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. 

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."

Update 5.13.2016: Gov. John Hickenlooper has signed legislation finally legalizing rain barrels. Our original story continues below.


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.

A bill to expand a state program to offer driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants in Colorado will be introduced at the state capitol later in February. The original law [.pdf], which Democrats passed when they controlled both chambers in 2013, allows undocumented immigrants who have lived in Colorado for at least two years and have paid taxes to get a license, if they pay an extra fee.

"I want to know when I'm driving that the people driving next to me know the same rules as I do. Especially when you come from a different country, road signs might look different," said Rep. Jonathan Singer (D-Longmont), sponsor of a new bill that would expand the program to 32 driver's license offices across the state.

"They deserve the opportunity to show that they are willing to be a part of our community, willing to play by the rules."

Colorado could be the next state to allow hunters to wear florescent pink. A Democratic proposal to give hunters the option of wearing pink – in addition to the traditional safety orange – has passed the Republican controlled Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee.

"I hunt because it's a treasured time with my dad and my brothers," said Senator Kerry Donovan (D-Vail), a big game hunter and sponsor of Senate Bill 68 [.pdf]. "And the stories that happen in hunting camp are the stories that my family tell over and over again."

Roughly three weeks into Colorado's annual legislative session, a lot of bills are starting to get their first hearings. We've heard the priorities of the leaders and the governor, as well as some of the more interesting bills.

But 2016 is an election year, and a presidential one no less. How will politics impact the bills being heard in committees?

Lawmakers have introduced the first wave of bills as part of the annual legislative session. To learn what's in store, we asked reporters who work daily under the dome at the capitol.

Gov. John Hickenlooper announced Wednesday that the state will prioritize connecting and building 16 hiking and biking trails in all parts of Colorado. The goal is to connect and build missing trail segments to make it easier for people to access open space and parks.

It's part of the governor's Colorado the Beautiful initiative, unveiled in 2015.

The annual legislative session is under way and lawmakers are once again back at the state capitol. Gov. Hicknelooper laid out his priorities – like more bipartisanship and tackling the budget by addressing the hospital provider fee – in his State of the State. But how do those priorities translate for the legislators working under the gold dome for 2016?

Gov. John Hickenlooper delivered his sixth State of the State address to the state Legislature Thursday. In his speech he highlighted the need for people from all political stripes to work together to fix the state's big budget problems and discussed Colorado's economic gains and challenges.

"We're one of the top states for economic growth," Hickenlooper said. "One of the best places for business and careers, for quality of life, for health and tourism."

The Colorado capitol had a back to school vibe Wednesday, with families and friends joining lawmakers in the chamber for the opening of Colorado's annual legislative session. The building hummed with activity — and the usual pomp and ceremony and opening day speeches — after the eight month interim. Isaac Slade, the lead singer of the Denver-based rock band The Fray, sang the national anthem in the Senate.

But it wasn't all fun, the first bills are introduced on opening day, and lawmakers begin to outline their priorities for the next four months.

When Colorado's 2016 legislative session convenes Jan. 13, Democrats will have a one-seat minority in the state Senate. They'll also have a new minority leader for the upcoming session, Lucia Guzman of Denver.

Colorado's annual legislative session begins Jan. 13, 2016. What are the goals of legislative leaders and the big issues they must confront?

For state Senate President Bill Cadman (R-Loveland), who is term limited at the conclusion of the session, it means negotiating an election year, the state budget and his own future in politics.

Heading into the 2016 annual legislative session Colorado lawmakers will debate a host of topics from energy and water, to the budget and schools. For House Minority Leader Brian DelGrosso (R-Loveland), the session – which begins Jan. 13, 2016 – will be dominated both by the budget and potentially the politics of a presidential election year.

Colorado's Speaker of the House, Dickey Lee Hullinghorst (D-Boulder), is entering her second year as the leader of the chamber; she is also term limited at the end of the 2016 session. What are her priorities in her final year under the recently refurbished gold dome of the capitol?

Mike King, the executive director of Colorado's Department of Natural Resources, is leaving the position at the end of January 2016 to become Denver Water's new director of planning. Statehouse reporter Bente Birkeland sat down with him to talk about the future of oil and gas and the state's hydraulic fracturing debate, and his time heading the agency.

According to state and federal census figures, Colorado's population is expected to grow by an additional 2.3 million people by 2040. That's going to significantly impact the way we live – from traffic congestion, to water, to quality of life.

Most noticeably will be a shift to an older population.

The Colorado Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday on whether local cities in Colorado can either ban hydraulic fracturing or declare a moratorium. The chamber was filled with a who’s who in the energy world, from policy experts and state and city officials, to top attorneys and environmental activists, highlighting the importance of the cases.

“We’re very, very, serious about not wanting fracking anywhere near us,” said Kaye Fissinger with Our Longmont. She helped spearhead the ballot campaign which Longmont voters passed in 2012. “It was a landslide victory 60 to 40 percent. The people spoke. And the people should be heard.”

The seven justices heard an hour of arguments on the Longmont case, along with an hour of arguments on the five-year fracking moratorium passed by the city of Fort Collins.

"Colorful Colorado" may one day need to be referred to as "Crowded Colorado," given the number of people expected to soon move here.

Weld County's population is expected to double to half-a-million – and El Paso County will still be the largest county. It's not just the Front Range; A Rocky Mountain PBS I-News analysis of data from the state demographer and the U.S. Census Bureau shows seven of the 10 fastest growing counties will be on the Western Slope, including Eagle, Garfield and Routt.

The numbers show an estimated 7.8 million people will call Colorado home by 2040. All that growth will take a toll on the state's infrastructure as well as water and other natural resources.

Gov. John Hickenlooper announced Monday that Colorado would accept Syrian refugees. President Barack Obama said the U.S. would receive at least 10,000 Syrian refugees within the next year, but a growing list of Republican governors pledged to block refugees from relocating to their states.

"We can protect our security and provide a place where the world's most vulnerable can rebuild their lives," said Hickenlooper in a statement.

After five years on the job, Colorado's Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia announced that he is stepping down from the position and as head of the Colorado Department of Higher Education. Garcia will leave his dual-role to helm a higher education policy group for the western U.S., the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.

Colorado will take center stage Wednesday when the Republican Party's presidential hopefuls hold their third debate at the University of Colorado-Boulder. Along with a recent visit from Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, CU students are saying all the activity is engaging younger voters ahead of 2016.

The state is politically purple, but Boulder is famously liberal, making the GOP debate a rare encounter with the conservative movement. Yet, mobilizing younger voters will be key to any electoral win, and both parties will be spending a lot of time in swing states like Colorado.

Local tax and spending issues, as well as city council and mayoral races largely dominate Colorado's 2015 election. There is only one statewide question, which asks voters whether the state can keep marijuana tax money it's already collected to pay for school construction, law enforcement and other programs.

If that's a question that sounds familiar – that's because it is. Proposition BB will actually be the third time Colorado voters have weighed in on taxing marijuana.

The Republican field to challenge Democratic U.S. Senator Michael Bennet is still very much up in the air, but some possible contenders have not ruled out entering the race.

Bennet's seat is one of 10 Democratic seats across the nation the party must defend in 2016. So far Republicans do not have a clear front-runner. Bright prospects including Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman and Arapahoe County District Attorney George Brauchler have both decided not to run.