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Politics and Government

Colorado’s new attorney general wants $4.2 million for organizational makeover as part of big shift from his GOP predecessor

Phil Weiser, a Democrat, also said he will remove Colorado from a lawsuit challenging the Obama-era Clean Power Plan

Democrat Phil Weiser, left, Colorado's attorney general, poses for a photo with the Rev. Terrance "Big T" Hughes after his investiture ceremony in the Colorado Supreme Court chambers in January 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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It’s not just lawsuits against the Trump administration. Colorado’s new attorney general, Democrat Phil Weiser, has big plans to remake the office he oversees. And they’re not cheap.

He’s seeking $4.2 million more in the next fiscal year than his Republican predecessor’s budget for priority initiatives and pay raises for his lawyers.

The new spending includes $550,000 to cover the cost of boosting response to the opioid crisis and $388,000 for the creation of a new unit to help cities and counties navigate legal issues around oil and gas.

The requests are part of what Weiser says is an effort to make significant updates — or innovations, as he likes to put it — throughout the Colorado Department of Law. He’s even hired his former law student as an innovation chief, the first in the nation for an attorney general, to help shepherd the charge by increasing communication and the agency’s use of technology.

“The main focus I’ve had is how do I establish really a new culture and attitude in the office where we are about collaborating with the state legislature, with counties, with executive branch agencies,” he told The Colorado Sun in an interview. “We believe we need to be the peoples’ lawyer, which means we’re partners with everyone, to make government work better.”

MORE: Colorado’s new attorney general plans legal action against Trump administration over health care, citizenship question

The changes represent a major shift in how the office operated under former Republican Attorney General Cynthia Coffman — in particular when it comes to the oil and gas industry.

Coffman was involved in a headline-grabbing spat with Boulder County over its ban on accepting oil and gas drilling permit applications that included a lawsuit. Weiser’s approach, when it comes to the energy industry, is a 180-degree change aimed at giving cities and counties legal tools to manage new drilling applications.

As places like Arapahoe County or Aurora start dealing with oil and gas issues, Weiser said his office would “provide them guideposts on here’s how you think about a memorandum of understanding or a surface-use agreement.”

Weiser also wants to add a deputy attorney general for water and re-establish a conviction integrity unit to help prosecutors throughout the state wade through reviewing cases where a guilty verdict might be in doubt.

Chief Justice Nathan Coats, right, administers the oath of office for Attorney General Phil Weiser on the west steps of the Colorado Capitol on January 8, 2019 in Denver. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Like his predecessor, another big focus for Weiser is opioids. But he intends to go a step further, asking lawmakers for more than $1 million in the next two years to investigate whether to expand the state’s lawsuit against Purdue Pharma to other drug manufacturers and start planning how to spend possible settlement funds.

He’s critical of how Coffman handled the state’s lawsuit, which came after Colorado counties and municipalities took legal action themselves. “This office was very slow to show leadership,” he said. “The problem is many states had filed similar cases years ago. This office didn’t file until this summer. What happened was, while this office failed to act, localities started saying: ‘We’re dying here. We need leadership. We need a response.’ And the vacuum was filled.”

Coffman told The Sun earlier this month she feels she left the attorney general’s office in better shape than she inherited it. “I’m happy with the way we’ve been able to wind things up in this office and what we accomplished,” she said.

MORE: Cynthia Coffman once had a bright political future. Here’s what Colorado’s GOP attorney general has to say as she leaves office.

The most expensive item on Weiser’s agenda is boosting pay for the lawyers in his office. He says there is a roughly 16 percent turnover rate, attributable in part to the fact attorneys can make more in other public-service positions — like the Denver City Attorney’s Office — or the private sector.

The Denver City Attorney’s Office, for instance, has a turnover rate of 15 percent or less, according to the budget request from the attorney general’s office.

“We’ve asked people when they leave, ‘Why are you leaving?’ ” Weiser told state budget writers on the legislature’s Joint Budget Committee last week. “The number one reason is: ‘We can’t afford it.’ ”

Some of the state lawmakers on the panel questioned the ask, which is nearly $2.1 million for the 2019-20 fiscal year.

“I recognize it’s a big-ticket item,” Weiser said. “The challenge for me is to quantify how detrimental it is to the Department of Law to lose the sort of talent that we are now losing and are at risk of losing more.”

Overall, Weiser wants to increase the attorney general’s budget to just over $93 million from the $88.8 million requested by Coffman in November.  

Also of note: Weiser also told The Sun he would be pulling Colorado’s lawsuit against the President Barack Obama-era Clean Power Plan. 

Coffman had sued to block implementation of the carbon-slashing initiative, pioneered by the Obama administration’s Environmental Protection Agency. The legal action stoked a spat between her and then-Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, over its merits.

Instead, Weiser said he will likely join other Democratic attorneys general from across the U.S. in suing to uphold the plan.

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