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Air fleet soars at 2014 legislative session

Education funding also a winner in Denver

DENVER – Before this year, people around the Capitol knew Steve King as a rank-and-file Grand Junction Republican senator with perfect hair.

This year, though, King stepped from his seat in the back row of the Senate to center stage with his single-minded advocacy of an aerial firefighting fleet. The passage of his bill to rent or buy firefighting aircraft ranks among the biggest achievements of the 2014 legislative session, which ended Wednesday.

The session brought other milestones, too, like better budgets for colleges and K-12 schools, and a continued struggle to figure out rules for legalized marijuana.

The Legislature’s Democratic leaders entered the session in January without any of the flashy agenda items that characterized 2013, like gun safety, civil unions, elections reform or in-state tuition for kids without U.S. citizenship.

King stepped into that vacuum with his insistence that Colorado needed more airplanes and helicopters to fight wildfires. Gov. John Hickenlooper and legislative leaders had been lukewarm on the idea, citing the cost and questionable effectiveness of aerial firefighting.

Democratic Senate President Morgan Carroll praised King for his passion and signed on to his bill as a fellow sponsor.

“He has stuck with it and stuck with it and persuaded me it was the right thing to do,” Carroll said.

But everything really changed in March, when Hickenlooper’s top fire official, Paul Cooke, issued a report that recommended contracting for light air tankers and helicopters and buying spotter planes. King had wanted heavy tankers and helicopters, but he immediately embraced the report and changed his bill to follow its recommendations.

Hickenlooper was reluctant to cast King as the hero and said his administration started examining aerial firefighting in 2011.

“It wasn’t like we weren’t doing something. But Senator King definitely helped create a context where this was top of mind, where people were thinking about different alternative choices. In that sense, I think he was a valuable partner to have,” Hickenlooper said.

King, however, benefited from the same economic recovery that enabled the other big accomplishments of the 2014 session.

The $20 million cost of the aerial fleet is just a sliver of the big investments in education. An extra $110 million for K-12 schools begins to reverse about $1 billion in cuts since 2008. And the $100 million boost to colleges is a record, but it also does not restore deep cuts made during the recession.

“It is the largest increase in funding for education we’ve seen in our state’s history, from preschool through higher education,” said Speaker of the House Mark Ferrandino, D–Denver.

In contrast to 2013, even Republicans came out of this year’s session fairly happy.

“I thought it was a lot smoother, obviously a little less contentious. There weren’t the major, major issues being presented,” said Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs.

Over the summer, Republicans whittled the Democrats’ Senate majority down to one seat, thanks to a pair of recall elections. Democrats responded by stressing bipartisanship and seeking GOP support for a number of bills.

One place where the parties cooperated was on marijuana.

Legislators felt a need to prevent pot-infused cookies and treats from falling into children’s hands, and to provide banking services for an industry that’s still illegal under federal law.

“This is uncharted territory. This is the greatest social experiment of the century,” Cadman said.

Legislators had to settle for a study of how to label and shape edibles to make it obvious they contain marijuana.

But on the session’s last day, they passed a plan to allow pot businesses to form financial services cooperatives.

Hickenlooper signaled Thursday that he would sign the bill, if only to start moving the state’s $600 million marijuana industry away from using cash.

“If you wanted to design a system and really do as much as you could to get organized crime and gangsters involved, one thing is you require all cash, because that’s a breeding ground for corruption,” Hickenlooper said.

The governor now plans to travel to different parts of the state to sign many of the bills legislators passed in the previous four months.


Notable bills

Other legislation that passed in 2014:

Firefighter safety: Grants for fire departments to buy equipment and train firefighters.

Day care: Tax credit of up to $1,000 for low-income workers with child care expenses.

Business incentives: Expanded tax credits for job creation and high-tech investments.

Rainy-day fund: A budget reserve of 6.5 percent, up from just 2 percent four years ago.

Charter schools: At least an extra $13 million per year for charter school construction.

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