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He Always Plays His Bills

For Senate Majority Leader Jeff Wells, the game's the thing.

The brass at the Colorado High Schools Activities Association were worried. They professed to love Gabe Lane as much as everybody else did, and in 1996 everybody heard about Gabe, a mildly retarded boy who was ruled ineligible by the CHSAA to play football with his high-school team. His plight became national news. Like Chance the Gardener, Gabe even took some time to counsel a U.S. president and hobnob with the hoity-toity.

The folks at CHSAA thought of themselves as defending Gabe against hard-hitting high-school football players. They were also trying to keep in place the spirit of the rule that students age nineteen and older can't play high-school ball. Rumors began to circulate that coaches were scouring special-education classes looking for beefy twenty-year-old linemen.

Things turned ugly. No less than the president of the Colorado Senate, Tom Norton, threatened to make CHSAA a branch of the Colorado Department of Education, essentially stripping the 76-year-old agency of all power.

Then Jeff Wells decided to get involved.
Norton is the president of the Senate, but many senators say that Wells, a 48-year-old Republican from Colorado Springs, is the single most powerful legislator in Colorado. "I've heard that rumor," Wells says, smiling. He goes on to try to deflect such talk, but clearly, he doesn't mind the notion, especially as he contemplates the future. After four terms, Wells is thinking about a run for attorney general, because term limits will force him out of his cozy Senate seat next year.

Wells had no real reason or authority to jump into the Gabe fray, except that he had a solution.

It was a solution that was pure Jeff Wells. It illustrated to all insiders that he--not Norton, not CHSAA--was in charge. It left CHSAA administrators beholden to him. It created a few headlines about how he was Gabe's savior. It created a complex new regulatory arrangement that, considering the experience Wells gains from his regular work as an administrative law judge, he would be uniquely able to manipulate.

And it was also particularly good for one of his favorite constituent groups: the Jeff Wells family.

Wells's solution was a bill to create a new appeals process for CHSAA: When a person has a dispute with a rule, that person can take the beef to an outside group. Says CHSAA commissioner Bob Ottewill, "I think this is a positive move." CHSAA's appeals process was fine before, adds Ottewill, but he can see how outsiders would think the old process was insular.

That same bill also allows Wells to refine last year's club-sports law, which quietly whisked away the rule that prohibited students from playing for their high-school teams as well as for club sports teams. CHSAA had banned dual participation for years, mostly as a method of keeping students in school and coaches from fighting over students' time.

This year the Gabe bill, which awaits the governor's signature, will make some modifications to that law. And that's where Wells's family comes in: His son plays club hockey.

"I don't think any of the other schools even knew about [the club-sports provision of the bill]," says Gene Moses, the athletic director of Cheyenne Mountain High School, which Wells's son attends. Wells loves to brag about his son and his hockey skills, and he mentioned him often while working for passage of another bill last year.

Other schools may not have known about the change, but they knew at Cheyenne Mountain, where hockey is a big deal. That school recently won its record eleventh state championship in front of a standing-room-only crowd, but the team did it without the services of Wells's son. The school was not able to implement the rule change this year; next year, however, Wells's clout will pay off for his son and a handful of other players at the school. "Next year we'll have an earlier start, so we'll be able to work out an agreement between the coaches," says school principal Paul Martin. That is, Wells's son will have the chance to benefit from his dad's new law.

Wells insists that the law was not about his family but was inspired by the daughter of a friend of his who faced a similar predicament.

Wells, who passes a higher percentage of bills than any other senator, has also proposed and made into state law policies that specifically address student concerns at the University of Colorado, a school that both of his daughters have attended. For instance, two bills from 1995 and other amendments completely changed the way colleges collect student fees. Wells says these bills were sparked not by his daughters, but by his daughters' friends.

He adds that it would be "surprising" if some percentage of the bills he's proposed over his years as a senator were not born of personal experiences. "The impression," he says, "is that every time one of my kids whines I write a new law, and that's not the case."

While some lawmakers say this is the reality of a citizen legislature, others are uncomfortable with "personal grudge" bills. "To me, it seems inappropriate," says Tim Foster, who left the job of House majority leader last year.

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