Legislature adjourns on busy last day

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The 2009 session of the Colorado Legislature adjourned Wednesday with a flourish of activity that included one last dramatic vote on capital punishment.

"I don't think there is any way you can be prepared for how fast things move the last three days," said first-term Rep. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs. "You have to write down how you vote because bills come back with amendments that could change how you feel about something."

Among the more than two dozen bills that required final action on the last day was House Bill 1274, which would have repealed the death penalty in Colorado and use the money saved on prosecutions and appeals to fund a statewide cold-case unit.

The House last week passed the bill by a one-vote margin, 33-32, but on Wednesday, four Democrats joined all 14 Senate Republicans in a 17-18 vote to kill the measure.

"With the full power of the state you can kill the wrong person, and that is a mistake we cannot reverse," said Sen. Morgan Carroll, an Aurora Democrat and trial attorney in one final plea for passage of the bill.

While Republicans argued that the death penalty acts as a deterrent to murder, Carroll argued Colorado has executed only one person in 40 years while there are 1,400 unsolved homicides on the books.

Neither Baumgardner nor Sen. Al White, R-Hayden, spoke during debate about the controversial bill, but other Republicans said it would remove a tool that prosecutors need to bring about homicide convictions.

"Its presence in Colorado law is an important facet of justice in Colorado," said Sen. Shawn Mitchell, R-Broomfield. "The ultimate penalty is appropriate for the ultimate crime."

A total of 369 House bills and 297 Senate bills were introduced during the 120-day session, during which balancing a more than $18 billion budget amid declining economy proved to be the biggest challenge.

"It was a tough year, and we made some difficult cuts," said White, one of two Republicans on the six-member Joint Budget Committee that is tasked with formulating a budget plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1. He warned that next year could be even worse.

"All things considered, I wish it wasn't as drastic as I think it is, but my biggest concern is that in 2010-11, it will be more drastic than it is now," he said. "Nobody likes it, but if revenues don't increase, and we don't have the cash funds to make transfers from like we did this year, and we don't have as much in the way of federal stimulus dollars to patch leaks with, at that point it's just going to be really severe program cuts across the board."

White also said the State Education Fund, which is used to help local school districts with their costs, is threatened to go bankrupt in less than two years because of excess spending in the School Finance Act (Senate Bill 256), which also was approved Tuesday.

"If the State Education fund goes insolvent - and it very much looks as if it will - then we will have an obligation to fund all the requirements of Amendment 23 out of the general fund, and that's going to be significant," White said.

Approved by voters in 2000, Amendment 23 requires state funding for education to grow by a minimum of population growth plus inflation plus 1 percent.

White, serving his first term in the Senate after eight years in the House, was the primary sponsor of 29 bills, half of which were JBC bills associated with balancing the budget.

Among the most difficult was another one-year suspension of the Homestead Act, which gives a property tax break to senior citizens who have lived in their homes at least 10 years.

"I'm already getting complaints about that, but I'm telling seniors that they can apply to defer all their property taxes until their death or the house is sold," he said.

The most controversial, however, was a JBC bill to take $500 million from a quasi-governmental workmen's compensation insurance fund that contained a surplus of $700 million above a required reserve account. The bill died after Pinnacol Assurance threatened to sue for an illegal raid on private funds.

"I still think there's a good legitimate argument that we could have done it, but it would have been months - if not years - to get the dollars in hand," White said.

Among the non-budget bills White sponsored through final passage were measures increasing payments to farmers and ranchers for big-game damage, reinforcing a tax exemption for meals that restaurants serve to employees as part of their pay package, and allowing a tax credit for water rights donated to the Colorado Water Conservation Board to enhance in-stream flows.

Baumgardner introduced four bills early in the session but saw three of them quickly killed. They would have increased payments directly to counties from federal mineral lease revenue to compensate for the impact of energy development, streamlined the development of clean coal technology, and tried to jumpstart the return of greyhound racing to Colorado by reducing the tax rate on earnings.

Baumgardner admitted he made some rookie mistakes, including listening to people who asked him to carry a "simple bill" such as greyhound racing that turned out to be highly controversial.

"It was one of those learning experiences," he said. "Somebody came up to me and says, 'It's a no-brainier and will be really easy.' Then you walk in and have four hours of testimony, and one of the people who think is going to testify for you doesn't."

The bill never made it out of its first committee.

Baumgardner said he has no regrets carrying the FML bill, even though it upset a compromise that had been reached a year earlier on the distribution of FML revenue between the Department of Local Affairs and the Department of Natural Resources.

Baumgardner, a Grand County rancher and retired Department of Highways employee, didn't get his requested assignment this year on the House Agriculture Committee, but he will serve on two major interim committees this summer and fall that deal with transportation and water issues.

"I would like to follow my true love (next year), which is agriculture, but if not, I will continue to do the best job in education as I possibly can," said Baumgardner. "Serving on the education committee has given me a different perspective because I've never been that involved in education before. It's been a great learning experience."

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