Ritter blamed for labor vs. business ballot standoff

By John Schroyer
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

State Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma, blamed Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter for the ongoing fight between labor unions and business leaders over several contentious ballot measures.

Gardner described the standoff as a “circular firing squad” at a Sept. 19 luncheon gathering sponsored by the Colorado Republican Business Coalition at Dave and Buster’s in Denver.

“There’s one person to blame here, and that is Bill Ritter,” Gardner said.

Although Ritter vetoed a controversial pro-union bill after it was fast-tracked through the Legislature in early 2007, Gardner said Ritter was at fault because of two executive orders he issued last year. The first repealed an order issued by his predecessor, Republican Gov. Bill Owens, banning automatic deductions from the paychecks of state employees for special interests, including labor unions. The second allowed unions to negotiate on behalf of state workers.

As a result, Gardner said, both pro- and anti-union groups pushed to get their causes onto the ballot, and voters will have to demystify the seven ballot measures on the November ballot that either support or attack either labor or management.

Gardner said all four union-backed measures are job killers.

“Businesses are not going to be in Colorado if any of these pass,” Gardner said. “Every single one of these measures will cost jobs.”

Calling the quartet a batch of “poison pills,” Gardner railed against Amendments 53, 55, 56 and 57, which, collectively, would increase penalties on corporate executives who commit fraud, require “just cause” before any employee can be terminated, require any employer with 20 or more workers to pay health benefits and make it mandatory for businesses to provide a “safe workplace.”

Those new burdens, Gardner said, would not only derail plans of out-of-state businesses to relocate here, but also would motivate current businesses to close up shop and leave Colorado, perhaps for Wyoming or another surrounding state.

For example, Gardner said Amendment 56, the health-benefit requirement, would cost the average restaurateur an added $9,000 annually per employee. One possibility, he said, is that small business owners will choose between growing their businesses or fracturing them into several companies in order to stay below the 20-employee threshold.

“That’s a choice that Colorado should never have to face,” he said.

Gardner also predicted that Amendment 57, the safe-workplace requirement, would “be the end of the housing industry in Colorado” because it would naturally shoot workman’s compensation costs through the roof.

Although the governor, along with several other high-placed business leaders and politicians, has been trying to broker a truce between labor and business, Gardner said Ritter simply doesn’t have any credibility in the GOP because “he fired the first shot” with his pair of executive orders.

Ritter’s spokesman, Evan Dreyer, responded on Monday, calling Gardner’s finger-pointing “typical partisan rhetoric.”

“It’s a sincere, genuine effort on the part of many, many, many people, and if Cory wanted to spend some real energy and some real time trying to help the state, he could devote some energy to that instead of lobbing rocks,” Dreyer said.

For many at the luncheon, however, Gardner’s warnings hit home.

When asked whether her organization would consider opposing Amendment 47, the right-to-work measure, in return for the four union measures being pulled from the ballot, CRBC Chair Christine Burtt said, “If we had some level of trust that the other side would follow through on such a deal, we’d certainly consider it, but the governor has given us no reason to think he’ll follow through.”

She added, “When the governor is on the air saying, ‘Say no to these poison pills,’ then we’ll listen.”

But Kim Haarbeerg, the owner of construction firm AARS, said he would support such a deal.

“Not having Amendment 47 would be much less devastating than having those four,” Haarbeerg said.

He added that if any of the four passed, he would seriously consider closing up shop and retiring early. He’s 51, and though he said he’s planning to continue working for several more years, the union measures probably would make that too difficult.

“It might be the early retirement program for a lot of companies,” Haarbeerg said.