Are Colorado PERA Negotiations Being Influenced by Federal Politics?

(clockwise from top): U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, State Sen. Bill Cadman, State Sen. Owen Hill

(clockwise from top):
U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, State Sen. Bill Cadman, State Sen. Owen Hill

Lynn Bartels of the Denver Post reported late yesterday on a troubling political strategy from Republicans that intertwines state and federal politics:

Intense negotiations are underway at the state Capitol to try to revive a Denver Public Schools pension bill that critics claim was killed by Republicans because of former DPS Superintendent Michael Bennet’s Senate re-election bid.

House Bill 1251 is important for DPS because it would allow the district to quit paying around $23 million more a year into the state pension fund than other school districts…

Three people with knowledge of the bill told The Denver Post that they talked about it with Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, who said national Republicans didn’t want to see a bill passed that potentially could help Bennet. Hill briefly ran for the U.S. Senate in 2014. [Pols emphasis]

Hill responded Thursday that his chief concern is that PERA is a “real ticking time bomb,” but he acknowledged people told him they had concerns about “some bad deals that were cut” when Bennet oversaw Denver schools.

Bennet’s financial dealings at DPS were an issue in his 2010 Senate primary. “Exotic Deals Put Denver Schools Deeper in Debt,” read a headline in The New York Times. Republicans have said they plan to revisit the issue on the campaign trail next year.

For his part, State Senate “PresidentBill Cadman says that he has “never” talked to the Republican Party or “anyone in Washington” about HB-1251, although it’s difficult to say how much people are really listening to Cadman anyway.

We won’t get into the policy discussion of the relative merits of HB-1251 and PERA reforms here (Colorado Pols is a political blog, after all), but the idea that Colorado legislation might be torpedoed because of how it might harm the re-election chances of a U.S. Senator is more than a little troubling. It also speaks, again, to the leadership structure surrounding Colorado Republicans. If this story proves true, it seriously calls into question how much Senate Republicans are even making their own decisions locally.

Get More Smarter on Monday (April 27)

MoreSmarter-RainToday’s forecast calls for rain, or something. It’s time to Get More Smarter with Colorado Pols. If you think we missed something important, please include the link in the comments below (here’s a good example).

 

TOP OF MIND TODAY…

Opening Statements begin today in the Aurora Theater Shooting trial, nearly three years after the attack at a late-night screening of The Dark Knight Rises. The Associated Press takes a look at what to expect over the next several weeks as attorneys attempt to deal with an “insanity” plea. Aurora Sentinel editor Dave Perry has a very thoughtful take on what is sure to be an unpleasant summer for all involved with the trial.

► The Office of Consumer Counsel is a hot topic this week in the legislature. Democrats in the House have introduced legislation to re-authorize the OCC without stripping it of authority over the telecommunications industry.

► The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee held a “field hearing” in Denver on Friday to discuss the myriad of problems associated with construction of a new VA Hospital in Aurora. Colorado Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Aurora) also attended the hearing, which came on the same day as a new report showing that Coffman hasn’t done much “oversight” despite being the Chairman of the House VA Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations.

 

Get even more smarter after the jump…

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The Office of Consumer Counsel: Sonnenberg’s Faustian Bargain

SUNDAY UPDATE: Setting up a late-session battle, majority House Democrats have introduced an alternative “clean” bill to reauthorize the Office of Consumer Counsel without stripping it of authority in telecom rate cases. The Denver Post’s Joey Bunch:

The main differences between the bills are telephones and duration before the next sunset review. Sonnenberg, the sponsor of Senate Bill 271, and other Senate Republicans say there’s no need for the Office of Consumer Counsel to ride herd over phone rates. Those are dictated by competition in the free market, after the legislature deregulated telecoms last year.

Supporters of House Bill 1381 say the office needs to keep a watch on remaining phone services and issues, such as 9-1-1 service and whether deregulation is giving customers a fair shake.

The newest OCC bill sponsored by Reps. Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo, and Faith Winter, D-Westminster, and 28 Democratic co-sponsors preserves the OCC’s telecom oversight. The Senate bill reduces the time until the next sunset review from 11 years to six. The House bill maintains it at 11.

From House Democrats’ presser:

“Extending the Office of Consumer Counsel is a no brainer,” Rep. Esgar said. “It provides critical protections for Colorado consumers and businesses to ensure that big utilities and telecom companies aren’t ripping off hardworking Coloradans to increase their profits.”

HB15-1381 will continue the counsel in its current form for another 11 years. A Senate bill, SB15-271, also extends the counsel, but only for six years and removes the counsel’s oversight over telephone providers, potentially threatening 9-1-1 services and causing unneeded rate increases.

“We know the counsel has prevented telecom rate increases in the past,” Rep. Winter said. “We shouldn’t create a loophole that threatens 9-1-1 services and will cost consumers more money.”

Stay tuned, the classic battle of consumers versus corporate lobbyists is about to resume.

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Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg.

Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg.

The Denver Post’s Joey Bunch reports on a deal in the works with Colorado Senate Republicans to prevent the Office of Consumer Counsel from sunsetting–an office important to consumer advocates to represent utility customers in rate hike proceedings.

As Bunch reports, Republicans are seeking a pound of flesh in exchange:

Consumer groups have been fretting the fate of the Office of Consumer Counsel, whose experts have helped convince the Colorado Public Utilities Commission that some of the rate increases requested by gas, power or phone providers are either more than necessary or not necessary at all.

The agency will reach its sunset on July 1, unless the legislature passes Senate Bill 271 or tries to revive the agency early in next year’s session. There’s a provision that allows the office to “wind down” for one year, but a delay would deal it a crippling blow, supporters say.

Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, is sponsoring the bill and will argue its merits before the Senate Business, Labor and Technology Committee next week. The bill could be heard and moved to the full Senate as early as Tuesday or as late as Thursday, though it’s not on the committee agenda for either day as of Thursday evening. Despite the late hour of the legislative session, Sonnenberg is confident the reauthorization will face few roadblocks on its way to the governor.

“I don’t see there’ll be much opposition,” he said. “I do understand there’s a little bit of heartburn about taking out the telecom.” [Pols emphasis]

That’s right–the “deal” being offered by GOP Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg would reauthorize the OCC for the purpose of negotiating electrical and gas service rates, but would strip the office’s authority where it concerns telecommunications services. Bunch quotes the director of the Colorado Public Interest Research Group warning that “now’s not the time to bench Colorado’s consumer advocate on telephone issues.” So why is this happening, you ask?

It’s simple: CenturyLink and the rest of Colorado’s telecom players have really good lobbyists. There’s nothing about stripping the OCC of its authority in telecom utility service negotiations that helps consumers, but with the legislative session winding down and Republicans in control of the Senate by one seat, this is in all likelihood the best deal consumers are going to get. And if you don’t like it, your alternative is to lose all of your representation before the Public Utilities Commission on rate hikes.

Such a deal, Sen. Sonnenberg.

The nation has to do better than regional standards to combat methane waste

(Promoted by Colorado Pols)

In case you missed it, and it looks like Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper may have, NASA scientists descended on the Four Corners region of the southwest to discuss the problem of natural gas waste, which is widely believed to be caused in part by venting and flaring.   

Gov. Hickenlooper deserves to be applauded for his administration’s strong commitment to tackling the wasteful methane emissions caused by resource extraction activities.  It’s great that Colorado stepped up, but his recent suggestion that the BLM shouldn’t weigh-in is misguided at best:

“I think if the states can agree, our soles are on the dirt–the soles of our boots are right on the ground. If we can agree among ourselves then I think we have a stronger case to go back to the BLM and say, “You don’t need to regulate methane emissions[.]’”

Most states with a methane waste problem aren’t doing squat and no one is coming close to what Colorado has done. In fact, Colorado and New Mexico have a big problem, as evidenced by the Delaware-sized methane cloud NASA discovered that is hovering over the Four Corners.  

Because most states haven’t been as bold as Gov. Hickenlooper’s Colorado, it’s time for strong national standards from the BLM to combat a problem that clearly crosses state borders, and the borders between federal, state, and private lands.

The BLM also has a financial obligation to the American taxpayer. Wasting methane from flaring and venting means lost tax revenue (about half of which goes to states)—and waste is something that the BLM is legally mandated to minimize. It’s clear that we need a smart, comprehensive approach to methane waste.

Fighting Overseas Tax Havens to Help Colorado’s Schools

(Promoted by Colorado Pols)

overseas

It’s gotten to the point where everyone in Colorado wants politicians to find a way, somehow, to tax the money big corporations hide to avoid paying taxes, and then to use the tax revenue from these hidden profits on education. Okay, not everyone wants this but, seriously, most of us do.

But how to do it in a way that’s got a prayer of untying the knot of legal restrictions (TABOR) and divided government?

Democrats in the state legislature may have hit on a way to get this done.

Standing inside the Capitol on the eve of Tax Day, state lawmakers unveiled legislation that would stop Colorado corporations from hiding profits in overseas tax havens, like the Cayman Islands. Closing this tax loophole would generate a tidy $150 million in tax revenue annually that would go to education.

“There are some corporations that don’t pay their taxes, like the rest of us do,” said Rep. Mike Foote at the April 14 news conference, as you can see in a Denver Business Journal video here.

“They do get a chance to use our roads, to take advantage of educated folks to work in their businesses, courts for dispute resolution and so forth. But they don’t pay for the use. It’s not fair to the state of Colorado. It’s not fair to the rest of us. And this bill will address that lack of fairness by closing loopholes that some corporations use by funneling their money offshore in order not to have to pay taxes on it.”

The bill, sponsored by Foote and Rep. Brittany Pettersen of Lakewood, would not only have to clear the legislature but also be approved by voters in November. So it has a long way to go.

But similar bills became law in Montana and Oregon, picking up bipartisan support along the way, according to the bill’s sponsors.

So you’d think a bill like this would have a chance here in Colorado, where the public is overwhelmingly in favor of such measures, according to a polls.

The Denver Post’s Joey Bunch reported that the legislation is opposed by The Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry:

“We understand the intent to eliminate the shifting of income to tax havens to avoid Colorado taxes,” said Loren Furman, CACI’s senior vice president for state and federal relations. “But, there are many instances where legitimate business is conducted in these countries, and that income may not have been subject to Colorado tax.

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Get More Smarter on Tuesday (April 14)

Forgot to do your taxes? You’ve got a good 36 hours left. It’s time to Get More Smarter with Colorado Pols. If you think we missed something important, please include the link in the comments below (here’s a good example).

 

TOP OF MIND TODAY…

► The Obama Administration says it has a plan to fund construction of the troubled VA Hospital in Aurora. Congressman Mike Coffman, the Republican Chair of the Veterans Subcommittee on Oversight, continues to bluster without taking time to suggest an actual solution.

► The State House is finished debating several more attempts to overturn gun safety laws passed in 2013. There was much debate, talking, and blustering, but in the end, nothing changed…though divisions within the Republican Party are growing, as the Colorado Springs-Gazette editorial board writes:

Forget Michael Bloomberg, Gov. John Hickenlooper and legislative Democrats for now. The bigger threat to gun rights in Colorado is Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, headed by political operative Dudley Brown.

 

Get even more smarter after the jump…

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Equal Pay Day 2015 In Colorado: We Are The Front Line

As women across America participated in Equal Pay Day 2015 commemorations, ProgressNow Colorado, the state’s largest online progressive advocacy organization, reflected on the challenges faced by Colorado women even as conservative lawmakers voted to kill our state’s Pay Equity Commission this year.

“The data is clear: in Colorado, women face greater pay inequity than the national average,” said ProgressNow Colorado executive director Amy Runyon-Harms. “In the last decade, America overall has made some progress close the pay equity gap, but in Colorado the gap has actually grown over the same period.”

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in late January that women in Colorado earn a median weekly full-time wage of $762, compared to a median weekly wage of $978 for men. Since 2002, the pay equity gap has worsened in Colorado while improving slightly nationwide. [1]

“The choice by conservative lawmakers to kill Colorado’s Pay Equity Commission makes no sense in light of the facts,” said Runyon-Harms. “Closing the pay gap between men and women would mean huge benefits for working families and Colorado’s economy as a whole. Instead of ignoring this problem, Colorado should be leading the charge to solve it. That’s why so many people, including hundreds who signed our petition in support of pay equity, were outraged by the votes this year to kill the Pay Equity Commission. And it’s why voters will hold conservatives accountable at the polls in 2016.”

In Colorado Springs, They Love Their Slumlords

SUNDAY UPDATE: Shocking video of Colorado Springs Councilwoman Helen Collins and Doug Bruce walking out of court Friday, a brief exchange that appears to end with Bruce violently ripping the camera from the hands of the questioner:

He’s not a nice man, folks. Original post follows, updates undoubtedly forthcoming.

Because that’s assault, right?

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UPDATE: The Colorado Springs Independent sheds significant light on the apparently extensive business relationship between Doug Bruce and Colorado Springs Councilwoman Helen Collins:

Evidence suggests the two are more than just political allies. According to a lawsuit filed in 4th Judicial District Court, Bruce and Collins have been working on land transactions together across the country, including in North Dakota, South Carolina, Illinois and Oklahoma, besides Collins’ 2013 acquisition of two apartment buildings in Kansas City for which tenants say Bruce has been in charge…

[T]enant Heather Dugger was scrambling to gather up her family’s belongings and get out on Monday. She said she, her husband and three young children, ages 11, 7 and 3, lived without water for about a month before the notice was posted.

“The water got shut off about a month ago,” Dugger says. “Somehow, the water was still on [at the other building] so we were going next door and filling buckets of water.”

She says she paid rent to a property manager who worked for Bruce. “He’s the one who hired the property manager,” she says, adding that Bruce was supposed to be paying for trash removal and water service and that she paid rent of $450 a month by money order made out to Douglas Bruce. She quit paying rent about three months ago, she says, because the property manager “quit coming by.”

Dugger then cut the interview short, because she was trying to load a U-Haul trailer. “There’s a lot of cuss words [for Bruce],” she says. “All the rent we paid and the water got shut off, and it’s just crazy, knowing they’re taking money away from people.” [Pols emphasis]

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collins

Today’s Colorado Springs Gazette reports on the continuing trouble City Councilwoman Helen Collins is running into with her real estate investments. This week, Collins survived a recall attempt related to a case currently before the city’s ethics commission, alleging she helped conservative activist and convicted tax cheat Douglas “Mister TABOR” Bruce avoid paying a court judgment in excess of $7,500 owed to the city of Colorado Springs. Bruce has owned a number of residential rental properties, and has frequently run afoul of the law for failure to properly maintain them.

Well, as Gazette reporter Billie Stanton Anleu writes today, Colorado Springs Councilwoman Helen Collins is a slumlord in her own right:

One of two Kansas City, Mo., apartment buildings owned by Colorado Springs City Councilwoman Helen Collins was boarded up and closed Wednesday, a city inspector there confirmed.

Repeated violations, including no water in the building for more than four months, more than $7,000 in unpaid city water bills, multiple fines and the inability to provide a local property manager, led to the closure, said Kansas City inspector Marja Nolan…

In Kansas City, residents in one of two seven-unit buildings, which Collins bought in November 2012, had gone more than four months without water, Nolan said.

Violations dating to Oct 14, 2014, cite an unprotected exterior surface; litter, trash, refuse and rubbish; unapproved storage; failure to register; lack of water; peeling, cracked, blistered paint; rank weeds or unattended growth; and limbs and brush ordered to be removed, the city’s records show.

Doug Bruce.

Doug Bruce.

The report on Collins’ apartment building in Kansas city reads like an urban decay horror story: area residents described how the building was taken over by squatters and subject to drugs raids prior to being boarded up by city officials this week.

But considering who Collins had “managing” her properties in Kansas City, it’s possible that none of this is a surprise:

[Neighborhood leader Tom] Ribera said Collins never returned his calls, but “Douglas Bruce, her acting manager, [Pols emphasis] said he was trying to get a property manager over there. … It’s beyond maintenance; they need a contractor.”

Mystery solved! If you were wondering where Helen Collins got her awesome property management skills from, you can stop wondering. She learned how to be a slumlord from Doug Bruce! Who, in addition to being the Colorado Republican Party’s patron saint of tax policy as the author of the 1992 Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR), is one of our state’s more notorious slumlords.

Perhaps the worst part of this touching story of civic pride and urban renewal is the fact that the voters of Councilwoman Collins’ district didn’t care about any of this–or were at least kept in the dark about Collins’ landlady follies in the “Paris of the Plains” long enough to keep it from factoring in the now-failed recall attempt against her. It might seem unthinkable that a slumlord would be allowed to serve on a city council at all, even if the worst of the blighted properties in her possession are located in another city. But in conservative Colorado Springs, it’s apparently no hindrance to one’s political career.

And next time they vote to turn off the streetlights, it’ll make more sense.

Get More Smarter on Friday (April 3)

We’re almost Klingenschmitt-free today. Almost. It’s time to Get More Smarter with Colorado Pols. If you think we missed something important, please include the link in the comments below (here’s a good example).

 

TOP OF MIND TODAY…

► The State Senate has approved a $26 billion budget for Colorado, despite complaints from Democrats that they were largely shut out of the process. The “Long Bill” now heads to the State House, where Republicans will inevitably complain about the process when they don’t have the majority.

A top official at the Veterans Administration has apologized (again) for the long list of problems in building a new hospital in Aurora. But Veterans Affairs Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson thinks Rep. Mike Coffman’s suggestion to cancel all bonuses until the hospital is complete is a bad idea.

Get even more smarter after the jump…

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Help us protect homeowners from shoddy construction

(Promoted by Colorado Pols)

POLS UPDATE: 7NEWS’ John Ferrugia with a hard-hitting report last night:

Jennifer Seidman is a lawyer with a major national law firm that has filed many suits against builders for defective work. While conceding that changes in the law affect her business, she says homeowner sometimes have no alternative to suing.

“With arbitration, the homeowners have to pay a private judge and the person that they are paying often times has a relationship with the building industry,” she said.

That’s because the bill makes it clear that people, such as Harris, would not only be prohibited from suing for defective work, they would be limited in the hiring of experts to advise them about defects.

And, they would have to accept the builder’s arbitrator, and pay for the proceedings.

Original post follows.

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I need your help to stop what may be one of the worst bills of the year in the Colorado legislature. Today, a bill will be heard that will weaken the ability of homeowners to hold developers accountable for construction defects.

Contact your senators right now to tell them to vote NO on this bill.

Senate Bill 15-177 would force homeowners and homeowners associations into arbitration over construction defects to multifamily construction. We’ve all heard horror stories about new condo projects in Colorado, like the Beauvallon in Denver, where avoidable defects in construction hurt homeowner property values, caused public safety issues, and turned the condos into money pits. In the case of the Beauvallon, the only way homeowners were able to get help was to have access to the courts to fight the developers of this shoddy construction.

If Senate Bill 177 had been the law when the Beauvallon started leaking, those homeowners wouldn’t have had the power to get justice. The fact is, for most middle class Colorado families, buying a home is the biggest investment they will ever make. Why would anyone want to give up their rights to hold developers accountable for negligence in the construction of their home?

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Things You’re Not Supposed To Admit, Chris Holbert Edition

Sen. Chris Holbert (R).

Sen. Chris Holbert (R).

The Denver Post’s Lynn Bartels reported Saturday on the death earlier this month of Senate Bill 15-118, a bill that would have upped the incentive for Colorado middle class families to save for college tuition via the CollegeInvest program:

Senate Bill 118 concerned Coloradans who save for college through a not-for-profit state agency called CollegeInvest, where money is put into what are known as 529 plans.

As amended, the proposal from Merrifield, a Colorado Springs Democrat, would have eliminated the state income tax break for those earning more than $500,000 a year, while doubling it for those making less than $150,000 a year. Coloradans earning between $150,000 and $500,000 would still receive some tax break.

The bill died March 5 on a 3-2 party-line vote in the GOP-controlled Senate Finance Committee, where Sen. Chris Holbert made a statement that stunned Democrats and bill supporters.

We’d say on an objective scale, this was pretty stunning.

“I represent a part of a county that has the sixth-highest income demographic in the nation,” the Parker Republican said. “The people who elected me and who I represent, many are in those upper-income brackets.” [Pols emphasis]

So-called “529” plans like Colorado’s CollegeInvest program enable tax-deferred investments to save for a designated beneficiary’s college education. In Colorado, families can also claim a tax credit against their state income tax for the amount they invest in 529 plans. Under Merrifield’s bill, wealthy 529 plan investors would still benefit from their tax-advantaged status, but wouldn’t qualify for the additional state income tax credit unless their income is under $500,000 per year.

Republicans at every level of government face a significant message setback when trying to justify policies that either disregard the interest of or actively work against the middle class voters who make up the bulk of the electorate. We’ve seen this manifest over and over in the last few years, with phrases like “attacking job creators” and “class warfare” nervously appropriated by Republicans to avoid having to say simple declarative things like “I represent the rich people.”

Politically this is not difficult to understand, since there are simply not enough rich people to form an electoral majority–and even among the Republican rank-and-file, blind fealty to the upper class is breaking down as middle class incomes stagnate while the rich get richer.

That is why this statement we assume Sen. Chris Holbert made without any hesitation is so shocking. Republicans work hard to pigeonhole Democrats as the party that represents the only very poorest Americans–those “other” Americans it’s broadly assumed are “lazy” and “not pulling their weight.” Democrats respond that they have the interests of the middle class at heart–in this case families saving for college–and that Republicans have become the party of only the very rich.

And here you have the deciding vote on a bill to help the middle class candidly admitting it. The political significance of that, even if you’re not surprised, should be very great indeed.

Crowder Smacked By Retirees For Anti-PERA Vote

Sen. Larry Crowder.

Sen. Larry Crowder.

As the Pueblo Chieftain’s Ryan Severance reports, Sen. Larry Crowder is under fire from constituents after voting with fellow Republicans to make undesired changes to the Colorado Public Employees Retirement Association (PERA):

State Sen. Larry Crowder, R-Alamosa, said Saturday that he voted for Senate Bill 80 because he is concerned about the future of the Public Employees’ Retirement Association and being able to maintain it and believes this piece of legislation would help strengthen and save it.

“We can go along and say there’s no problem, we can put our head in the sand and say there’s no problem or we can take a stand for PERA,” Crowder said. “In my opinion, what we are attempting to do is save PERA, not destroy it, but doing nothing I think destroys it.”

SB80 is a measure that passed the Senate last month with all 18 Republican senators voting for it and all 17 Democrats opposing.

SB80 would let PERA members choose a defined contribution plan, such as a 401(k) plan, instead of the traditional defined benefit pension plan. Currently, only a small group of state employees such as state legislators can enroll in the defined contribution plans. Crowder said only state employees hired after May 2, 2009, would be affected by the bill.

Colorado’s PERA trust fund has already been reformed at the expense of public employees. 2010’s Senate Bill 1 reduced the amount contributed by the state to the PERA fund and increased the contribution of employees. As a result, PERA is on a long term course to be fully funded within 40 years. Republicans led by Treasurer Walker Stapleton have consistently “concern trolled” PERA’s solvency, even as the fund has outperformed its benchmarks in recent years. Stapleton’s remarks in August of 2013 were a good example:

PERA’s strong return on investment last year, nearly 13 percent, made up for the anticipated shortfall in revenue and actually reduced the unfunded liability by $800 million.

Those predictions assume an average 8 percent return on investments.

Stapleton said that number is unattainable in the new reality of the stock market.

We hope Stapleton is picking investments at his other job as a financial manager better than he speculates about PERA’s returns, because the stock market has surged upward since he said this–and PERA has returned an average of 9.4% over the last 30 years.

So what does Crowder mean by this “destroying PERA” stuff? Back to the Chieftain:

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Oh Lordy, Kumbaya

As the Denver Post's Joey Bunch reports, Republicans and Democrats at the state capitol are swaying to the same sappy tune when it comes to developing Colorado's workforce to meet the needs of the future:

Dozens of Colorado legislators from both parties stood together Thursday afternoon at the Capitol to tell the middle class that help is on the way…

The package would give employers financial incentives to take on interns and apprentices and would develop programs that coordinate high schools and colleges with companies willing to help train and eventually employ workers, bill sponsors said…

The industries targeted by the legislators pay well: engineering, research and development, manufacturing, aerospace, bioscience, electronics, energy and natural resources and other skilled trades.

In a separate blog post, Bunch details the workforce development bills introduced so far and on the way. Just about every legislative session features a similar moment of bipartisan camaraderie over a package of mutually inoffensive economic development legislation, but with so many nasty fights swirling on a host of hot-button partisan touchstone issues this year, both parties felt the need to make an extra show of it yesterday. And why not? Especially in a non-election year, voters love to see this and reporters love to write about it.

Yes, folks, that's Democratic Rep. Mike Foote (D) with his arm around Sen. Laura Woods (R). If you're thinking that this doesn't happen very often, you're right.

Enjoy it while it lasts, because the gun magazine limit repeal and Rep. Gordon "Dr. Chaps" Klingenschmitt's "right to discriminate" bills are up for debate Monday! At which time Kumbaya will be over.

How Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg Keeps The Government Out of Your Business (But Not His)

Wiz-quiz.

Wiz-quiz.

THURSDAY UPDATE: A reader pointed out this 2012 Denver Post story about Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg that you might find relevant to discussion of his $628,000+ in federal cash subsidy payments:

Poor Coloradans who apply for monthly cash assistance would first have to pass a drug test before receiving benefits under a bill that cleared a House committee Thursday.

House Bill 1046, sponsored by Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, [Pols emphasis] requires anyone applying for benefits under the federally funded Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program, or TANF, to first pay the $45 cost of taking a drug test.

Those who pass the drug test would be reimbursed by the state and could get TANF benefits. Those who fail, though, would be denied reimbursement and any benefits and could not reapply for TANF again for a year.

Those who fail a second time wouldn't be eligible to reapply for three years.

"If you can spend money on drugs, why do you need the government's check?" Sonnenberg asked members of the House Health and Environment Committee. [Pols emphasis]

Indeed, Senator! You first. Original post follows.

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UPDATE #2: None of former Sen. Greg Brophy's $113,000 in federal crop subsidy payments came from melons, which is good because he shoots those. 

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UPDATE: Republican Rep. J. Paul Brown, a top 2016 Democratic target and another co-sponsor of legislation to repeal Colorado's health insurance exchange and subsidies, pulled down over $180,000 in direct cash subsidy payments from the federal government between 1995 and 2012–almost $130,000 of which was subsidy payments for wool and "sheep meat."

Got that? No health insurance subsidy for you, but sheep meat subsidies for J. Paul Brown. That's going to make for one hell of a direct mail piece.

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Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg.

Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg.

Republican state Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling is one of the louder voices in the Colorado Senate GOP delegation, both literally and figuratively. Sonnenberg can be reliably counted upon to introduce some of the more combative pieces of legsialation in any given session, and he hasn't disappointed this year as sponsor of bills to roll back Colorado's renewable energy standards and to speculatively "compensate" mineral rights owners if local governments prohibit fracking operations on the surface. On the latter effort, the Craig Daily Press quoted Sonnenberg in typical form:

Sonnenberg said if counties or local government entities cannot afford to pay for what they take, they shouldn’t make regulations limiting mineral rights.

“If you can’t buy it, don’t ban it,” Sonnenberg said.

Got that? The last thing you need is the government up in your business, folks. Let the free market reign!

And then we got to thinking about it: what does Jerry Sonnenberg do for a living?

Jerry Sonnenberg is a Colorado native who has been farming and ranching in northeastern Colorado his entire life. He continues to live and work on the same farm that both his father and he were raised on growing wheat, corn, sunflowers, millet and cattle.

Jerry Sonnenberg is a farmer. Certainly an honorable profession and an important part of Colorado's economy. But in modern American agriculture, as America's growing resource-disconnected urban population is increasingly oblivious to, there's a catch.

The catch is government subsidies.

You see, the agricultural commodities market as we know it today is very far from what you'd call "free." The U.S. Department of Agriculture closely monitors the supply and demand of farm products, and pays billions of dollars each year in direct subsidy payments to farmers to protect their incomes from price volatility. We could write a very long post on how this all works, but the overall goal is to keep food prices in the United States low while keeping farmers gainfully employed. There is a great deal of debate about the efficacy and true beneficiaries of farm subsidies, but the political power wielded by farm states has protected the status quo for the last two decades.

The amount paid to farmers by the USDA in direct subsidies is a public record. The Environmental Working Group maintains a searchable index of receipients of direct farm subsidies since 1995. So we clicked here, and entered the name Jerry Sonnenberg:

sonnenbergsubsidies

That's right! Jerry Sonnenberg received almost SIX HUNDRED TWENTY-NINE THOUSAND DOLLARS in direct cash subsidy payments from the USDA between 1995 and 2012. Clicking through to the breakdown of his subsidy payments shows that over $300,000 was paid to Sonnenberg in wheat crop subsidies alone, with smaller amounts for land conservation and periodic crop disaster declarations.

Again, our purpose here is not to disparage the practice of subsidizing farmers to stabilize the agricultural products market. But when you think about things like Sonnenberg's co-sponsorship of legislation to repeal Colorado's health insurance marketplace, which could deprive thousands of Coloradans of their subsidies to buy health insurance…well, how is that not as utterly hypocritical as it looks?

We have no doubt that Sonnenberg has a blowhard answer ready, but it is what it is. And the questions this kind of hypocrisy provokes are, in our view, pretty fundamental to debates he is having right now at the state capitol.

Bonus round: search for the names Greg Brophy and Mark Hillman! Or try some others.

House (Finally) Passes DHS Funding Bill as Republicans Abandon Ship

UPDATE: Statement from Rep. Diana DeGette:

“Finally, Republican leaders recognized what has been clear for weeks: whatever their disagreements with President Obama and his actions to address our broken immigration system, Congress must provide the necessary resources to protect our homeland from attacks and be prepared to respond to natural disasters. While we should have taken this action weeks ago, I am pleased to see this get done at last.”

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House Speaker John Boehner (R).

This picture of House Speaker John Boehner is a good summation of his last couple of weeks in Congress.

As CNN reports, the House of Representatives finally voted to approve a "clean" funding bill for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), but all is not well in the GOP caucus:

The House cleared legislation Tuesday that will keep the agency operating through the end of September after a standoff last week threatened to shutter the agency and furlough thousands of workers. The 257-167 vote sends the bill to President Barack Obama for his signature.

Republican House Speaker John Boehner, who rarely casts votes, backed the bill, along with his top lieutenants. A majority of House Republicans opposed the bill. Just 75 GOP lawmakers joined with 182 Democrats to push it across the finish line. [Pols emphasis]

The legislation does nothing to rein in Obama's immigration executive orders — a top priority of conservatives. That issue was a sticking point for weeks as Republicans tried to tie DHS funding to the repeal of the orders but the party couldn't overcome Democratic filibusters in the Senate…

…Boehner told his members Tuesday morning that he had run out of options and the Senate couldn't pass a bill with immigration language attached.

It's nice to see the House doing its job and actually, you know, governing, though the political damage has been considerable on the GOP side. After weeks of arguing, House Speaker John Boehner seems to have all but given up on trying to work with his fractured caucus, which didn't help him anyway; despite holding the largest majority in Congress since the New Freakin' Deal, Republicans couldn't even fund a critical department without the support of Democrats. Colorado's Congressional delegation reflected this divide, with Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Aurora) the only Republican to vote YES, along with Democratic Reps. Diana DeGette, Ed Perlmutter, and Jared Polis.

How bad have things gotten for House Republicans? Bad enough that the American Action Network, a political group aligned with House leadership, spent $400,000 this week on TV and radio ads targeted at Republican dissenters. As Politico reported yesterday:

So, that worked out well.

So, that worked out well.

The nonprofit American Action Network is airing an ad in three states — Kansas, Oklahoma and Ohio — urging Reps. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.), Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) and Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) to back funding for the anti-terrorism agency. The 30-second spot will run at least 50 times in each district — on broadcast, in prime slots — Tuesday and Wednesday as the House is expected to take up a DHS funding bill.

The group says the ad campaign, which also includes radio ads on nationally syndicated shows and digital ads in dozens of other districts represented by House conservatives, is the opening salvo of a larger effort to help Republican leaders pass center-right legislation. American Action Network says it will spend millions of dollars to contact voters in the coming months. The move appears designed to give Boehner cover to end the months-long impasse over homeland security funding.

The TV ad feature images of what appear to be terrorists and says that “some in Washington are willing to put our security at risk by jeopardizing critical security funding. That’s the wrong message to send to our enemies.” [Pols emphasis]

Jordan is the leader of the House Freedom Caucus, which led last week's effort to oppose Boehner's vote on DHS funding, and he voted NO today along with Reps. Huelskamp and Bridenstine. Republicans are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars going after fellow Republicans in their home districts just to try to get them to not shoot their own toes off. It's safe to say they aren't listening.

Republicans have been getting hammered for weeks by local and national media over an ideologic battle against President Obama's immigration policies…but they didn't do anything to stunt Obama's plans, either. Hell, Brian Shaw might be a better leader for House Republicans at this point.

It was obvious to anyone who could read that Republicans were not going to win this fight, but the degree to which they completely bungled this mess is stunning. This is an absolute disaster for Boehner and Congressional Republicans. It's difficult to see how things won't just get worse from here.