That Fits the Bill

Need some special-interest legislation? Here's how this year's session measures up

Legislators like to give the impression that they are part of a sacred mission. Working in dark-paneled chambers filled with high-minded speechifying, they create the laws that drive social policy, behavior and morality, all for the greater public good.

Right. In reality, legislators can get awfully personal.
So can their legislation, which may wind up benefiting not the general public but one very, very specific party. In 1992, for example, Colorado lawmakers considered a bill later referred to as the "Anschutz Special." In short, the measure proposed that if a person--any person, really--happened to own a railroad, and if that person was considering building a shop in, say, Denver, then that person--whoever he might be--ought to receive a 3 percent sales-tax break.

Since the law passed, billionaire Phil Anschutz, who at the time was already in the process of building a repair shop in Denver for his railroad, Southern Pacific Rail, has saved millions of dollars in taxes. The list of other Denver-based billionaire railroad owners taking advantage of this legislative break is short.

On the other hand, a legislator's close, personal attention to detail can have unintended consequences; bills designed to deal with very small, specific situations have an unfortunate tendency to break into big, broad public policy.

These bills often start out as seemingly harmless "anecdotal legislation." A representative or senator gets a call from a constituent with a hard-luck story, and the lawmaker proposes a law that, had it been on the books, would have prevented the wrong. Though neighborly, such micromanagement can cause problems.

Last year, for instance, Senator Joan Johnson was approached by a 73-year-old farmer from her Adams County district who complained that his property-tax assessment recently had skyrocketed. His land had been classified as agricultural and was thus subject to lower tax rates. But the farmer hadn't worked the parcel in more than three years, so the assessor had raised his taxes.

Moved by the story, Johnson proposed a law that would have prevented former farmers from receiving higher tax bills. Unfortunately, the measure as written would have made nearly all of Larimer County--$1.2 billion of the county's entire $1.7 billion valuation--eligible for a brand-new, and completely undeserved, agricultural tax break. The bill was amended.

Colorado's 1995-1996 legislative session, which by law expires at midnight May 8, has been no less personal than previous sessions. Buried in bureaucratese, beneath debates about the Children's Code, gun-control laws, homosexual marriages and tax refunds, are bills that would affect just a small number of people--and sometimes no one at all.

What follows are some of the ways Colorado lawmakers can get personal:

Payback time
Maybe someone has pissed off your constituents or publicly dissed one of your earlier pieces of legislation. It's time to get even.

SB 58: In the fall of 1994, Alex Pappas, a Congress Park businessman, applied for a liquor license for what he hoped would be a carry-out liquor store on 12th Avenue between Elizabeth and Clayton streets. Because of strong neighborhood opposition, his application was defeated.

State law prevents an applicant from reapplying for a liquor license at the same location for two years. So three months after being turned down, Pappas applied for a new license at a new location--approximately fifteen inches from the first address. Refused again, he filed a third time by making up a new address for the same location.

All of this made his neighbors--one of whom happens to be Senator Pat Pascoe--plenty angry. Soon after, Pascoe introduced SB 58, which would prevent a liquor-license applicant from reapplying within 500 feet of his previous application's location. It was signed into law by Governor Roy Romer on April 8.

HB 1344: Last year then-president of the University of Colorado Judith Albino received a well-publicized separation agreement: If she signed off on a divorce from CU, the regents would give her $500,000 worth of cash and prizes. That miffed Representative Jeanne Faatz, a Denver Republican and author of the 1993 Postemployment Compensation Act, which prevented state workers from enjoying golden parachutes--and which Albino's deal neatly skirted.

This time around, Faatz introduced HB 1344. The proposed law doesn't mention Albino, of course. But it requires any future goodbye deals to go through a review by the governor. And it specifically allows the president of the University of Colorado to be canned for any reason. That bill is currently on Romer's desk awaiting his signature.

HB 1362 et al.: The delicious Envirotest spat really deserves a category of its own. But it most closely fits under the "Payback" heading, simply because revenge and blackmail seem to be the fuel powering these legislative vehicles.

The current mess started back in January 1995, when Envirotest began its state-sanctioned monopoly on emissions testing. Supporters claim the deal has cut air pollution in the metro area. Yet the company also has logged numerous complaints about everything from wildly inaccurate results to surly employees.

Mindful of the resentment, Senator Bill Schroeder and Representative Eric Prinzler introduced HB 1362, which would have given Envirotest some competition from other tailpipe-emissions testers. The bill was killed in mid-April--which, for all intents and purposes, marked the beginning of the real fight.

Add to the legislative attack on Envirotest an ongoing effort by small-garage owners to place an initiative on the ballot that would permit them to home back in on the emissions-testing business, and Envirotest was ready to fight back. So it suggested several of its own pieces of legislation.

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