand what we’re signing and what we’re signing away.”

During today’s House debate on the measure, Rep. Jon Becker of Fort Morgan pointed out that mineral rights owners should not be denied their right to sell their rights, an argument opposite to one advanced by the bill’s supporters, which is that mineral rights owners should not be forced to sell their rights.

The measure passed on a voice vote and will up for a final House vote Wednesday.
Photo credit: WildEarth Guardians, Creative Commons license, Flickr

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