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Afternoon Headlines: March 22, 2017

Posted: March 22, 2017 at 2:17 pm by , in Headlines

Today’s headlines are produced in partnership with The Colorado Independent.

In something of a bombshell, a key Republican in the state Senate on Tuesday said he would be co-sponsoring a bill that would do something GOP members in the General Assembly have vehemently opposed: reclassifying a fee that hospitals pay in order to free up more spending money for the state.

President Pro Tem Jerry Sonnenberg said concern about keeping the doors of rural hospitals open changed his mind. He has 11 such hospitals in his district.

Right now, the fee, which brings about $700 million a year into state coffers, counts against revenue limits set by the voter-approved Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR). The provider fee is pushing the state over that limit, triggering taxpayer refunds. This is happening as the state faces a roughly $700 million budget deficit it must reconcile before the session ends in May.

By reclassifying the hospital provider fee as a government-owned enterprise, something the Democrats long have been trying to do, the state could free up more than $350 million a year to fund transportation, education and health care.

Senate Republicans have steadfastly refused for the past three years to even consider the move.  Sonnenberg’s bill is still in draft form, but he told The Colorado Independent it has the buy-in from Democratic leaders..

 

Also, in legislative news, state lawmakers say they may have their best shot in years at addressing Colorado’s housing crisis with a package of bills seek to make it easier for developers to build more affordable for-sale housing by reducing the threat of lawsuits for construction defects.

Two pending bills aim at reforming the state’s 2007 construction defects law, which allowed homeowners to bring suit against developers for shoddy construction.

A bipartisan bill introduced late last week would require homeowners’ associations to fully inform and then obtain consent from a majority of homeowners — rather than just a handful — to proceed with a defects lawsuit.  A separate bill would reduce the cost of liability insurance for builders.

Lawmakers argue that fixing the laws will spur builders and developers to come back to Colorado and build affordable condos, defined as around $200,000. Builders say the current laws make lawsuits almost a given when they build affordable condos and townhomes, and they aren’t coming back until the laws are changed. But homeowners who have been through expensive problems with cracking foundations, leaky windows and doors that don’t seal properly say the laws have protected them from shoddy construction.

The HOA bill introduced last Friday, which is sponsored by legislative heavy hitters, is a good first step, lawmakers say, in solving Colorado’s affordable housing crisis.

 

Legal and immigration experts say that a federal judge’s decision allowing detainees in a privately-run Aurora immigration detention center to move forward with a class action suit alleging were forced to work with little or no pay may spark similar cases across the country.

But, they say, ending the practice of underpaid and forced labor — will likely come at taxpayer expense.

“[Operators] may end up paying damages, but it’s not like the government is going to stop detaining people,” says Alex Friedmann, managing editor of Prison Legal News, a publication which advocates for the rights of detained people. If detention facilities have to start paying fair wages, he says, “What they’ll do is simply pass the extra cost onto taxpayers, increase their government contracts to provide for more money.”

Nine plaintiffs sued private contractor GEO Group over alleged underpaid and forced labor while detained at GEO’s immigration detention facility in Aurora, Colorado. In granting class-action status in the case, Federal Judge John Kane has also certified the approximately 62,000 others who are or have been detained in the facility since 2004 as potential plaintiffs.

Plaintiffs claim that the Aurora facility has a policy of selecting six detainees from each housing “pod” at random every day and requiring them to clean these pods, threatening them with three days of solitary confinement for noncompliance.

The lawsuit also accuses the facility of unjustly profiting from its “voluntary” work program, in which participants perform a variety of jobs, including scrubbing bathrooms, showers, toilets and windows for wages of only $1 per day.

GEO Group says that the work program and accompanying pay schedule are set by the federal government, and that several full-time contract monitors are employed to ensure compliance with ICE guidelines.

Experts say that immigration detention facilities rely on forced and underpaid labor to function. “You couldn’t afford to run a system if you didn’t use inmate labor to do the vast majority of work that needs to be done,” says Friedmann.

For more on these headlines, visit The Colorado Independent