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.

Three lawmakers face formal complaints at the state Capitol alleging sexual harassment. We went to the districts these lawmakers represent to see what their constituents think about the situation. The overall message: sexual harassment shouldn’t be tolerated and there should be consequences should the allegations be proven true.

Kathy Ochsner is a 73-year-old retired secretary who lives in Centennial, south of Denver.

“I think we need to send the message that this is not OK,” she said. “This is not part of the workplace.”

There’s the allegation of a lawmaker who suggested sexual acts and tried to force a colleague to go home with him. Another allegedly grabbed and slapped an aide’s buttocks as she walked in the Capitol. Another claim: A senator would regularly leer, comment on an intern’s clothes and linger, touching her shoulder.

So far, our reporting has prompted four women to file formal sexual harassment complaints against three lawmakers at the state legislature. Just two of those women – Rep. Faith Winter and former lobbyist Holly Tarry – have gone public, willing to be named in their claims against Rep. Steve Lebsock, a Democrat running for state treasurer. Lebsock has denied any wrongdoing. He has refused calls to resign by top leaders in his own party. 

A state lawmaker was arrested on Tuesday, Dec. 5 at Denver International Airport for carrying a firearm. As first reported by us, Republican Rep. Lori Saine is being held pending an investigation and possible charges.

A state lawmaker has drafted legislation to remove Rep. Steve Lebsock from office as Lebosck has refused calls for his resignation. It sets the stage for a battle, as allegations of sexual harassment continue at the Colorado Capitol. Lebsock is a Democrat running for state treasurer.

Rep. Matt Gray, also a Democrat, said he will introduce a resolution when lawmakers return to the legislature in January. Gray said he believes the accounts of the women who first accused Lebsock in our stories last month. 

Another woman has decided to file a formal complaint alleging sexual harassment by a lawmaker at Colorado’s Capitol. The former legislative intern alleges that Sen. Jack Tate regularly leered at her and nudged her, making inappropriate comments during the 2017 legislative session.

That raises the number of formal complaints against lawmakers to four. Earlier this month, we reported that Rep. Faith Winter and former lobbyist Holly Tarry filed complaints against Rep. Steve Lebsock, a Democrat, alleging unwanted sexual advances and vulgar and inappropriate discussions.

A former legislative aide has filed a sexual harassment complaint against Republican state Sen. Randy Baumgardner for inappropriately touching her. 

The woman alleges that Baumgardner of Hot Sulphur Springs slapped and grabbed her buttocks about four times over a three month period during the 2016 legislative session when she worked at the State Capitol. She alleges that each incident happened inside the Capitol building during her workday, often while she was walking through a corridor next to the Senate Chamber. 

New claims of sexual harassment have been brought up at the Colorado legislature involving Sens. Randy Baumgardner and Jack Tate. Both, in comments to us, strongly deny any wrongdoing, although they refused to answer our specific questions directly.

Megan Creeden, an intern who was 25 at the time, told us she had many uncomfortable encounters with Baumgardner during the 2016 legislative session. She said Baumgardner often pressured her to drink with him in his office and she didn’t want to be with him in his office alone because she didn’t know him.

On Tuesday state Rep. Steve Lebsock went on the offensive regarding the sexual harassment allegations against him, claiming he was being blackmailed in an effort to force him to resign his House seat.

“This is a story about blackmail and coercion and extortion, is what this is,” he said.

Gov. John Hickenlooper is calling for the resignation of Rep. Steve Lebsock following allegations he sexually harassed 11 people, including three who are publicly named, one of them a fellow lawmaker. 

"Now that the facts are apparent, he should certainly resign," said Hickenlooper.

A flood of lawmakers are now calling for the resignation for Rep. Steve Lebsock, a Democrat running for state treasurer, in the wake of our reporting on allegations of sexual misconduct.

Meanwhile, a second woman has come forward with additional allegations that raise questions about Lebsock’s behavior at the State Capitol.

Nine legislators, staffers and lobbyists are alleging that Rep. Steve Lebsock, a Democrat running for state treasurer, harassed, intimidated or made unwanted sexual advances against them. And in response to our reporting, a top Democratic leader is calling on Lebsock to “do the right thing and resign.”

A project to create a passenger rail line from Fort Collins to Pueblo – and even further – is still in its early stages. The Southwest Chief and Front Range Passenger Rail Commission in charge of the project briefed state lawmakers on Thursday.

Jacob Riger, the vice-chair of the Commission said the group would spend part of next year establishing a preferred route for the line.

A group of Colorado lawmakers are working to lower health insurance premiums for residents on the individual market created in the wake of the Affordable Care Act. Rates are predicted to rise 34 percent on average next year. There are concerns that healthy people will opt out of coverage and that could cause rates to rise even higher as the insurance risk pool thins out.

Bob Collins, a small business owner and the father of three in Thornton, said the rise will cost him $18,000 to cover his family next year. That’s a significant increase to what he pays now.

Four years ago state lawmakers – and the governor – created a law to help undocumented children follow their American dreams. They allowed them to pay the significantly cheaper in-state tuition to go to state colleges instead of higher out-of-state prices. The requirements: They must graduate from a Colorado high school that they’ve attended for three years and promise to pursue citizenship.

“This is an issue that has been a challenge in our state and our country for many years,” said Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran, one of the main sponsors of Senate Bill 33.

Colorado’s first special session in five years ended after two days with no legislation passing. The governor had called lawmakers back to the state capitol to fix a mistake in the most extensive and heavily lobbied bill of the 2017 session, Senate Bill 267.

Statehouse reporters Ed Sealover with the Denver Business Journal and John Frank with the Denver Post talk to Bente Birkeland about what went wrong and what it could mean when lawmakers return to the capitol for the regular session next year.

A political gamble taken by Gov. John Hickenlooper to fix a mistake in a bipartisan bill that he signed has come up short. After two days and $50,000 from taxpayers, no legislation was passed during the special legislative session.

Even before lawmakers began, Republican Senate leaders were steadfastly opposed to it. They thought the issue wasn’t an emergency, wasn’t well thought out or planned, and didn’t think the Governor had done enough to loop them into discussions to try to broker a compromise.

On Oct. 2, members of Colorado’s legislature are set to gather for a special session.

Gov. John Hickenlooper has been clear on why he thinks a special legislative session is needed. Some tax revenues, he said, are not going to places like the Denver Zoo and museums because of a mistake in a bill he signed earlier this year.

For only the second time during his tenure as governor, John Hickenlooper is calling lawmakers back to the Capitol outside of their regular session. He wants them to fix an error that is keeping thousands of dollars from getting to the Denver Zoo and regional transportation districts.

But a special session may not lead to a simple fix.

Merchandising giant Amazon wants to open a second headquarters – called Amazon HQ2 -- outside of Seattle. Colorado is pulling together what it hopes is a winning bid, but it’s a competitive venture.

“This has gotten the attention of the nation for that matter -- and North America, so we’re competing internationally,” said J. J. Ament, the CEO of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation.

While Colorado’s congressional delegation had mixed reactions to President Donald Trump’s decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, many continue to show bipartisan support for the policy. The executive order, signed by President Obama, gave children brought into the United States illegally a chance to stay in the country legally.

Colorado is a resilient state. The unemployment rate is among the lowest in the nation and the population along the Front Range is booming. It’s easy to see the impact of a strong economy in Denver. Construction cranes are up all over the city and it’s harder than ever to find affordable housing.

But it’s a different story in many parts of western Colorado.

Hickenlooper file photo

Governor John Hickenlooper is denying that he and Ohio Governor and former GOP presidential candidate John Kasich are exploring a possible unity party presidential bid in 2020.  The speculation comes from national media sources, including CNN, which say Hickenlooper would run as Vice President. 

After President Trump tweeted that the U.S. military would no longer “allow or accept” transgender people to serve, troops on the ground were left with uncertainty. Military leaders say the policy won’t change until top Pentagon officials figure out how to implement it.

Emma Shinn is a 41-year-old Coloradan and veteran. She served in the Marine Corps for 20 years before retiring in 2014. When she served there was a ban on transgender people. Last year, she transitioned.  

Jackie Fortier / KUNC

Three years after legalizing recreational marijuana sales in Colorado, lawmakers are turning to pot to fill some gaps in the budget. That's why lawmakers voted to increase a special use tax on recreational marijuana sales from 10% to 15% in 2017. But while the money can be a salve for some of Colorado's problems, it doesn't, and can't, solve them all.

Bente Birkeland / Capitol Coverage

With summer here, people are flocking to the outdoors, including the trails, campsites and reservoirs of the Colorado State Parks system. Last year, the parks hit a record number of visitors – 13.5 million.  But Colorado is struggling to keep up with the demand.

Flickr User: Pictures of Money / Creative Commons

Things are in limbo after Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell delayed a vote on the Republican effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act. A group of 13 senators crafted the bill after the House passed their version of a health care bill in May to replace what is also known as Obamacare.

Based on what's in the Senate bill right now, Bente Birkeland spoke with Joe Hanel of the nonpartisan Colorado Health Institute to break down what the numbers could mean for residents and the state's budget.

Bente Birkeland / Capitol Coverage

 

During the legislative session, state lawmakers cut funding for the office that oversees weatherization and other energy saving programs for residents. Now, Gov. John Hickenlooper is asking the Joint Budget Committee to intervene to save the Colorado Energy Office, avoiding possible layoffs and program closures and delays.

Bente Birkeland / Capitol Coverage

Colorado is ramping up efforts to try and prevent marijuana from being diverted to the black market. Governor John Hickenlooper signed two bi-partisan bills into law Thursday. 

Austin Cope / KSJD

One of the biggest trade shows in the outdoor industry is still looking for a new home after the Outdoor Industry Association decided to leave Utah after two decades. Colorado has thrown its hat in the ring as a new potential site for the event, which brings together many of the world's largest outdoor companies.

Bente Birkeland / Capitol Coverage

Despite some setbacks, Colorado lawmakers are praising the now completed 2017 legislative session.  Lawmakers avoided major funding cuts to hospitals and took a step toward jump-starting condominium developments, but they failed to send a measure to voters that sought to raise the state's sales tax to fund road infrastructure repair.

Bente Birkeland spoke with Democratic Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran about some of the major pieces of legislation that passed through the Democratic House and Republican Senate.

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