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That Fits the Bill

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

Now, by happy coincidence, Shwayder can be named to the post permanently. During initial committee hearings, sponsor Peggy Kerns, a Democrat from Aurora, was quizzed about the "Shwayder Job Security Act" aspect of HB 1125. She denied that her legislation had any specific connection to the acting health director.

HB 1209: "It's just a piece of legislation--just defines what a farm can be," explains Representative Lewis Entz, the Alamosa County Republican who introduced the bill. "I just wanted to make sure it was defined."

Um, okay. Just another boring cleanup bill--"the Labor Peace Act definition of farm." Except that the bill, which already has been signed into law, takes pains to clearly define mushroom-growing operations as farms rather than commercial operations. Entz, a former Alamosa County commissioner, is familiar with the business; he voted to help the owners of Alamosa County's largest employer, Rakhra Mushroom Farm, sell revenue bonds to build the plant back in the 1970s.

The distinction is crucial, because if mushroom-growing is defined as a farming activity, it is exempt from most union-organizing protections. Not coincidentally, Rakhra's workers have been talking seriously about union organization and a strike since last year.

So what was HB 1209 about again? "I think it was an attempt to define a mushroom operation as a farm so the labor unions couldn't come in, hopefully," says Alamosa County Commissioner Tim Gallagher.

HB 1217: This bill has an innocuous-enough title: "School District Boundaries." But don't be fooled--HB 1217 is personal legislation at its best.

In 1993 the Fellowship Bible Church of Colorado Springs, a charitable organization entitled to a tax break, applied for a property-tax exemption on seventeen parcels of land. According to Susan Whitfield, manager of exemptions for the state Division of Property Taxation, the state instructed the church to consolidate the parcels so that they matched the assessor's maps in El Paso County. The church apparently got caught up in other business, though, and didn't complete the job until early 1996.

But the state can't grant a tax break more than two years after the fact, and the church appeared to be out of luck. So church officials did what any outraged citizens would do: They went to their legislator.

Fortunately, they didn't have to go very far. Representative Doug Dean, a Colorado Springs Republican, is a member of the congregation. He introduced a bill that would permit school districts (used for property-taxing purposes) to move portions of one property into the tax district of another. It passed. The church gets its tax break.

Individual property-tax quagmires offer some of the most fertile ground for raising personal legislation. Whitfield says at least one bill every year is so narrowly written that it clearly applies to a single individual or group.

Last year that group was a Fort Morgan church. Although the church had previously earned a property-tax exemption, it failed to file in 1992. When it finally got around to it, the two-year deadline had passed. Not to worry, though. Fort Morgan's representative and senator sponsored a bill that would permit the state to waive the deadline if "the interest of justice and equity would be served thereby." It passed, and the Fort Morgan church applied for the 1992 exemption in 1995 and received it.

HB 1245: On the surface, this is a public-safety bill; it permits counties with fewer than 15,000 residents--by far the majority of Colorado's counties--to adopt fire-safety codes. A second provision, however, directly ensures the continued business of a specific industry.

"Fireworks," explains Don Reichel, a lobbyist for the Colorado State Fire Fighters Association, "start a lot of fires." As a result, firefighters have always butted heads with the state's fireworks manufacturers, primarily Stonebraker (aka Rocky Mountain Fireworks) and Fire-King Fireworks. So HB 1245, sponsored by Martha Kreutz, an Arapahoe County Republican, and already signed into law, offered a compromise.

The first part of the law--the firefighters' portion--encourages small counties to adopt fire-safety standards. The second part says that the same counties are prevented from prohibiting the sale of permissible fireworks--thus protecting fireworks manufacturers from being eliminated by, just for example, new county fire-safety codes.

HB 1283: Introduced by Ken Chlouber, a Leadville Republican, this bill affects exactly two businesses, say state tax officials. The largest of them is in Chlouber's district: Asarco, which in a joint venture runs the Black Cloud Mine as well as the California Gulch Superfund cleanup site next door in Lake County.

Part of Asarco's business in Leadville is cleaning up the pollution mess left behind in the Yak Tunnel, which once was used to de-water active mines. In 1993 the company asked state lawmakers to make the water-treatment facility portion of its operation free from property taxes. Asarco contended that the plant was not part of its actual business--mining--but rather part of a federal requirement. The request, recalls Mary Huddleston, of the state's Division of Property Taxation, "was very unusual."

But the legislature declined to designate the water-cleanup part of Asarco's operation a charitable organization--just like churches and the Red Cross--and thus tax-free.

HB 1283, signed into law in March, aimed to clear the throats of those who had a hard time choking down the notion of Asarco as a charity but who wanted to give the company a tax break anyway. The new law allows the local assessor to value the water-cleanup part of a Superfund site (although the legislation doesn't offer any specific examples, Huddleston says only two businesses qualify--Asarco and Eagle Mine, in Eagle County) as separate from a company's for-profit operations and thus not subject to property taxes.

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