The Greeley Tribune, Feb. 15, on the state’s conservation easement program:
Colorado’s conservation easement program started as a good idea. Then it became a big mess. Now, it’s essentially functioning as it should, but there’s still one big problem in need of a solution.
But before we tell you what the remaining problem is and which of the two bills in this year’s Colorado General Assembly offers the best solution, it’s a good idea to back up and explain what the program is all about.
Conservation easements are basically agreements between the government and landowners. Landowners put their property into conservation, which forever restricts development and ensures the land is used for specific purposes such as farming or wildlife habitat. The agreements are intended to protect the natural, agricultural and scenic value of the land.
By accepting the easement agreement and putting the land into conservation forever, the landowners agree to effectively devalue their land. They could make far more with it, if they sold it to developers for strip malls, apartment complexes and other vestiges of urban sprawl. We all benefit when open space is preserved, which is why local and federal governments are right to encourage the conservation. The tax credits are supposed to make up the difference between value of the developed compared to undeveloped land for the landowner. The easement is then considered a permanent, binding contract.
Before 2007, though, there wasn’t much oversight in Colorado, and the program was abused. Appraisers inflated land values and easements were granted that strained credulity and did little to preserve open space. Then, the state cracked down, creating another problem with the overcorrection.
As part of the overcorrection, tax credits were disallowed on 719 easements, leaving landowners - mostly farmers - with land they couldn’t develop, but for which they weren’t receiving the tax credit they’d signed up for. They also had little legal recourse if they believed the tax credits had been disallowed erroneously. In fact, 648 of the cases were settled, leading to landowners paying large tax bills.
Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, is behind one measure aimed at redressing the wrong for landowners who were unfairly caught up in the state’s crackdown. It would stop the Department of Revenue from rejecting easement credit claims unless the easement’s appraiser was convicted of fraud in connection with that appraisal. The bill also would reinstate easement values that were rejected without cause. The other bill wouldn’t go quite as far, but also would right a wrong for landowners. The measure, sponsored by Rep. Jon Becker, R-Fort Morgan, would involve landowners who donated easements prior to 2008, were caught up in the crackdown and who have not yet settled with the state. If the bill passes, landowners with open cases would essentially get to keep their money, unless there is clear evidence of wrongdoing or the appraiser is convicted of fraud.
We’re glad this issue is getting attention from the Legislature. It’s important. Conservation easements benefit all of us, and landowners should be encouraged to preserve some of their land for open space. Those landowners who suffered because they were unduly caught up in the state’s dragnet deserve redress. Still, our preference is Becker’s bill. We worry that Sonnenberg’s bill goes too far because it completely ties the hands of the Department of Revenue unless there’s a criminal conviction. Legislation passed in 2011 has already fixed many of the problems with the state’s overzealous crackdown, and we’re not sure more is needed. But we do think those landowners who still haven’t settled their cases deserve some closure.
The (Colorado Springs) Gazette, Feb. 12, on disclosing marijuana business information:
Pot was supposed to be regulated like alcohol. Amendment 64 would make an underground trade visible, subjecting it to public scrutiny. Instead, Big Marijuana is a state-coddled industry less transparent than poodle salons.
“I don’t know why we have exceptional treatment for this one industry,” said Denver attorney Steve Zansberg, who specializes in public records access First Amendment law.
At issue is a new law enacted by Gov. John Hickenlooper when he signed Senate Bill 15-115 last year. It prevents regulators from disclosing details about marijuana businesses licensed in Colorado. As such, the state will not provide anything more than the name of a marijuana business and its owners.
“Although each license application contains personal details - an owner’s home address, phone numbers, Social Security number and date of birth among them - the law says the state may not release any ‘individualized data’ about a licensee,” explains a Denver Post investigative report. “That would include their answers to application questions about any criminal history or how much of an ownership stake they hold in the licensed business.”
The special protection makes pot dealerships like no other industry. As the Post explained, other state-licensed businesses - “from liquor stores and automobile dealers to acupuncturists and veterinarians” - are subject to visibility.
“There are countless instances in which citizens, with access to detailed records about businesses, have brought important information to regulators,” Zansberg said.
Transparency is an essential ingredient of enhanced public health and safety in the marketplace. Just as sunshine is nature’s best antiseptic, the public spotlight counters corruption and deceit. That’s one major reason Coloradans voted to bring underground drug sales to Main Street, under the promise of intense regulation.
Supporters of SB115, including state Rep. Dan Pabon, D-Denver, said the law would protect “sensitive information” about pot sellers. He and other supporters talked about protecting credit information and personal references. Yet, we don’t have a similar level of protection for other businesses. As such, SB115 seems like a regulatory pass to incentivize Big Marijuana to locate in Colorado and stay.
To prove the extent of the industry’s special treatment, Denver Post reporters asked the state’s Marijuana Enforcement Division for lists containing basic information about licensed pot businesses and their owners.
“In response to several public-information requests from The Post, the state said it would provide that information one name at a time at a total cost of about $10,000,” the Post reported.
Regulators answered a separate request with a demand for $20,000.
“The cost is clearly prohibitive,” said Jeffrey Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, as quoted in the Post. “How are journalists and the public expected to examine records and make any kind of assessment of whether a system is working or not? It’s just remarkable.”
It is the type of shakedown one might expect from a crime syndicate.
Colorado’s marijuana free-for-all is illegal under federal law. It survives because the Obama administrations’ Department of Justice has trusted states to adequately regulate. In the famous 2013 “Cole memo,” Deputy Attorney General James Cole explained the tentative nature of a federal hands-off approach to state legalization.
“The Department’s guidance in this memorandum rests on its expectation that states and local governments that have enacted laws authorizing marijuana-related conduct will implement strong and effective regulatory and enforcement systems that will address the threat those state laws could pose to public safety, public health, and other law enforcement interests,” Cole wrote.
Transparency is the cornerstone of any regulatory and enforcement system. It turns on the eyes and ears of the public. By granting less scrutiny to pot dealers than hairdressers, lawmakers may have endangered the industry they intended to favor. A new president, looking at Colorado’s laughable regulatory scheme, could shut the whole thing down with a phone and pen.
The (Grand Junction) Daily Sentinel, Feb. 15, on recognizing public lands:
Aside from the state’s renowned 300 days of sun each year, Colorado’s iconic landscapes, and all that they offer in terms of beauty, recreation, natural resources, clean water sources and wildlife habitat, are perhaps our single most defining characteristic - as well a significant economic driver and contributor to quality of life here. That stands to reason given that national public lands comprise roughly one-third of Colorado’s total land mass. The prevalence and diversity of this shared and critical resource has become somewhat of a political minefield in recent years, but a measure proposing an annual day to honor Colorado’s national public lands would give the state pause to remember their value.
Senate Bill 21 is about as innocuous a proposal as can be imagined with respect to recognizing public lands in our state. The measure would designate the fourth Monday in March each year as Public Lands Day, setting it aside to “recognize the significant contributions that national public lands within Colorado make to wildlife, recreation, the economy, and to Coloradans’ quality of life.” Whatever one’s political alignment, this notion should not offend. It has no fiscal note, and requires very little of Coloradans. Rather, it provides us an opportunity to take a look around - and perhaps even get outside and enjoy the abundance of public lands that surround us.
In La Plata County, where 38 percent of the land is managed by the U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management, public land shapes life in many ways. The mountains, high desert mesas and forests that surround us are home to critical wildlife habitat, wilderness areas, pristine watersheds, and gas, oil and other natural resources that contribute to our local and national economies. Taking one day a year to notice and acknowledge this land is the least we can do.
It is also a pushback against the alarming trend calling for public lands to be surrendered to local control emerging in pockets around the West. This uprising is predicated on the notion that federal lands were at some point “stolen” from states or private landowners and must now be turned back to their rightful owners. Setting aside the blatant illegality of the premise, the idea of burdening states or local entities with managing federal lands - a costly endeavor requiring resources beyond dollars - is neither practical nor palatable. A friendly reminder, via Colorado Public Lands Day, that our public lands are, in fact, a great resource to the state of Colorado - and all who live or visit here - is a welcome counterweight to the divisive efforts to undermine national public lands’ value through such takeover attempts as that in Oregon last month, or in Nevada last year.
The Colorado Legislature should make its mark in attempting to defuse this division by passing SB 21. The Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee held the bill over in January for discussion at a later date. It should revive the conversation quickly and make a positive, non-controversial statement about the important and abundant public lands that fall within Colorado’s borders. The state would not be the same without them.
The Denver Post, Feb. 16, on mandatory minimum sentencing laws:
State Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, seems to think that mandatory minimum sentences for criminals were put in place back in the 1980s and ‘90s as part of a mindless punitive trend.
“Once upon a time, it was fashionable for politicians to kick felons when they were down,” Steadman recently told Denver Post reporters. “I think those days have come and gone.”
Steadman is sponsor of Senate Bill 98, which would abolish many mandatory minimum sentences, giving judges more discretion, as well as eliminate potentially harsher sentences that are now available for crimes deemed to be an “extraordinary risk of harm to society.”
The bill goes too far. It would take a blunderbuss to the state’s sentencing law when more targeted reforms are needed.
But first a word on the recent history of sentencing. It is true that measures years ago stiffening sentences and imposing mandatory minimums occasionally went too far. But not always. And not without reasons that had little to do with “fashionable” theories.
First, fast-rising crime rates - and particularly violent crime - had become a growing concern. This is easy to forget in an era when violent crime is much lower than it was at its peak in the early 1990s.
Second, typical sentences for some crimes at the time, particularly sex offenses but for other categories as well, had been scandalously light.
Third, critics were concerned that open-ended discretion for judges had resulted in wildly disparate outcomes for defendants convicted of nearly identical crimes - differences that appeared unfair, hard to defend, and sometimes even biased.
In response to these concerns, lawmakers decided to increase a number of criminal penalties - and especially for crimes of “extraordinary risk of harm to society” - and somewhat restrict judicial discretion.
Both reactions made sense.
For some crimes, however, the pendulum swung too far. That’s why we’ve supported reforms such as a bill in 2013 revising Colorado’s drug sentencing rules, as well as bipartisan legislation before Congress right now that would reduce a number of mandatory minimum sentences at the federal level.
No doubt further reform is appropriate on a crime-by-crime basis. But dispensing with mandatory minimums across the board as well as enhanced penalties for a wide variety of serious crimes would represent a huge philosophical shift in terms of sentencing, one for which there is probably little public support.
And ironically, it could result in the same sort of glaring inequities that concerned lawmakers who wrote the sentences now under attack.
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