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.

Access to something as simple as a doctor can be near impossible in the more rural parts of Colorado. The issue is especially pronounced along the Eastern Plains, leading state officials to embark on a new training program. The objective is to recruit and train more family practice physicians in places like Sterling, a city of about 15,000 people that’s 130 miles northeast of Denver.

Following Hillary Clinton's acceptance speech at the final night of the DNC, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump made a stop in Colorado Springs to try and gain momentum in a swing state that has so far provided lukewarm support.

"There is no reason we shouldn't win this state, heavy military and tremendous respect for law and order," Trump said. "We want law and order, we want a great military, we want our vets to be so happy."

Data continues to show that where a person lives in Colorado plays a big role in dictating how much they pay for health insurance. That's because insurers use it to calculate premiums and in some regions it's unusually high. State lawmakers are aware of the problem – but are not sure what the solution is.

"I was seeing upwards of $500 a month," said Sam Higby, a Breckenridge outdoor gear shop employee. He's 35 and healthy, but said on his salary he simply can't afford healthcare.

"It does weigh on me as an active person, being concerned about what might happen out there."

American Indian mascots draw controversy. They're most visible as the logos of sports teams… and some in Colorado call some of the symbols racist. Efforts at the state Legislature to try and ban the use or restrict the mascots at schools have failed. That hasn't stopped some schools from working with tribes to find the middle ground.

Strasburg, Colorado, is where the last spike was hammered in the nation's coast-to-coast railroad in 1870. This tiny town about an hour east of Denver is also home to the Indians, Strasburg High School's sports teams.

Colorado has a new head of the state's Department of Natural Resources. Appointed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, Bob Randall now gets the official nod as head of the organization that oversees everything from state parks and wildlife, to oil and gas drilling, mining and water conservation.

It's crunch time for the Republicans striving to be the nominee to campaign against Democrat Michael Bennet in Colorado's U.S. Senate race. The primary is still wide-open, and when the mail ballots are counted June 28, each candidate has a plausible shot of winning.

"I cannot pick a frontrunner. I couldn't even come close to picking a frontrunner," said political consultant Eric Sondermann.

"There's not a dominant figure in this race."

Colorado Republicans were mixed on the news that Ted Cruz and John Kasich dropped out of the presidential race. That leaves New York businessman Donald Trump as the apparent nominee. He has rattled the Republican Party establishment, and there's a lot of political calculating going on from the GOP as well as the Democrats.

The message from Colorado Republicans after the state convention was clear: We want Cruz. Much like with the state's Dems, who mostly lean toward Bernie Sanders, what happens if the preferred nominee isn't the final candidate?

A bill is making its way through the statehouse that would allow judges to re-examine the cases of juveniles sentenced to life without parole. A 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling made it unconstitutional for minors to have no possibility of parole -- except in the most extraordinary circumstances.

The court said it was cruel and unusual punishment. Currently 48 youth in Colorado were given mandatory life sentences prior to that ruling, many for heinous crimes.

"Murder is never OK, taking someone's life is never OK, but should we ever allow a second chance, a second look?" asked Senator Cheri Jahn (D-Wheat Ridge), one of the main sponsors of a bipartisan bill that cleared the Senate 32-3.

The Colorado Supreme Court ruled unanimously against the city of Longmont's hydraulic fracturing ban and the moratorium in Fort Collins Monday. The state's highest court said that Longmont's ban conflicts with state law and is invalid and unenforceable. The court ruled that state law also preempts the moratorium in Fort Collins.

Lawmakers in both parties have unveiled a proposal to bring a presidential primary back to Colorado. It's estimated that conducting a primary will cost anywhere from $5 to $7 million. Despite the price tag, the heads of both the state Democratic and Republican parties and Gov. John Hickenlooper support it.

We asked two reporters working at the capitol on a daily basis what that means.

A Colorado commission studying American Indian representations in public schools released a report that recommends that schools not use American Indian mascots. However, if the schools do choose to do so, they should partner with a tribe to make sure it is done in a respectful way.

Right now, 30 Colorado schools use some type of American Indian mascot or imagery.

Bernie Sanders will be assured the majority of Colorado's delegates at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. Hillary Clinton though, still has momentum in the state with the support of super delegates, like Gov. John Hickenlooper and U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet. The support of party insiders means Clinton will likely have 37 delegates from the state versus Sanders' 41.

Which still makes it an open question for Colorado: If the state is pulling for Bernie Sanders, but the super delegates lean for Clinton, will voters opt to support Clinton if she's the nominee?

Colorado schools may soon be forced to allow students to use medical marijuana in a non-smokeable form while on school grounds. It's already allowed under state law – but no districts have created access policies, leaving many families frustrated.

To remedy this, House Bill 16-1373 [.pdf] has been proposed to require all school districts – even those without policies – to allow parents or caregivers to administer medical marijuana on school grounds. To find out more about the debate, we talked to reporters working under the gold dome.

Colorado schools may soon be forced to allow students to use medical marijuana in a non-smokeable form while on school grounds. It's already allowed under state law – but no districts have created access policies, leaving many families frustrated.

A bill [.pdf] under consideration at the capitol would require all school districts – even those without policies – to allow parents or caregivers to administer medical marijuana on school grounds, typically in the nurse's office. Students would not be allowed to take the cannabis tablet or put on the patch or oil themselves.

"Let's make sure they have the medication they need, and do it in an appropriate way," said state Rep. Jonathan Singer (D-Longmont), House Bill 16-1373's sponsor.

Colorado is debating whether to form an office of fantasy sports — to regulate and create rules around pay-for-play fantasy leagues. The industry estimates that 800,000 people in the Centennial State are fantasy sports players, and 150,000 pay in the daily sports leagues.

So why does the legislature want make a play here?

Just three months out from the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Republican Party remains very much divided over their candidates for president. Ted Cruz closed Donald Trump's lead Saturday, sweeping all of Colorado's 34 open delegates at the GOP state assembly in Colorado Springs.

Republicans here though are as split as anywhere else in the country over the race.

Republican Party activists are gathering Saturday in Colorado Springs for the state GOP convention. Delegates will be chosen to attend the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Sen. Ted Cruz is already confirmed to attend. Donald Trump will not make the trip to Colorado to address the state assembly, nor hold a rally. John Kasich has also announced he is not coming.

Initially, the state's conservative party was criticized for not holding a presidential preference poll during the March caucus. Now, as the national race seems destined to be heading toward a contested convention, the emphasis on delegates has given Colorado renewed importance.

Colorado lawmakers are only required to do one thing during their annual legislative session: pass a balanced budget. After several days of discussion, members of the Democratic-controlled House did just that. It had bipartisan support with four Western Slope Republicans and one Colorado Springs Republican joining the Democratic majority.

"It looked like the task would be daunting, but I think we just ended up with a really harmonic convergence of budget forecasts and certain events that occurred that allowed us to not to face as many dramatic cuts as we thought we were going to have to face," said Representative Dave Young (D-Greeley), a member of the bi-partisan joint budget committee that wrote the budget bill.

The Democratic-controlled House passed the state budget Friday with five Republicans backing it. The bill now heads to the Republican-controlled Senate. What can we expect from the debate in that chamber?

Health insurance premiums can vary widely in Colorado depending on where you live — it's just one of the factors health insurance companies use to calculate prices. Mountain regions continue to have some of the highest premiums in the country. At the statehouse, House Bill 16-1336 [.pdf] would look at treating the entire state as one region, rather than continuing to group regions separately.

"Our current insurance payment of $1,508 a month is equivalent to our mortgage payment. We can't afford it," said Richard Backe, a Garfield County small-business owner. "There are numerous people in the mountain district with the same story. We are the healthiest counties in the state, and we have the highest insurance rates."

State lawmakers are set to debate the annual budget, which funds everything from roads and schools, to health care and parks. In 2016, Colorado has a shortfall, so that means making budget cuts. So what are some of the major budget issues? We asked the reporters working the hallways of the capitol to find out.

Update 5.13.2016: Gov. John Hickenlooper has signed legislation finally legalizing rain barrels. Our original story continues below.

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A bill that would allow people to collect rain that falls from their rooftops is hung up in the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, after the chair said he wasn't comfortable with the measure. It's not clear when the committee will vote on it.

The same thing happened during the 2015 legislative session when the rain barrel bill vote was delayed. While the bill eventually cleared the committee over the objections of the Republican chair, it failed on the final day of the session when time ran out.

"I didn't plan on today being Groundhog Day, I anticipated that the bill would pass," said state Sen. Michael Merrifield (D-Colorado Springs), sponsor of House Bill 16-1005 [.pdf].

Every bill at the Colorado legislature must receive a fair hearing… and a vote. That's what state law says, but the fate of many bills is decided before lawmakers even begin the debate. Their fate is sealed in what's called a kill committee.

Several police reform measures are making their way through the statehouse, and lawmakers are also looking at how best to address the problem of teenagers sexting. We asked two reporters working under the gold dome to review the week that was.

Hillary Clinton's wins on Mega Tuesday in Ohio, Florida, Illinois, North Carolina and a virtual tie in Missouri, have moved her closer to securing the Democratic Party nomination. What will that mean for Colorado, which went heavily for her opponent, Bernie Sanders? We asked Democratic State Party Chair Rick Palacio to find out.

Colorado's four month legislative session is halfway over. As is normally the case, the only things lawmakers are required to do is pass a budget. Now that we're at the midpoint, attention can turn to the state's impending budget crunch and another hot topic: reclassifying the hospital provider fee under TABOR.

Voters in 12 states either went to the polls or caucused on Super Tuesday. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders won Colorado's Democratic caucuses. He also grabbed victories in Oklahoma, Minnesota, and in his home state. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were the big winners of the night, each taking seven states, on the busiest night so far of the 2016 election season.

Colorado's Republican Party did not take a preference poll for the presidential race – so no winner was declared in the state for the GOP.

Colorado is on the road to becoming the final state in the country to legalize rain barrels, after Democrats reached an agreement with several Republicans who opposed previous versions of the measure.

"It is a water right and what you have done with this, you have protected that water right," said Rep. Don Coram (R-Montrose), who had voted against a rain barrel bill last session.

Now he said he can back it – and other Republicans are also on board with HB 16-1005 [.pdf].

Another attempt in Colorado to allow terminally ill patients to take medication to end their own lives recently failed for the second straight year in the Democratic controlled House.

With strong words for opponents and members of their own party, the sponsors of the End-of-Life Options Bill, known as House Bill 16-1054 [.pdf], pulled it before debate could begin on the floor. The reason behind the withdrawal was a lack of votes and proposed amendments for the bill.

Colorado's Republican and Democratic caucuses will be held on Super Tuesday, March 1, 2016. There's a difference this year though. Colorado's Republican Party leaders canceled their traditional presidential preference poll at the precinct caucuses. The state's Democrats will conduct a poll.

2016 has brought record turnout and excitement to GOP presidential primary events – especially with the emergence of Donald Trump as the party's frontrunner. Why would the state's Republicans pass on that? We asked Steve House, the chairman of the Colorado Republican Party.

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