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From Bills To Ballots, What's Next At The Colorado Statehouse?

KUNC File Photo

It's been a month since Colorado lawmakers wrapped up their 2015 legislative session at the state capitol, but the work is far from over. Many of the bills that failed this year will likely be back next session and some long-standing issues may already be poised to go before voters in 2016.

If At First You Don't Succeed

"I've worked on issues that have taken a couple of years to get through," said Representative Don Coram (R-Montrose).

That's probably true for almost every lawmaker s . For instance a felony DUI bill – which Gov. John Hickenlooper just signed into law – took several tries, so did in-state college tuition for children living in the country illegally. For his part, Coram tried to pass a bill requiring photo identification to vote. It failed in its first committee.

"I just wanted the legislature to be aware," said Coram.

Opponents said it would discriminate and suppress voting. Coram sees the proposal as a no–brainer and is hopeful that voters will get to decide the issue in 2016.

"If we put it to the ballot it does become part of the Colorado Constitution and this fight is over for a while."

The state constitution requires ballot questions for fall 2015 to be related to fiscal matters, which is why it will be relatively quiet. So far, voters will be asked if the state can keep marijuana tax money it collected that otherwise would have to be refunded under the Tax Payers Bill of Rights.

A Matter Of Alcohol By Volume

As for 2016, another proposal that voters will likely see would allow grocery stores to sell full strength beer.

"We have the highest density of craft brewers per capita, the best selection and lower average prices for most beers of any state," said Eric Wallace, the cofounder of Left Hand Brewing in Longmont.

Independent liquor store owners, and craft brewers, like Wallace, have long argued against such a move, saying it would hurt their industry. He testified against a legislative proposal that ultimately failed several years ago.

"This would directly impact our business and our ability to sell our wonderful beer because it will greatly reduce the number of outlets in which we are able to sell them," said Wallace.

Supporters argue that grocery store chains would still sell craft brews and it's better for customers. John Straayer, a Colorado State University Political Science professor, believes the debate at the capitol was an insider business discussion, but thinks it would shift for a statewide campaign. His money is on the grocery stores winning the battle.

"If you pose the question in general terms, 'do you think it makes sense to be able to buy whatever you want by way of alcoholic beverages at the store you frequent the most, the grocery store,' well, yeah," said Straayer.

The Legislative Wild Cards

It's not certain whether voters will see other controversial proposals, including a death with dignity bill that was introduced by Representative Joann Ginal (D-Fort Collins). The proposal [.pdf] would have allowed physicians to prescribe a life ending drug to patients who have six months or less to live. After much hype, it failed in its first Democratic controlled committee.

"I don't anticipate it going to the ballot, not at this point," said Ginal.

However, she plans to bring the bill back next session. Even if it were to clear the Democratic controlled House, Republicans – who have a majority in the Senate – oppose it. Ginal thinks the death with dignity proposal would fare better with voters.

"Most of my emails and correspondence with my constituents were mainly in support of the bill," Ginal said. "There was very little opposition."

The other wild card is a measure to give local cities and towns more authority over oil and gas regulations. A task force appointed by the governor tried to address the issue, but some Democratic lawmakers said the legislature hasn't done enough.

"People have the right to have strong safeguards at the local government level, just like they do for every other activity," said Senator Matt Jones (D-Longmont).

No matter what voters may decide in 2016, changes have been made to the process of getting measures on the ballot. A bill recently signed by the governor - House Bill 1057 [.pdf] - requires groups gathering signatures for statewide ballot initiatives to include the financial cost to the state.

"I think it helps people become informed," said Stan Dempsey, the head of the Colorado Petroleum Association.

If there were to be an anti-fracking ballot initiative, Dempsey said the new law will help frame the debate sooner.

"Maybe proponents of a ballot initiative will have to work a little bit harder to collect those signatures if folks are reading the analysis and saying 'no thanks,'" said Dempsey.

Next legislative session will be leading into a busy presidential election year. That leaves plenty for capitol observers to look for, especially since there's always an unexpected measure making it on the ballot.

Copyright 2015 KUNC

Bente Birkeland
Bente Birkeland has been reporting on state legislative issues for KUNC and Rocky Mountain Community Radio since 2006. Originally, from Minnesota, Bente likes to hike and ski in her spare time. She keeps track of state politics throughout the year but is especially busy during the annual legislative session from January through early May.
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