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. 

Colorado's childhood poverty rate has decreased for the first time in five years. The latest data comes as part of the annual Kids Count Report, which offers information on the health and well-being of children across the state.

"That is great news for Colorado," said Lt. Governor Joe Garcia. He went on to add that there's always a but, "We know that there are still far too many children growing up in households where they don't have access to the opportunities and resources they need to be healthy and succeed."

A bipartisan measure to reduce testing for students in Colorado's public schools is not proceeding as planned through the statehouse. Senate Bill 215 [.pdf] was scheduled for a hearing in the Senate Education Committee Thursday. No longer, it was pulled from the calendar before the hearing.

"We just need to make sure we get the policy right," said state Senator Owen Hill (R-Colorado Springs), a sponsor of the measure along with Senator Andy Kerr (D-Lakewood).

The sponsors are unsure of when SB 215 will get a hearing. The bill would eliminate mandatory assessments in the 11 and 12th grade and reduce redundant tests in the earlier grades. It has been billed as the major school testing reform bill of the session.

The executive director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, Tisha Schuller, recently announced that she's leaving the state's largest trade organization for the energy industry.

In a statement released by COGA, Schuller said it was a "wild ride" and that she was honored to have represented the state's oil industry. While remaining in her position until the end of May, Schuller sat down to talk about the future of the industry and why she decided to leave her position.

As they prepare to write the annual budget, there's mixed news for Colorado lawmakers. The latest revenue forecast shows the economy will remain strong, but there is a lot of uncertainty going forward, especially when it comes to low oil prices and how it ripples through the state's economy.

"On net low oil prices are good for the national economy, but for areas where you have energy production, energy production states, on net it has been negative in the past," said nonpartisan Chief Legislative Economist Natalie Mullis. "Colorado is a third tier energy producing state and it does have a dampening effect on our economy."

We're just past the halfway mark for the annual 120-day legislative session. As lawmakers (and the reporters that cover them) enter the home stretch, what's the scuttlebutt under the gold dome? Which bills are being delayed? How is the Governor handling split legislative control?

For insights we picked the brains of reporters who work the halls on daily basis at the capitol.

Trying to get more information on the health impact of oil and gas drilling is a topic that lawmakers will soon be taking up at the statehouse. It comes after the Governor's Oil and Gas Task Force finished their work and issued several health related recommendations.

"I get a little bit concerned and annoyed when people try to use health as the basis of what they don't like about oil and gas," said Dr. Larry Wolk the Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment.

He said he understands the concern, but worries the state doesn't have enough hard data.

A bill to expand a teen pregnancy prevention program for low-income youth failed in the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday on a party line 3-2 vote. Republicans defeated the measure, one that was sponsored by one of their own.

"I guess this is my big thing is let's take an inventory of what we're doing before we throw another layer on there," said Senate Finance Committee chair Tim Neville (R-Littleton).

Two Republican religious freedom bills drew strong opposition from gay rights groups, civil liberties organizations and members of the business community Monday. The first bill, known as House Bill 1171 [.pdf], would have forbade government officials from constraining the exercise of religion had it not been struck down in committee.

The second bill, House Bill 1161 [.pdf], would have protected people from facing penalties for refusing to violate their beliefs and was also defeated.

State lawmakers are officially at the halfway point of the 2015 legislative session. What needs to be done before the end of the session? Lawmakers will need to pass a balanced budget, and along the way grapple with some hot-button issues such as school testing requirements and police reforms.

"Most of the big work is ahead of us, what happens for the first half is kind of getting ready for it," said Senate President Bill Cadman (R-Colorado Springs).

State lawmakers are midway through the annual legislative session – but there's still a lot to be done.

House Democrats would like law enforcement to increase the use of body cameras, set up a special prosecutor to review decisions when a law enforcement official isn't charged when there are allegations of deadly force, ban choke holds, and collect demographic data on arrests. What are the chances for passage?

The sponsor of a proposal to put guardrails around the use of drones for non- government purposes asked lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee to delay a vote on the bill Tuesday.

"I would work with members of the committee to make sure it truly protects the privacy of people in the state," said Representative Polly Lawrence (R-Roxborough Park).

The delay came after nearly two hours of testimony that focused on emerging technologies and a person's reasonable expectation of privacy.

Governor John Hickenlooper's oil and gas task force recently proposed nine recommendations to try and easy concerns for people living near energy development, but it did not vote to give local communities more control over oil and gas drilling.

The big question on everyone's mind now: What's next for the state Legislature and for a possible anti-fracking initiative going before voters in 2016?

Reaction at the state capitol to work of the Oil and Gas Task Force was decidedly mixed. Members of the governor's own party called the effort a failure, one lawmaker even graded it an "F+."

The proposed recommendations are intended to mitigate the impacts of energy development near communities. While the task force wants local governments to be more involved in developing large drill sites, it stopped short of allowing cities and counties to adopt rules stricter than the state standards.

With the final nine recommendations to hit Governor John Hickenlooper's desk Feb. 27, what are his thoughts on the group's work and the backlash?

After five months of meetings, and coming up with nine recommendations, the work of Governor John Hickenlooper's Oil and Gas Task Force is getting mixed reviews from lawmakers at the state capitol.

Among the critical voices is Democratic Senator Matt Jones of Longmont.

"What they were charged to come up with is strong community protections, they got an F+, they're talking about how it's really a B, it's not," Jones said.

A bill attempting to reduce teen pregnancies and provide state funding for intrauterine devices has passed its first test at the capitol. House Bill 1194 would provide $5 million for clinics across the state that offer long-term reversible contraceptives to low-income women and teenagers. Colorado has been running the program with a private grant, which will run out at the end of June 2015.

"Our teen birth rate has dropped 40 percent over the last four years and 34 percent drop in abortions," said Larry Wolk, the executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment.

It's a busy week under the gold dome. The Governor's oil and gas task force, which was charged with trying to harmonize local oil and gas regulations with statewide interests will soon be wrapping up. Many lawmakers have been holding off on introducing oil and gas legislation until the commission finishes its work.

A debate on drones - one that does not fall along party lines - will get a hearing in the Senate Tuesday. For thoughts on what's happening at the capitol, talked to some of the reporters who work there daily.

The state of Colorado is facing new lawsuits over recreational marijuana legalization. The Washington D.C. based Safe Streets Alliance is suing the state in federal court to try and close down the industry.

"It is illegal under federal law to sell marijuana and in this country federal law is the supreme law of the land," said David Thompson, the lead attorney for the Safe Streets Alliance.

Since Colorado has embraced legal retail marijuana sales, schools are grappling with the best way to discusses it in the classroom amid changing attitudes.

"When it's legal for your parents to smoke it or grow it, that changes the conversation," said Odette Edbrooke, the Health Education Coordinator for the Boulder Valley School District.

Even after a full year of being able to purchase recreational marijuana, questions still remain for the state of Colorado. Is cannabis use dangerous? Should there be tighter labeling on pot edibles? Is easy access impacting middle and high school students?

Recent data compiled by the Department of Education and Rocky Mountain PBS I-News show incidents of student drug use in 2014 hitting a 10-year high, but state officials don't have a clear picture if the increased drug use and marijuana legalization are related.

Democratic lawmakers in Colorado recently introduced a measure to allow terminally ill patients to take medication to end their lives. The patients must be given a prognosis from two different physicians giving them less than six months to live.

It's a charged issue that has many questions to it. Why do supporters say it’s the compassionate choice? Who strongly opposes it?

Colorado's new Republican Senate has majority flexed their muscles at the state capitol, using their power on the Joint Budget Committee to defund a 2013 law allowing people in the country illegally to obtain a state driver's license. They also struck down a bill to harmonize Colorado's civil unions law with a gay marriage ban that was deemed unconstitutional by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. On top of that, a commission looking at pay equity between men and women was struck down.

With split legislative control and Democrats in charge of the House, how will this impact both parties politically?

Governor John Hickenlooper has given his annual State of the State Address in front of a joint session of the General Assembly. What were some of the highlights of his annual report on Colorado's prospects? What should we expect in the year ahead?

We asked some of the reporters that work daily in the capitol building for their thoughts.

Governor John Hickenlooper gave his annual State of the State Address in front of a joint session of the General Assembly Thursday. In the speech the governor spoke of his upcoming policies, initiatives, budget proposals and some looming state challenges.

So what does it all mean for the year ahead?

Governor John Hickenlooper received a warm reception from lawmakers in both parties during his annual State of the State Address. The Governor talked about policies he wants the legislature to adopt, announced a few new initiatives and urged lawmakers to face facts about the challenges facing Colorado.

During his roughly 45-minute speech Hickenlooper highlighted many of his budget proposals, such as giving more money to higher education and K-12 schools. He also pledged to look at ways to creatively fund roads and bridges, and threw his support behind a felony DUI law. Colorado is one of four states without one.

While oil and gas development is a hot topic, state legislators are waiting for a report from the Governor's Oil and Gas Task Force, mostly holding off on introducing energy related bills. The task force is charged with crafting recommendations to help mitigate the impacts of drilling to communities, and harmonize local and state regulations.

"I have told some members of the task force, you don't have to send something if there's not a problem," said Senator Jerry Sonnenberg (R-Sterling). "I want to know before you send me a solution, the problem we're trying to fix. And if you can't agree on a problem, don't send me legislation just because you're a task force."

Governor John Hickenlooper was sworn into office Tuesday for his second term, with the ceremony taking place outside the west steps of the state capitol. Several hundred people gathered to watch Hickenlooper along with other statewide elected officials take the oath of office.

"I believe that if we are willing to compromise and collaborate on what may seem like an imperfect solution, it is far better than if we cling to entrenched positions and work against one another in pursuit of different allegedly perfect solutions," said Hickenlooper. "Progress, even if incremental, is better than gridlock."

One hundred lawmakers from across Colorado converged on the state capitol Wednesday for opening day of the annual 120 day legislative session. Freshman lawmakers from both parties were officially sworn in and both chambers have new leaders.

When the seventieth session of the Colorado General Assembly convenes Jan. 7, 2015 the balance of power at the capitol will have shifted - slightly. Republicans now have control of the state Senate, but they are still in the minority in the House.

Republican Brian DelGrosso of Loveland has been the minority leader for the previous two years and was re-elected to continue that role in the 2015 session.

When the seventieth session of the Colorado General Assembly convenes Jan. 7, 2015 there will a new speaker of the house. The previous leader in the Colorado House last session was Democrat Mark Ferrandino of Denver. He was term-limited. Dickey Lee Hullinghorst , a Democrat from Boulder, will be the next speaker of the house.

When the seventieth session of the Colorado General Assembly convenes Jan. 7, 2015 there will be a change of control in order in the state Senate. The previous November election shepherded the Republicans into the majority, while the state House of Representatives remains in the hand of the Democrats.

The new session also means a change for Democratic state Senator Morgan Carroll of Aurora. She's going from senate president to minority leader.

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