Bente Birkeland

Bente Birkeland has covered Colorado politics and government since spring of 2006. She loves the variety and challenge of the state capitol beat and talking to people from all walks of life. Bente's work has aired on NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered, American Public Media'sMarketplace, and she was a contributor for WNYC's The Next Big Thing. She has won numerous local and national awards, including best beat reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors. Bente grew up in Minnesota and England, and loves skiing, hiking, and is an aspiring cello player. She lives in Lakewood with her husband.

Steve Wilson / Flickr - Creative Commons

The Colorado Department of Transportation Commission voted unanimously to approve $1 million to help preserve the Southwest Chief rail line in southern Colorado. It's part of a route that stretches from Chicago to Los Angeles.

The aging track needs major upgrades or Amtrak will have to reroute the line out of Colorado and parts of New Mexico and Kansas. The train stops in Lamar, La Junta and Trinidad, in southeastern Colorado.

Colorado’s state legislature wrapped up its work on Wednesday. Lawmakers covered a host of topics during their four months under gold dome. It was also the first session since Republicans re-gained controlled of the state senate. Bente Birkeland talks to reporters about the session as part of our capitol conversation series.
 

Bente Birkeland / RMCR

State lawmakers waited until the last minute to decide some of the biggest issues hanging over the capitol for the 2015 legislative session. They worked overtime to get everything wrapped up before a midnight deadline Wednesday night.
 

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A bill to raise the salaries of state lawmakers and other elected officials quietly made its way through the state house in the final days of the legislative session. It passed on the last day of the session clearing the House with the minimum number of required votes. It had virtually no debate in either chamber.

“People in my district, whenever I tell them how much we make as lawmakers up here, are astounded. They are kind of appalled,” said Senator Kevin Grantham (R-Canon City). He voted for the measure in the Senate where it passed with a wider margin.

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Colorado will soon have a felony DUI law on the books.  On the final day of the legislative session, the Senate passed House Bill 1043 [.pdf] to create a felony DUI for habitual drunk driving offenders. It passed the Senate 34-1.

The debate over continuing the Office of Consumer Counsel won't be decided until the final day of the state's annual legislative session. The Office represents taxpayers when utility and telecom companies go to the state to ask for rate hikes. Without Senate Bill 271 [.pdf], the Office of Consumer Counsel would sunset and go away altogether.

Determining the scope of the office's role though has been contentious.

The state's annual legislative session adjourns on Wednesday May 6th.  The last few days are hectic as state lawmakers try to push through final bills.  Other bills fail on the calendar or die in committee. 

Peter Marcus of the Durango Herald and Ivan Moreno with the Associated Press sit down with statehouse reporter Bente Birkeland to discuss what's left to do and what measures are dead.

 Peter Marcus of the Durango Herald on reproductive rights legislation:

Two former governors, Roy Romer and Bill Owens, joined current Gov. John Hickenlooper at the state capitol to urge lawmakers not to go too far in reducing the numbers of standardized assessments school children take. This comes as legislators are debating several bills to lower the number of exams.

Republican Bill Owens said it's important to have standards and test against those standards to see if students are learning what they should, and to evaluate schools and teachers.

"Our friends from the left and the right for differing reasons, don't want to test, don't want to measure, don't want to have accountability," said Owens. "This is stunning to me."

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Colorado’s Senate president introduced a fetal homicide bill this week. As written, it would define a person as an unborn human being from conception until birth for the purposes of homicide and assault cases. It’s expected to draw vigorous debate at the statehouse.

Senate Bill 268 [.pdf] would allow prosecutors to file a murder charge if an unborn baby is killed or dies during an assault or murder of the mother.

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UPDATE 04/15/15 - The House passed the bill; it's expected to fail in the Senate.

ORIGINAL POST 04/14/15: Democrats in the House unexpectedly delayed a vote on an American Indian mascot bill after they realized Republicans had enough votes to kill it.  

Steve Wilson / Flickr – Creative Commons

    

UPDATE 04/14/15: The Joint Budget Committee, charged with negotiating the differences between the House and Senate budget proposals, stripped this funding amendment from the budget. The eventual budget plan will still need approval from both chambers.

ORIGINAL POST 04/09/15: Lawmakers in the House initially passed the state's annual budget yesterday. After hours of debate, the chamber decided to set aside money to help preserve a passenger train that runs through southeastern Colorado. Bente Birkeland has more from the state capitol.

The annual Colorado budget is making its way through the statehouse. It cleared the Senate on a vote of 21 to 14, passing largely along party lines, with three Democrats joining Republicans to support it. What are the dynamics in play?

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  The state’s budget for next year initially passed the Senate on Wednesday after a nearly nine hour debate. It’s the final part of the months long budgeting process. As Bente Birkeland reports, lawmakers didn’t make many changes.

Capitol Conversation: Budget

Apr 2, 2015
D. Utterback

  The annual Colorado budget is making its way through the statehouse. It cleared the Senate on a vote of 21 to 14 passing largely along party lines, with three Democrats joining Republicans to support it. We asked John Frank with the Denver Post and Ivan Moreno with the Associated Press to talk about the dynamics at play.

  

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A bi-partisan measure aimed at reducing the number of tests Colorado public school students take is in limbo at the state legislature. The sponsors delayed the first hearing and don’t know when it will be rescheduled – if at all.

On average, students in Colorado classrooms take more than two-dozen assessments before they graduate, and in some cases up to four times a year according to the Colorado Education Association.  Critics say it actually means less time for overall learning.

Bente Birkeland / RMCR

Colorado’s childhood poverty rate has decreased for the first time in five years. The latest data comes as part of the annual Kids Count Report, which offers information on the health and well being of children across the state.

“That is great news for Colorado,” said Lt. Governor Joe Garcia. He went on to add that there’s always a but. “We know that there are still far too many children growing up in households where they don’t have access to the opportunities and resources they need to be healthy and succeed."

D. Utterback

Colorado’s latest revenue forecast was a mixed bag for lawmakers, showing a healthy economy and more money for the state budget. But there’s also a lot of uncertainty moving forward. Bente Birkeland sat down with Ivan Moreno of the Associated Press and Ed Sealover with the Denver Business Journal to discuss the implications of more state revenue.
 

Here are excerpts from the interview:

What it means for the state budget:

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As they prepare to write the annual budget, there's mixed news for Colorado lawmakers. The latest revenue forecast shows the economy will remain strong, but there is a lot of uncertainty going forward, especially when it comes to low oil prices and how it ripples through the state's economy.

Trying to get more information on the health impact of oil and gas drilling is a topic that lawmakers will soon be taking up at the statehouse. It comes after the Governor's Oil and Gas Task Force finished their work and issued several health related recommendations.

"I get a little bit concerned and annoyed when people try to use health as the basis of what they don't like about oil and gas," said Dr. Larry Wolk the Executive Director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment.

He said he understands the concern, but worries the state doesn't have enough hard data.

D. Utterback

Governor John Hickenlooper recently sat down with reporters to discuss how the legislative session is going so far. Lawmakers are just past the midpoint of the four-month long session.

Which bills are being delayed?

How is the Governor handling split legislative control?

Here are a couple highlights from the conversation:

Kristen Wyatt, Associated Press

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Tisha Schuller announced earlier this week that she’s leaving her position as head of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, the state’s largest trade organization for the energy industry. She sat down with Bente Birkeland to discuss industry challenges and why she's moving on.
 

A bill to expand a teen pregnancy prevention program for low-income youth failed in the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday on a party line 3-2 vote. Republicans defeated the measure, one that was sponsored by one of their own.

"I guess this is my big thing is let's take an inventory of what we're doing before we throw another layer on there," said Senate Finance Committee chair Tim Neville (R-Littleton).

Two Republican religious freedom bills drew strong opposition from gay rights groups, civil liberties organizations and members of the business community Monday. The first bill, known as House Bill 1171 [.pdf], would have forbade government officials from constraining the exercise of religion had it not been struck down in committee.

The second bill, House Bill 1161 [.pdf], would have protected people from facing penalties for refusing to violate their beliefs and was also defeated.

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State lawmakers are officially at the halfway point of the 2015 legislative session. What needs to be done before the end of the session? Lawmakers will need to pass a balanced budget, and along the way grapple with some hot-button issues such as school testing requirements and police reforms.

"Most of the big work is ahead of us, what happens for the first half is kind of getting ready for it," said Senate President Bill Cadman (R-Colorado Springs).

State lawmakers are midway through the annual legislative session. Bente Birkeland talked with Ivan Moreno with the Associated Press and Charles Ashby with the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel to discuss police reform bills and workforce development measures that will get a lot of attention in the coming weeks.

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The sponsor of a proposal to put guardrails around the use of drones for non- government purposes asked lawmakers on the House Judiciary Committee to delay a vote on the bill on Tuesday.

“I would work with members of the committee to make sure it truly protects the privacy of people in the state,” said Representative Polly Lawrence (R-Roxborough Park).

After nearly two hours of testimony that focused on emerging technologies and a person’s reasonable expectation of privacy, many lawmakers said still they had questions about the bill.

Governor John Hickenlooper’s oil and gas task force recently proposed nine recommendations to try and easy concerns for people living near energy development, but it did not vote to give local communities more control over oil and gas drilling.

Many state lawmakers were waiting on recommendations before introducing energy related bills.

As part of our Capitol Conversation series, Bente Birkeland takes a look ahead with Ivan Moreno of the Associated Press and Peter Marcus with the Durango Herald.

Here are two highlights from the conversation:

Bente Birkeland / RMCR

Governor John Hickenlooper’s oil and gas task force will deliver its final recommendations Friday. The group is proposing nine changes to try and mitigate the impacts of energy development near communities. The task force also wants local governments to be more involved in developing large drill sites, but stopped short of allowing cities and counties to adopt stricter rules than the state standards. Bente Birkeland sat down with the Governor to discuss his thoughts on the group’s work and some of the backlash from members of his own party.

After five months of meetings, the work of Governor John Hickenlooper’s oil and gas task force is getting mixed reviews from lawmakers at the state capitol. 

Governor John Hickenlooper created the task force last August to avoid a fracking fight at the ballot box, and to keep two anti- oil and gas measures from reaching voters. Now, that group of individuals from the industry to environmentalists has backed nine recommendations, such as adding more well inspectors and trying to reduce truck traffic.

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A bill to try and reduce teen pregnancies and provide state funding for intrauterine devices or IUDs passed its first test at the capitol. House Bill 1194 would provide $5 million for clinics across the state that offer reversible long-term contraceptives to low-income women and teenagers. Colorado has been running the program with a private grant.

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