DAVID BERGELAND/Durango Herald
DAVID BERGELAND/Durango Herald
DENVER – Sen. Ellen Roberts needed a tow truck after a car accident last spring near Chimney Rock.
When Glenn Kerler arrived and hooked up her car, he also hooked Roberts in to a much bumpier ride than she expected.
Kerler owns Cowboy Towing and Recovery in Bayfield, and he had been in touch by email with Roberts about a 2011 bill that he thinks could put some small, rural towers out of business. On the ride back to Durango, Kerler told her more about the expensive bond the law required him to buy.
“I’m just a little podunk tower down here in a little, tiny Colorado town, and all of a sudden I find out I’m supposed to have a $50,000 bond,” Kerler said.
So Roberts set to work on a new bill to repeal the bond for rural companies, but she ran into opposition from the group that proposed it in the first place – the towing industry’s main lobbying group.
The controversy serves as a classic case of how lobbying groups influence all sorts of state laws. Legislators usually have just a part-time college intern for a staff, and they don’t have the resources to check out every lobby group.
“We take them at their word until we have constituents tell us otherwise. That’s what happened with the towing bill,” Roberts said.
The lobby group, Towing and Recovery Professionals of Colorado, opposes Roberts’ Senate Bill 49, which would repeal the bond for many towers.
A hearing is scheduled to be held Tuesday, and Roberts hopes she and her foes can reach a compromise by then.
Few legislators noticed in early 2011 when the House Transportation Committee amended a 60-page bill about the Public Utilities Commission to require tow-truck companies to carry a $50,000 bond.
The bond is to cover fines the PUC imposes on towers. A few unscrupulous towers will get fines and close their company rather than pay it. They quickly reopen under a relative’s name, and there’s nothing the PUC can do to stop them.
The TRPC pushed for the new bond. The group is the main tow-truck industry association, and it employs a lobbyist at the state Capitol.
John Connolly, president of the TRPC, testified against Roberts’ bill late last month. He helped write the amendment that created the bond last year.
“It does put a fair playing field across the state. It makes towers accountable,” Connolly testified.
Honest towers should not have to compete with unreliable companies that don’t have a PUC permit or insurance, he said.
More than three-quarters of towers already have complied with the $50,000 bond, he said, and he has been able to help towers with bad credit find better bond prices.
“We’re not seeing this great big hardship out there that this bond is putting towers out of business,” Connolly said.
The TRPC represents about 150 dues-paying companies, he said. The PUC tracks 681 registered towers.
Some of them, like Kerler, say the TRPC does not speak for them.
People with good credit, like Kerler, can get a $50,000 bond from an insurance company for about $500. But Kerler knows a local tower whose credit suffered during his divorce. He will have to pay more than $7,000 for his bond.
Kerler became even more upset when he found out that between 2009 and this month, the PUC issued just 16 fines to towing companies, and all but one of the fines went to companies in big Front Range counties.
“I’m just a dumb old, little tow-truck driver. But if I’ve got a customer who doesn’t pay, I take them to small claims (court). I don’t know why the PUC can’t do the same,” Kerler said.
PUC spokesman Terry Bote said the $50,000 bond was not his agency’s idea.
“TRPC were the ones that actually got that amendment on our bill. We were neutral on it,” Bote said. “Once some of the unintended consequences of this were realized, we actually have been working with Senator Roberts to come up with a solution to this.”
The PUC supports Roberts’ SB 49, Bote said. The bill would reduce the bond to $10,000 for companies in the largest Front Range counties, and towers in rural counties would not have to take out a bond at all.
Roberts still was negotiating last-minute changes Friday.
She said the controversy points out a problem for both legislators and businesspeople, especially rural businesspeople.
“If you’re in a trade or a profession and you don’t belong to an association, you need to know there are people here at the Capitol who claim to speak for you,” Roberts said.