Pot, disaster aid focus of final legislative day

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DENVER (AP) - A landmark proposal to give marijuana businesses access to banking services cleared the Colorado Legislature just hours before lawmakers adjourned for the year Wednesday.

Lawmakers also approved property tax forgiveness for disaster victims and budgeted about $18 million for victims of a wildfire started by the state during a busy final day of business that was punctuated by last-minute deals.

Since the Jan. 8 start of the session, Colorado lawmakers have mostly behaved as many expected in an election year: muted. They had a number of bills to decide, but there wasn’t a lot of controversy.

The banking plan would create the world’s first financial system for the pot industry. It will have co-ops acting as uninsured credit unions if the Federal Reserve Bank agrees to allow the businesses access merchant payment systems. The governor still has to sign the bill.

Lawmakers also passed a bill to forgive property taxes for people who lost their homes during floods and wildfires last year.

The property tax forgiveness plan was the first bill introduced in the House this year, and it was the last one approved during the session, underscoring the struggle to find consensus on the proposal.

As introduced, the bill directed the state to pay for a full year of property taxes on homes destroyed by the natural disasters.

However, the Senate changed the bill so the state would only foot the bill for the portion of the year after the properties were destroyed.

“What they truly did was an insult to disaster victims,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Longmont.

Negotiations to undo the Senate change took up much of the final day, though lawmakers ultimately restored the bill to its original form, which is expected to cost the state just over $2 million.

Both chambers also finalized legislation budgeting about $18 million in liability claims from victims of the Lower North Fork Fire in 2012. The blaze began with a state-prescribed burn in the foothills southwest of Denver, making the state liable for damages.

Another big-ticket item resolved by lawmakers was a spending plan to boost per-pupil funding for schools next year. The bill was passed Tuesday by the Senate and Wednesday by the House, which sent it to the governor with a standing ovation.

“I think this is something that we can all be proud of,” said the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Frisco.

Before the final day, lawmakers had either settled or avoided more divisive measures.

Last month, lawmakers approved a $23 billion state spending plan for next year. Earlier this week, they decided not to pursue a controversial debate on giving communities more authority to regulate oil and gas drilling.

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