Bente Birkeland

Capitol Coverage Reporter

Bente Birkeland has been reporting on state legislative issues for Rocky Mountain Community Radio stations, including KVNF, since 2006. She keeps track of state politics throughout the year but is especially busy during the annual legislative session from January through early May, covering important bills, discussions, and the positions of our state legislators. 

Lawmakers in both parties have unveiled a proposal to bring a presidential primary back to Colorado. It's estimated that conducting a primary will cost anywhere from $5 to $7 million. Despite the price tag, the heads of both the state Democratic and Republican parties and Gov. John Hickenlooper support it.

We asked two reporters working at the capitol on a daily basis what that means.

A Colorado commission studying American Indian representations in public schools released a report that recommends that schools not use American Indian mascots. However, if the schools do choose to do so, they should partner with a tribe to make sure it is done in a respectful way.

Right now, 30 Colorado schools use some type of American Indian mascot or imagery.

Colorado schools may soon be forced to allow students to use medical marijuana in a non-smokeable form while on school grounds. It's already allowed under state law – but no districts have created access policies, leaving many families frustrated.

To remedy this, House Bill 16-1373 [.pdf] has been proposed to require all school districts – even those without policies – to allow parents or caregivers to administer medical marijuana on school grounds. To find out more about the debate, we talked to reporters working under the gold dome.

Bernie Sanders will be assured the majority of Colorado's delegates at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Hillary Clinton though, still has momentum in the state with the support of super delegates, like Gov. John Hickenlooper and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet. The support of party insiders means Clinton will likely have 37 delegates from the state versus Sanders' 41.

Which still makes it an open question for Colorado: If the state is pulling for Bernie Sanders, but the super delegates lean for Clinton, will voters opt to support Clinton if she's the nominee?

Colorado schools may soon be forced to allow students to use medical marijuana in a non-smokeable form while on school grounds. It's already allowed under state law – but no districts have created access policies, leaving many families frustrated.

A bill [.pdf] under consideration at the capitol would require all school districts – even those without policies – to allow parents or caregivers to administer medical marijuana on school grounds, typically in the nurse's office. Students would not be allowed to take the cannabis tablet or put on the patch or oil themselves.

"Let's make sure they have the medication they need, and do it in an appropriate way," said state Rep. Jonathan Singer (D-Longmont), House Bill 16-1373's sponsor.

Just three months out from the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Republican Party remains very much divided over their candidates for president. Ted Cruz closed Donald Trump's lead Saturday, sweeping all of Colorado's 34 open delegates at the GOP state assembly in Colorado Springs.

Republicans here though are as split as anywhere else in the country over the race.

Colorado is debating whether to form an office of fantasy sports — to regulate and create rules around pay-for-play fantasy leagues. The industry estimates that 800,000 people in the Centennial State are fantasy sports players, and 150,000 pay in the daily sports leagues.

So why does the legislature want make a play here?

Republican Party activists are gathering Saturday in Colorado Springs for the state GOP convention. Delegates will be chosen to attend the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Sen. Ted Cruz is already confirmed to attend. Donald Trump will not make the trip to Colorado to address the state assembly, nor hold a rally. John Kasich has also announced he is not coming.

Initially, the state's conservative party was criticized for not holding a presidential preference poll during the March caucus. Now, as the national race seems destined to be heading toward a contested convention, the emphasis on delegates has given Colorado renewed importance.

The Democratic-controlled House passed the state budget Friday with five Republicans backing it. The bill now heads to the Republican-controlled Senate. What can we expect from the debate in that chamber?

Colorado lawmakers are only required to do one thing during their annual legislative session: pass a balanced budget. After several days of discussion, members of the Democratic-controlled House did just that. It had bipartisan support with four Western Slope Republicans and one Colorado Springs Republican joining the Democratic majority.

"It looked like the task would be daunting, but I think we just ended up with a really harmonic convergence of budget forecasts and certain events that occurred that allowed us to not to face as many dramatic cuts as we thought we were going to have to face," said Representative Dave Young (D-Greeley), a member of the bi-partisan joint budget committee that wrote the budget bill.

Health insurance premiums can vary widely in Colorado depending on where you live — it's just one of the factors health insurance companies use to calculate prices. Mountain regions continue to have some of the highest premiums in the country. At the statehouse, House Bill 16-1336 [.pdf] would look at treating the entire state as one region, rather than continuing to group regions separately.

"Our current insurance payment of $1,508 a month is equivalent to our mortgage payment. We can't afford it," said Richard Backe, a Garfield County small-business owner. "There are numerous people in the mountain district with the same story. We are the healthiest counties in the state, and we have the highest insurance rates."

State lawmakers are set to debate the annual budget, which funds everything from roads and schools, to health care and parks. In 2016, Colorado has a shortfall, so that means making budget cuts. So what are some of the major budget issues? We asked the reporters working the hallways of the capitol to find out.

A bill that would allow people to collect rain that falls from their rooftops is hung up in the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, after the chair said he wasn't comfortable with the measure. It's not clear when the committee will vote on it.

The same thing happened during the 2015 legislative session when the rain barrel bill vote was delayed. While the bill eventually cleared the committee over the objections of the Republican chair, it failed on the final day of the session when time ran out.

"I didn't plan on today being Groundhog Day, I anticipated that the bill would pass," said state Sen. Michael Merrifield (D-Colorado Springs), sponsor of House Bill 16-1005 [.pdf].

Colorado's next lieutenant governor is poised to be a top executive from Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, Inc.

Gov. John Hickenlooper nominated Donna Lynne, an executive vice president at Kaiser, saying she would be very capable filling his shoes if he doesn't end up finishing his second term. Hickenlooper has long been rumored as a possible cabinet pick for a Democratic President.

"If I were offered something in Washington I would certainly look at it, but especially right now, I could not be happier to be the governor of Colorado," Hickenlooper said.

Several police reform measures are making their way through the statehouse, and lawmakers are also looking at how best to address the problem of teenagers sexting. We asked two reporters working under the gold dome to review the week that was.

Every bill at the Colorado legislature must receive a fair hearing… and a vote. That's what state law says, but the fate of many bills is decided before lawmakers even begin the debate. Their fate is sealed in what's called a kill committee.

Hillary Clinton's wins on Mega Tuesday in Ohio, Florida, Illinois, North Carolina and a virtual tie in Missouri, have moved her closer to securing the Democratic Party nomination. What will that mean for Colorado, which went heavily for her opponent, Bernie Sanders? We asked Democratic State Party Chair Rick Palacio to find out.

Colorado's four month legislative session is halfway over. As is normally the case, the only things lawmakers are required to do is pass a budget. Now that we're at the midpoint, attention can turn to the state's impending budget crunch and another hot topic: reclassifying the hospital provider fee under TABOR.

Colorado is, overall, one of the healthiest states in the country – but things are starting to change as the population grows and ages. One of the unintended side effects is a widening disparity between the healthiest and least healthy counties.

New data indicates disparities across geographic regions; with people living in the mountain communities generally ranking as the healthiest in Colorado. In part due to the things that attract people to the state to begin with.

"The amount of sunshine, the world class skiing, hiking, fly fishing, the ability to go right outside your backyard and experience nature," said Democratic Summit County commissioner Dan Gibbs.

Colorado residents have vastly different health outcomes, based in part on where they live in the state. Rocky Mountain PBS News analyzed health data from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to rank each of the state's 64 counties based on a variety of health indicators from obesity, to amount of exercise, to smoking and premature deaths.

The Colorado Democratic and Republican parties recently wrapped up their caucuses on Super Tuesday. The 2016 Democratic caucus was notable for the unexpected large turnout – while the GOP canceled their presidential preference poll. Either way, there were gripes. Two lawmakers are planning to introduce a bill to change the state's caucus system and instead add a presidential primary.

Voters in 12 states either went to the polls or caucused on Super Tuesday. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders won Colorado's Democratic caucuses. He also grabbed victories in Oklahoma, Minnesota, and in his home state. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were the big winners of the night, each taking seven states, on the busiest night so far of the 2016 election season.

Colorado's Republican Party did not take a preference poll for the presidential race – so no winner was declared in the state for the GOP.

Colorado is on the road to becoming the final state in the country to legalize rain barrels, after Democrats reached an agreement with several Republicans who opposed previous versions of the measure.

"It is a water right and what you have done with this, you have protected that water right," said Rep. Don Coram (R-Montrose), who had voted against a rain barrel bill last session.

Now he said he can back it – and other Republicans are also on board with HB 16-1005 [.pdf].

Another attempt in Colorado to allow terminally ill patients to take medication to end their own lives recently failed for the second straight year in the Democratic controlled House.

With strong words for opponents and members of their own party, the sponsors of the End-of-Life Options Bill, known as House Bill 16-1054 [.pdf], pulled it before debate could begin on the floor. The reason behind the withdrawal was a lack of votes and proposed amendments for the bill.

Colorado's Republican and Democratic caucuses will be held on Super Tuesday, March 1, 2016. There's a difference this year though. Colorado's Republican Party leaders canceled their traditional presidential preference poll at the precinct caucuses. The state's Democrats will conduct a poll.

2016 has brought record turnout and excitement to GOP presidential primary events – especially with the emergence of Donald Trump as the party's frontrunner. Why would the state's Republicans pass on that? We asked Steve House, the chairman of the Colorado Republican Party.

A bill that would have allowed terminally ill patients to take medication to end their own lives has failed in the Colorado Legislature. The main sponsors asked lawmakers to defeat the bill before it could be debated by the full House.

"The choice we made today, was to give you the relief from having to have this conversation because we know many of you have deeply held convictions that make you uncomfortable with this bill," said state Rep. Lois Court (D-Denver). "We are doing you this favor, to not have this debate, but make no mistake the voice of the people of this state will be heard."

Colorado is the only state in the country where it is illegal to capture rainwater for use at a later time. State lawmakers are once again debating whether to allow residents to use rain barrels to collect precipitation that falls from their roofs.

"This is really straightforward," said Representative Jessie Danielson (D-Wheat Ridge), one of the main sponsor's of House Bill 16-1005 [.pdf]. "You could use that water when you see fit, for your tomato plants or flower gardens."

Colorado lawmakers are divided over whether a hospital provider fee should be reclassified in the state budget so it doesn't count toward the state's revenue limit under the Tax Payer's Bill of Rights.

State legislators discussed a number of law enforcement and criminal justice bills this past week along with some other controversial measures.

State lawmakers are debating whether terminally ill patients with less than six months to live should be allowed to take medication to end their own lives. It's just one of several controversial bills being debated under the gold dome.

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