2016 #coleg Sen. Sonnenberg hopes to set limits on state agency fines

Colorado Capitol building
Colorado Capitol building

Here’s an in depth look at proposed legislation from Jerry Sonnenberg that would set limits for fines levied by state agencies, from Marianne Goodland writing for The Fort Morgan Times. Here’s an excerpt:

State agencies shouldn’t have free rein to charge exorbitant fines, especially to small communities that may not be able to pay them. That’s according to Jerry Sonnenberg, a state senator from Sterling whose district includes Morgan County, anyway.

He’s the state Senate sponsor of a proposal that would limit the ability of a state agency to fine people for violating state law or agency rules, particularly when an agency hasn’t notified an alleged violator in writing or given at least 20 business days to fix the problem.

Sonnenberg, a fan of reducing bureaucracy wherever possible, is pushing a bill to address situations like the kind faced by the city of Burlington, which was last year slapped with a nearly six-figure fine for violating the state’s clear water regulations.

According to a news release from the state Department of Public Health and Environment, which regulates water quality, the city was cited for violating 2,109 drinking water regulations in 2014, and it’s the second time the Burlington has been cited for violations related to nitrate levels in public drinking water.

Nitrates come from fertilizer, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Once ingested, they convert to nitrite, which can have serious health consequences for infants, young children and pregnant or nursing mothers.

Burlington’s nitrate levels in its drinking water have been higher than the state standard since 2009. Once regulators discovered that violation in 2014, the Department of Public Health and Environment required the city to notify residents that the nitrate levels exceed the standard for safe drinking water. According to the department, the city reported its drinking water had exceeded safe levels only once, in 2010, and never notified the public of the problem.

In November, according to the Burlington Record, the city completed negotiations with the department on the fine, which was reduced to $150,000, along with an agreement to implement a project to reduce nitrate levels back to safe standards.

Sonnenberg’s plan to rectify all this — and to make sure other municipalities, individuals and businesses in Colorado don’t end up in the same situation — comes with a three-tiered structure for fines. Cities, counties or other governments, for instance, would have to pay 5 percent of its tax revenue from the most recent fiscal year. Businesses could be hit for as high as 10 percent of their operating revenue for the past fiscal year. Individuals would have to pony up to 10 percent of their taxable income based on the most recent state income tax return.

This proposed legislation at the Statehouse doesn’t apply to criminal violations.

One of the biggest problems for the plan, though, is its cost. A fiscal review produced by nonpartisan economists at the state Capitol estimate it will cost the state about $40 million per year because of lost revenue. The bill also carries a $1 million price tag for implementation. That cost, which would impact the 2016-17 budget that just passed the statehouse, will make it a tough sell in the Democratically controlled House.

The bill drew heated discussion in the state Senate Wednesday between the Republican Sonnenberg and Democratic Sen. Andy Kerr of Lakewood.

The plan “quits having us balance the budget on the backs of people, by using a hammer to levy fines against citizens and businesses,” Sonnenberg told the Senate. “If there’s a problem on water or air quality, or filing of paperwork, let’s figure out how to fix it rather than allowing government to be heavy-handed.”

He cited Burlington as an example, noting how the city faced a nearly $1 million fine but has only a budget of $3 million. But he didn’t mention that the city had negotiated the fine down to $150,000, a point Kerr raised during the debate.

Kerr said the bill would put the 2016-17 state budget out of whack by $41 million.

“That’s a heavy hammer on the citizens of Colorado,” Kerr said, adding that the only place to cover that hit to the state budget is to increase the K-12 shortfall by $41 million. “That’s balancing the budget on the backs of our students.”

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