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.

Get More Smarter on Friday (April 24)

Today is not the anniversary of anything particularly important, as far as we can tell. 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 U.S. Senate is coming to Colorado…some of them, anyway. Members of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee will be in Aurora today for a field hearing regarding the ongoing problems with construction at the Aurora VA Hospital.

► The State Senate gave preliminary approval on Thursday to legislation intended to reduce student testing requirements in Colorado. The State House is scheduled to discuss a similar bill today.

► Republicans are going to have a tough time continuing to pretend that so-called fetal homicide Personhood legislation is anything but a purely political attempt to restrict abortions in Colorado; some of the language used in SB-268 is exactly the same as wording used in model legislation proposed by the group Americans United for Life.

 

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Get More Smarter on Thursday (April 23)

By the end of the week, the black market for carnitas will be booming. 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…

► After five months of waiting, the U.S. Senate is finally on the cusp of confirming President Obama’s nomination of Loretta Lynch as Attorney General. Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner announced this morning that he planned to vote NO on Lynch’s confirmation. Seriously.

► There is a concerted effort underway in Jefferson County to “destroy” the teacher’s union, as Colorado Pols reported late yesterday. Jon Caldara and the Independence Institute may need to work fast — Julie Williams and the right-wing Jeffco School Board might just “destroy” the entire school district first.

 

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Get More Smarter on Wednesday (April 22)

GetMoreSmarter-EarthHappy Earth Day! Or, if you’re into that kind of thing, Happy Administrative Professionals’ Day. 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…

► Congressman Mike Coffman (R-Angry) is the Chair of the House Veterans’ Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations. It is supposed to be his job to provide oversight for stuff like, say, a complete mess of a VA Hospital project in Aurora. Coffman may not have much in the way of solutions for the VA’s problems, but that isn’t stopping him from raising money off of the scandal. Coffman’s spokesman had a bunch of gibberish to say in response to these allegations, but the best line of the story — which was picked up nationally — comes from Lynn Bartels in “The Spot” blog:

Less than six months ago, Coffman posted on his congressional web site an opinion piece thanking him for not being one of the members of Congress using the VA problems for fundraising.

D’oh!

Fetal homicide Personhood legislation will be introduced today in the State Senate.

► Senator Cory Gardner (R-Yuma) apparently doesn’t think the Sage Grouse is so greater. As Bruce Finley of the Denver Post reports:

Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner will introduce legislation in Congress on Wednesday that would bar the federal government from listing greater sage grouse as endangered and give western states six more years to revive grouse populations on their own…

…”We have an obligation to future generations to conserve and recover this species,” [said Gardner]. “But we can do it on our terms. Let’s put Coloradans in charge, let’s put Westerners in charge of the West.”

“Let’s put Westerners in charge of the West!” Who comes up with this crap?

 
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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.

Get More Smarter on Tuesday (April 21)

We’ve been up early celebrating 4/21. 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 U.S. Senate may finally get around to voting on President Obama’s nomination of Loretta Lynch as Attorney General. If you had “five months” in the pool for “How long will it take for Republicans to approve a new Attorney General?” you might win some money.

► Look on the bright side, Rep. Ken Buck. You almost made it four whole months in D.C. without breaking the law. Don’t forget, Polsters: You read it here first.

 

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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.

 

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Get More Smarter on Friday (April 10)

So it’s not technically a “Good Friday.” We’ll take it anyway. 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…

► Democrat Hillary Clinton will officially launch her campaign on Sunday, April 12, with an online video! Polling numbers are all over the place, which makes sense given that it is April 2015.

► Colorado business groups are backing a proposed ballot reform measure that would make it harder to reform the ballot — which is not a bad idea. As the Denver Business Journal explains:

Senate Concurrent Resolution 2 — introduced late Wednesday by Sens. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, and Pat Steadman, D-Denver — would require a majority of voters in a statewide general election to approve any proposed constitutional amendment before it is then resubmitted on a statewide ballot the next year.

It also would require that state officials conduct public hearings about any proposed amendments in each of the state’s seven congressional districts before the second round of voting on the question.

► The State House gave final approval to “The Long Bill,” despite a litany of silly objections from House Republicans. The discussion now heads back to the Senate to work out differences over the $26 billion budget proposal.

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Get More Smarter on Thursday (April 9)

According to a scientist from NASA, we will have proof of alien life in less than 20 years; make your own joke. 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 House will likely take a final vote on Colorado’s $25-26 billion proposed budget. 

► Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul announced his campaign for President on Tuesday. As the Washington Post reports, things went downhill from there:

In a series of interviews after the freshman senator from Kentucky declared his candidacy on Tuesday, Paul turned prickly — briskly sidestepping tough foreign policy questions from one journalist, lecturing another on how to conduct an interview, and testily declining to clarify his position on abortion…

…the rocky media rollout of his presidential effort highlighted a key question facing him now: whether the same tough approach that has made him a favorite among tea party activists and libertarians might be limiting in a national campaign, as he looks to build a broader coalition rich with voters from beyond his base.

At least Paul still has hope that he can change Kentucky laws to allow him to simultaneously run for re-election to the U.S. Senate.

► Senate Republicans voted to kill a bill that would have stopped “Pray the Gay Away” pseudo-therapy sessions for kids in Colorado. Yesterday, President Obama denounced the idea of “gay conversion.”

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Get More Smarter on Tuesday (April 7)

The Colorado Rockies are still undefeated. 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…

► Colorado lawmakers are digging deeper into the issue of standardized testing in public schools. Strange things are afoot at the State Board of Education, meanwhile.

► Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul formally announced his bid for the Republican Presidential nomination today, telling supporters in Louisville (KY) that he is a “different kind of Republican” and framing himself as a Washington D.C. outsider. A “new kind of Republican,” eh? That sounds familiar… 

► Since we’re on the topic of Presidential candidates, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush is in Colorado today to get all chummy with executives from the oil and gas industry.

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Sketchy Pro-Fracking Donations Attract Interest in Ft. Collins City Council Race

RayMartinez-HS

Ft. Collins City Council candidate Ray Martinez.

A heated race for a seat on the Fort Collins City Council is attracting lots of attention from outside groups — including some that may not even exist.

Reporter Nick Coltrain of the Coloradoan has been doing a good job in covering the intricacies of the Ft. Collins municipal elections, which are rapidly drawing to a close (mail ballots are due by Tuesday). One of the more interesting races is in District 2, where frequent candidate Ray Martinez continues to be dogged by charges first leveled his direction when he first tried running for City Council 20 years ago (and later during an attempted campaign for the state legislature).

But perhaps the most curious story of the District 2 race was reported by Coltrain in today’s Coloradoan:

A pro-fracking group has spent $20,000 to support Fort Collins city council candidate Ray Martinez, city campaign finance records show.

Larimer Energy Action Project, whose website declares “We can frack safely in Larimer County,” spent the money to canvass and distribute literature in District 2, the east-central district Martinez hopes to represent. Martinez, a former mayor, is facing Poudre School District Board of Education member Nancy Tellez in the contest.

LEAP’s phone number on its website has been disconnected. Representatives from LEAP did not return an e-mail asking for comment Thursday. [Pols emphasis]

Martinez served as a paid consultant for a Colorado Oil and Gas Association-backed group that fought a 2013 ballot measure seeking a five-year moratorium on hydraulic fracturing in Fort Collins.

Now, Martinez supporters are quick to point out anti-fracking groups have also spent large sums of money opposing his candidacy or supporting opponent Nancy Tellez, but that’s not the point here. Obviously both candidates are going to have different levels of support on different issues, but thus far, only one of those organizations (LEAP) has all but vanished since spending $20k supporting Martinez.

Perhaps LEAP just spent so much money backing Martinez that it couldn’t afford to pay the phone bill?

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.

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Get More Smarter on Thursday (April 2)

MoreSmarterLogo-Hat1Only 364 more days until you can use that April Fool’s Day prank you just thought up last night. 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…

► They don’t call it “the Long Bill” because they are being ironic. The State Senate gave initial approval to a $25 billion state budget after more than 6 hours of bickering. Republicans insist on continuing to debate the issue of immunizations for children.

► California is drier than a sandpaper sandwich, and Gov. Jerry Brown is calling for mandatory water restrictions for the first time in state history. Ten bucks says water conservation is going to be the issue of the summer.

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California Gov. Orders First-Ever Mandatory Water Restrictions

This is a significant story for the entire country, and it definitely involves our state since a great deal of California’s water comes from the Colorado River. As the Associated Press reports:

California Gov. Jerry Brown ordered officials Wednesday to impose statewide mandatory water restrictions for the first time in history as surveyors found the lowest snow level in the Sierra Nevada snowpack in 65 years of record-keeping.

Standing in dry, brown grass at a site that he said normally would be snow-covered this time of year, Brown announced he had signed an executive order requiring the State Water Resources Control Board to implement measures in cities and towns to cut the state’s overall water usage by 25 percent compared with 2013 levels.

The move will affect residents, businesses, farmers and other users.

“We’re in a historic drought and that demands unprecedented action,” Brown said at a news conference at Echo Summit in the Sierra Nevada, where state water officials found no snow on the ground for the first time in their manual survey of the snowpack. [Pols emphasis]

This is a serious problem that will have repercussions in Colorado, particularly in the energy industry — where fracking contaminates enough water each year to otherwise meet the needs of a city such as Lakewood or Ft. Collins. The oil and gas industry likes to say that they only use a small percentage of water compared to, say, the ocean, but if we’re facing an increasingly serious water shortage, these percentages add up quickly.

The “New Kind Of Republican?”

(Promoted by Colorado Pols)

Remember last November?

I know, I know, a lot has happened since then — Katy Perry rode into the Super Bowl on a giant mechanical lion, James Inhofe tried to instigate a snowball fight on the U.S. Senate floor, and Peyton Manning turned 39.

Election season wasn’t too long ago, though. When campaign advertisements were absolutely everywhere, canvassers were showing up at your house, and flyers for this or that candidate were overwhelming recycling bins all over the country. It was a hectic time, to be sure, but one advertisement stands out: the now-infamous bit in which Cory Gardner, standing in front of a wind farm, claimed to be a new kind of Republican, one who was concerned with the future, preserving Colorado’s clean energy economy, and safeguarding the next generation.

For a new kind of Republican, he sure votes a lot like the old kind. In a recent series of votes on amendments to the 2016 budget resolution, Gardner voted against a key climate amendment that was sponsored by our other Senator, Michael Bennet. This was an acknowledgment that climate change is human-induced and would prepare federal agencies to prepare for it in a deficit-neutral way. The vote was far from party-line. No fewer than seven of Gardner’s Republican colleagues voted for it. Several of them hail from states that have historically shown less commitment to climate issues than Colorado has, such as South Carolina, Nevada, and Ohio, among others. This makes Gardner’s no vote even more baffling.  

However, it is not time to discredit his election-season promises quite yet. He also voted against an amendment that would enable the sale or transfer of national public lands. He has shown an interest in protecting our natural areas in the past, and these votes are certainly heartening. It’s clear that he has the wisdom to recognize that Colorado’s public lands define us as a state, and threatening them would be a reckless and costly move.

But Gardner’s votes against common sense  climate change issues (i.e., humans cause climate change so let’s do something about it) are a disservice to the millions of Coloradans who care deeply about our clean energy economy and combating climate change. Polls consistently show that Colorado stands firmly in support of action on climate, and Gardner’s votes should reflect that support.

It’s too early to issue a verdict on Senator Gardner’s term in office. He has only been our senator for a few months, but now does seem like a good time to remind him that he is in office in part because of his efforts to show Coloradans that he cares about clean energy and the next generation. Coloradans are still waiting for Cory Gardner to be the new kind of Republican he promised in the fall.