In Denver, work remains to be done

Debates from drilling to pot go on as session moves into home stretch

DENVER – The clock is ticking on the final days of one of the most active legislative sessions in anyone’s memory.

For many exhausted lawmakers, it can’t end soon enough.

But a few others will need every last hour to pass their last bills – most notably marijuana regulation, tighter rules on gas- and-oil drillers, and new telecommunications regulations.

The Legislature has until just before midnight Wednesday to finish more than 90 bills that remained on its calendar Friday afternoon. But only a handful of those will consume most of the time and energy.

Bills to set up marijuana regulations have become mired in debates about taxes and a standard to determine when someone is too high to drive a car.

House Bills 1317 and 1318 set up a regulatory structure and apply taxes to recreational marijuana, respectively.

A Senate committee killed the too-high-to-drive bill last month, but it was reincarnated twice, and it’s now moving through the Legislature both as an amendment to HB 1317 and as a brand-new bill, HB 1325. Senate President John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, said he couldn’t predict exactly how the marijuana debate will unfold.

“Toward the end of the session, there’s a lot that happens very quickly,” Morse said.

But he isn’t worried that the marijuana bills will fail. The Legislature must pass the bills, because Amendment 64, which legalized pot, calls on the state to start regulating marijuana shops and growers by July 1.

Gas-and-oil bills were in worse shape.

On Friday evening, Democratic senators were struggling to salvage their plans to get state regulators to pay greater attention to the environment. HB 1269 changes the mission of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to prioritize environmental protection. Currently, the agency has a dual mission that also includes helping companies produce gas efficiently.

The sponsor, Sen. Matt Jones, D-Louisville, said he was looking for the votes to pass the bill late Friday. Gov. John Hickenlooper’s staff member have has been lobbying against him, Jones said.

Earlier Friday, the Senate passed another one of Jones’ gas-and-oil bills that was weaker than he wanted. HB 1267 raises the maximum daily fine for environmental violations by energy companies to $15,000, up from a current $1,000. But supporters also wanted to apply a minimum daily fine of $5,000 a day for the most serious violations – something that Republicans and half a dozen Democrats rejected after lobbying by Hickenlooper.

One idea that did get traction Friday was a bill by Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, to grant air and water permits faster for companies with good environmental records.

Carroll’s fellow Democrat, Sen. Mary Hodge of Brighton, had voted against stricter gas-and-oil bills, and she commended Carroll for offering “a carrot not a stick” with her latest bill.

It even got Republican support.

“The concept behind this bill is the direction we ought to be going on oil and gas,” said Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray.

Now Carroll’s bill, SB 284, has until Wednesday to pass a final Senate vote and make it through the House.

Also Friday, senators were working on a last-minute bid to change telecommunications laws and remove a phone company subsidy for serving rural consumers. The money would be used to build rural broadband.

Friday afternoon, Senate President John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, predicted the bill “absolutely” would pass the Senate. But hours later, a fellow Democrat forced a vote on the bill and killed it by one vote.

Morse can try to take one more vote on the bill next week. But even if he’s able to convert one senator to his side, his bill is already running into trouble in the House.

Rep. Mike McLachlan, D-Durango, had signed up to sponsor it because it was pitched to him as a way to get broadband service to Silverton and Ouray. But he took his name off the bill after learning more about the ways the bill changes telecom regulation.

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