Colorado Democrats advance hiring preference bill

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DENVER (AP) — Senate Democrats moved forward with a proposal to give bidding preferences to companies that hire Colorado workers, a bill despised by Republicans who will likely kill it immediately in the GOP-controlled House.

The bill is a centerpiece of the Democrats' job-creation plan this session, which the party has geared toward proposals they say help the local workforce and state businesses.

But their "buy local, hire local" ideas lack Republican support and many business groups have been critical.

Democrats passed the state bidding preference bill Tuesday on a preliminary vote that gave them a chance to highlight their arguments for the legislation, which would give a bidding preference to companies for state service and construction contracts worth more than $1 million if they prove at least 90 percent of their employees are Colorado residents. The companies would get an additional edge in bidding if they provide health care and retirement benefits — a provision Republicans decried as too union-leaning.

Democrats say their bill would boost the state's economy.

"This is a Colorado bill," said Democratic Senate President Brandon Shaffer. "Colorado tax dollars are going into these big contracts that are open for bid, and we can use those tax dollars to help stimulate Colorado's economy."

Republicans said Democrats were trying to manipulate the economy and stymie competition. They called the measure protectionism, saying it would increase costs and cause other states to retaliate.

"They may think that if Colorado is going to put up a fence and say, 'Closed for interstate business,' they should do the same thing," Republican Sen. Shawn Mitchell.

The Canadian consul in Denver echoed those concerns in a February letter to lawmakers about the bill, and other legislation that gives bid preference to companies to use materials manufactured in the U.S. The letter from Consul Ladan Amirazizi said that Canada believes "open trade based on a level playing field between our nations has helped spur economic growth and prosperity for both our countries."

Businesses groups, including the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry, have told lawmakers the bill would create regulatory burdens and potentially increase costs because companies with lower-priced bids could lose.

"This bill creates advantages for some companies at the expense of other companies," said Loren Furman, CACI's senior vice president of state and federal relations.

Democrats argued that their intent is to help the local workforce at a time of high unemployment. Colorado's unemployment rate is 7.8 percent. The national rate is 8.2 percent.

"I guess I'm a little concerned as to why we think that's such a big deal — that we want to encourage companies, either in Colorado or outside of Colorado, to employ our people," said Democratic Sen. Angela Giron.

The bill faces another vote before it heads to the House, which has already rejected other measures Senate Democrats promoted as part of their economic development plan.

One bill sought to encourage people to use Colorado businesses by directing a state office to create a mobile phone application showing locally owned shops. Another bill would restrict employers from using an applicant's credit history against them.

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