Hickenlooper signs rural energy renewables mandate

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DENVER — After nearly a month of deliberation, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper took action Wednesday on a handful of controversial bills that remain unsigned, including Senate Bill 252, which increases the amount of energy that rural electricity associations must draw from renewable sources.

Hickenlooper signed the bill into law in his office, one of nine bills he signed before the press and one of more than 60 signed into law Wednesday.

“I had misgivings,” Hickenlooper said at a press conference following the bill signings. “Ultimately, there were so many reasons to sign it: cleaner air, creating jobs, reducing waste.”

The bill also would allow the cooperatives to charge more — 2 percent of a customer’s bill instead of just 1 percent now — to pay for the new power source.

“That amounts to about two dollars [a month],” Hickenlooper said.

Hickenlooper issued a signing statement on the legislation and an executive order establishing a commission to help the industry implement the new law and to adjust should it be unable to meet the new renewable energy mandate.

“If the 2 percent rate cap was compounded, I would veto this bill,” Hickenlooper said in the signing statement. “While it is computed annually, it does not compound. This rate cap operates the same way that the current 1 percent rate cap operates. The bill is designed to protect against incurring investment costs, including debt service, that push beyond a 2 percent cap. The assertion that this legislation will levy billions in costs to rural consumers is not borne out by the facts.

Republicans, who argued that the bill will increase energy costs in rural areas, blasted Hickenlooper’s decision Wednesday.

“Senate Bill 252 is a poison pill for the rural areas of our state which have been hit especially hard by the recession,” said Colorado GOP Chairman Ryan Call.

“The law will raise the price of energy on everyone, meaning families will have less money to put food on the table, seniors will have less money to pay for their prescription medicine, schools won’t be able to afford new books or necessary renovations, and small businesses won’t be able to hire more employees.”

Last month, Hickenlooper signed nearly 100 bills into law, many of them at public events that have taken him to 22 Colorado counties.

But he has taken his time mulling over a final batch of bills, including S.B. 252.

Since the end of the legislative session, Hickenlooper has met with interested parties on both sides, from the wind turbine manufacturer, Vestas, to Tri-state Electric Generation, the primary opposition to the measure.

Hickenlooper had been considering a veto.

Suddenly under fire from conservatives angered by his support for gun control and much of the Democratic legislation passed during a blockbuster legislative session, as well as by his recent decision to grant a temporary reprieve to Chuck E. Cheese killer Nathan Dunlap, Hickenlooper is viewed by Republicans — rightly or wrongly — as increasingly vulnerable heading into his reelection bid next year.

But vetoing legislation prized by environmental groups, a constituency the governor alienated throughout the session by opposing numerous proposals to tighten rules and regulations for Colorado’s oil and gas industry, would have amounted to a final declaration of war with an important piece of the Democrat base, not to mention the bill’s two sponsors, House Speaker Mark Ferrandino and Senate President John Morse.

The Colorado chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a group backed by oil billionaires David and Charles Koch, has organized much of the opposition to the legislation, holding rallies across the state to “stop the war on rural Colorado.”

Republicans opposed the legislation outright, noting that rural electric co-ops agreed just three years ago to a 10 percent renewable energy standard.

“Now we’re changing the standard on them, we’re changing the rules mid-stream and that’s not fair,” said House Minority Leader Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs. “It is once again, Democrats saying to the rest of Colorado, we know what’s better for you than you do.”

Conservationists, meanwhile, celebrated a big victory.

“The Koch brothers are spending millions of dollars fighting in state legislatures to roll back these new renewable energy standards that are being passed,” Conservation Colorado’s Pete Maysmith told FOX31 Denver.

“And in Colorado, not only are they not having success with that, they’re watching us go even further with standards that will mean more jobs and cleaner air.”

The other bills signed Wednesday include: Senate Bill 251, which would allow undocumented immigrants to get Colorado driver’s licenses; Senate Bill 25, which would make it easier for firefighters around the state to unionize; and House Bill 1020, which would require the forensic testing of all evidence collected during investigations of rapes.

Hickenlooper has until Friday to sign or veto all remaining bills; without any action by him, they all become law.

But Hickenlooper is headed to Park City, Utah on Friday to address a political summit convened by GOP presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, leaving Wednesday or possibly Thursday as his final opportunity to take action on outstanding legislation.

Hickenlooper also signed House Bill 1230, establishing the “Robert Dewey Victim Compensation Fund”, on Wednesday.

Named for the Coloradan who served 18 years on a murder charge before being cleared by DNA last year, the new law will ensure that an exonerated person like Dewey would receive $70,000 from the state for every year of improper incarceration.

An additional $50,000 would be provided each year for those that wrongfully spent time on death row.

Exonerated individuals who spent time on parole or had to register as sex offenders would receive an addition $25,000.