State lawmakers review latest legislative session

Kelly Sloan

Kelly Sloan, The Business Times

Republican state lawmakers from the Grand Valley said they were challenged and frustrated by a legislative session controlled by Democrats.

While some of the measures that were enacted could hurt businesses, other measures affecting the energy industry were defeated.

State Sen. Steve King of Grand Junction called the latest session the most challenging of his career. “Colorado has become a battleground for some very progressive ideas this year.”

King  joined State Reps. Ray Scott of Grand Junction and Jared Wright of Fruita at a legislative wrapup breakfast hosted by the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce.

Scott said Republicans often won the arguments, but lost the votes in a House and Senate with Democratic majorities.

Wright said his first session and the regulatory environment were eye-opening experiences. “The fact that government agencies have more lobbyists than any of you is part of the problem,” he told the group of 60 at the chamber event.

Regulations created by state agencies equated to 28 reams of paper.

“And that is all from last year’s legislation. The sheer volume of regulation that will be created from this year’s could be staggering.”

Betsy Bair, legislative director for the chamber, said of the specific legislation affecting business, enactment of House Bill 1136 was perhaps the most troubling.

The legislation makes it easier to sue even the smallest employers for discrimination under state law for an expanded classes of economic damages as well as for non-economic damages. These non-economic damages include emotional pain, inconvenience, mental anguish and loss of enjoyment of life. Federal law only allows such damages to be assigned to businesses employing more than 15 people.

In addition to the financial risks the law poses to small businesses, the legislation allows discrimination cases to be brought under state law, where most are currently handled in federal court, Bair said. “We have a state court system that is already overburdened, and bringing this new class of cases will only make the problem worse.”

Wright said the law will “dramatically increase the hidden costs of doing business, the costs of a small business with two or three employees having to defend themselves against petty litigation.”

King said the law was “terrible” for small businesses. “Even the federal government gives an exception to businesses with fewer than 15 employees because the average cost of one of these lawsuits in $150,000 beginning to end. What small business can afford that?”

Bair said local businesses owners and managers also were concerned by the push at the Legislature for more regulations on oil and natural gas development.

Scott characterized the oil and gas bills, many sponsored by legislators from Denver and Boulder, as indicative of the Democrats’ “pent up willingness to attack things they don’t understand.”

“We saw a push to try and turn what are properly agency rules into statutes,” Scott said. “It was a case of legislators becoming rulemakers.”

While he was relieved the majority of the most restrictive oil and gas bills didn’t pass, Scott said he expects similar bills to come back next year. “2014 will be a challenging year as well.”

King said gun control laws enacted by the legislature and signed into law by Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper earlier in the session also will hurt the local business environment.

“Just from a state marketing and hunting industry standpoint, we are starting to see a groundswell of boycotts against Colorado because of the gun laws,” King said. “I think Colorado will feel a backlash.”

King said he’s worried about the effects of boycotts, especially during hunting season. “Hotels, restaurants, sporting stores, gas stations, you name it, will all be hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst, this season, all because of the most restrictive gun laws in the United States.”

Still, Bair said not all of the news from of Denver this year was bad.

The chamber was happy about the passage of House Bill 1080, which extends an income tax credit to Colorado aircraft manufacturers for hiring new employees.

“This would allow a business like West Star Aviation to be able to take advantage of the new employee tax credit,” Bair said. “This will have a net positive impact on the local economy.”

West Star Aviation recently announced plans to substantially expand its facilities at the Grand Junction Regional Airport, including the construction of a 45,000 square-foot hangar, and add an additional 150 employees over the next five years.

The three state lawmakers all expressed their appreciation for chamber’s role during the legislative session.

Said King: “We appreciate the support of the chamber throughout the session and the input, advice and involvement you had on many of the bills and issues we faced.”

Said Wright: “Other chambers are uninvolved. You guys are doing a great job.”