Business interests score victories at Legislature

Dem leader impressed with GOP's Rep. Waller
The Colorado Statesman

The business community scored a couple of key victories this week at the Capitol after House Republicans successfully pushed through legislation that would allow businesses to comment on the fiscal impact of proposed bills, and then killed legislation that would have criminalized the practice of so-called “wage theft.”

It was House Bill 1115, sponsored by Rep. Larry Liston, R-Colorado Springs, that most captured the attention of the business world this week. The legislation would create a 10-day period for business owners to submit comments and input regarding the fiscal impact proposed legislation would have on their businesses and industries. Legislative Council would then be required to take the comments and include them in preparing a fiscal impact statement for the bill. Only comments from the first 50 submitters would be included.

Over objections that House Republicans are “putting the thumb on the scale” for business over all other interest groups in Colorado, the bill still made its way through the Republican-controlled House on Tuesday by a primarily Republican party-line vote of 41-22.

Liston attempted to diffuse criticism over excluding certain interest groups by including unions in collective-bargaining agreements. But Democrats hammered Republicans during preliminary debate of HB 1115 on Monday, arguing that the bill would tilt the balance of input in developing legislation.

“The issue we have on our side of the aisle is that if we are going to ask people to comment on business fiscal impacts, well, it’s not just businesses that are impacted by that business fiscal impact. There are a lot of different organizations that are impacted and we should allow everyone to have a chance to have a seat at the table and let their voice be heard,” House Minority Leader Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, said during floor remarks. “If it’s good enough for businesses, it’s good enough for labor organizations, environmental advocates, poverty reduction advocates, and even just the general public.”

“If we think businesses are people, then people should be people, too,” added Ferrandino.

The minority leader and other House Democrats, including Rep. Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, pushed an amendment that would have required Legislative Council to also accept comments from labor organizations, environmental advocates, economic opportunity groups, poverty reduction advocates and individuals. But Republicans killed that amendment.

Duran said she is concerned that poverty reduction, especially the needs of poor children and families, would be overlooked in creating the fiscal impact statements.

“Why not, when we’re reviewing legislation, why don’t we take those children into consideration? Why don’t we take into consideration the shrinking middle class in this country? Or the need for economic opportunity for all?” she asked.

Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, said the language of the legislation is unfair to begin with, noting that only the first 50 submitters would be included.

“We’re going to have this race to the fiscal note process here… it’s almost like a lottery,” she said.

Phil Hayes, political director for the Colorado AFL-CIO, agreed that HB 1115 excludes critical interest groups. He believes the legislation “plays favorites,” noting that some stakeholders may have ample time to comment on a bill, while others would have only 10 days. As an example, he offered Xcel Energy, pointing out that if Xcel worked on legislation with a lawmaker in the interim, then other stakeholders would only have 10 days to offer their input, while Xcel would have had months.

“That’s completely tilting the balance for one interest group over the others,” said Hayes. “It puts the thumb on the scale for one interest group over other interests.”

Liston shrugged off the criticism, arguing that if other interest groups want similar input, then they should seek their own legislation.

“We discussed this in committee and it really is not necessary,” he said during floor remarks. “I have nothing against if other organizations — be it environmental groups or others — want to run their own bill. But by design, we are keeping this narrow and focused.”

Rep. Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, attempted to appease Democrats by offering a substitute to the Democrats’ amendment that would have authorized Legislative Council to take input on a variety of interest topics. He told Democrats, “I’ve heard you. I’ve heard what you have to say, and that is that these groups need to have input into this process.” But his party ultimately rejected the amendment.

Still, Ferrandino was impressed by Waller’s effort, suggesting, “This is an example of where you can actually work together… sometimes Rep. Waller does something good.”

Some within Ferrandino’s own caucus split with their party, siding with Republicans on HB 1115. Democratic Reps. Millie Hamner of Frisco, Pete Lee of Colorado Springs, Wes McKinley of Walsh, Joe Miklosi of Denver, Sal Pace of Pueblo, Sue Schafer of Wheat Ridge, Max Tyler of Golden and Dave Young of Golden all backed HB 1115.

McKinley and Schafer have often sided with the GOP on fiscal and business issues. But many of the other Democrats who backed the legislation are facing tough legislative races this year, and Miklosi and Pace are waging battles for congressional district races.

Pace laughed when asked whether his vote reflected concerns over his race in Congressional District 3 against conservative incumbent U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Cortez.

“Oh, am I [running for Congress?]” he joked.

“Look, everyone in the Legislature got elected to get there, but at the end of the day, I think good legislating is good politics,” Pace continued. “I’m not trying to do anything differently than I would do if I was running for re-election for the Statehouse.”

Wage Theft

What the business community did not find to be “good legislating” was an effort to criminalize the practice of wage theft, or not paying workers the wages they are promised. Employers cheered as the House Judiciary Committee killed House Bill 1296, sponsored by freshman Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Boulder, on Tuesday on a Republican party-line vote of 6-5.

Singer, a 32-year-old social worker, filled a vacant seat left this year by Deb Gardner after she resigned from the Legislature to become a Boulder County commissioner. Drawing upon his work as a social worker, Singer pointed to the troubles low-wage workers sometimes experience in trying to collect the wages that are promised to them.

“The majority of folks dealing with this are low-wage income earners who don’t have the resources, the time, the money, or the effort to represent themselves at civil court,” he said.

Civil penalties currently exist for non-payment of wages, but HB 1296 sought to criminalize the process, with up to 12 years in prison for the most serious offenders. The bill included an exemption for companies that are facing financial difficulties such as bankruptcy.

Singer said the civil penalties aren’t enough to deter “bad apple” employers from taking advantage of low-wage workers. With the support of several unions, trial attorneys and religious leaders, Singer said only the threat of prison time would control the practice.

“Theft is theft is theft,” Singer advised the Judiciary Committee. “If you’re stealing someone’s car, that is theft. If you’re taking away someone’s livelihood, that is, in my opinion, in a lot of ways even worse.”

But Rep. Brian DelGrosso, R-Loveland, a member of the Judiciary Committee, spoke up on behalf of employers and the majority ruling Republican opinion, noting that in his experience as a franchise owner, there are already several protections in place to ensure that workers are being paid their fair share. He pointed out that in addition to civil penalties, employers are also faced with regulatory oversight by the Department of Labor and Employment.

“They already take paying employees very seriously,” said DelGrosso. “So, I guess I’m trying to figure out how adding this extra felony charge, this charge that’s high enough so that you commit some kind of murder or rape, how’s that going to solve this problem?”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com