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Bente Birkeland

Capitol Coverage Reporter for Rocky Mountain Community Radio

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.

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Sexual harassment allegations at Colorado's Capitol came with a sizeable price tag for taxpayers -- $275,000. That includes everything from fees for attorneys, sexual harassment training and consultants to staffing for a special committee of lawmakers meeting this summer and fall to study changes to the Capitol's workplace harassment policy.

Colorado lawmakers wrapped up their annual legislative session this week. Even though the session was often overshadowed by sexual harassment allegations and the expulsion of former Rep. Steve Lebsock, lawmakers and the governor said it was one of the most successful sessions in history

After a dramatic and tearful day in early March, lawmakers voted out one of their own. Democratic Rep. Steve Lebsock was the first lawmaker expelled in 103 years after allegations of sexual harassment, intimidation and retaliation from five women, were found to be credible.

But that wasn't the end.

Thousands of Colorado teachers spent two days rallying at the state Capitol for higher salaries and more money for schools. They highlighted long-standing funding problems and potential changes to the state’s public employee pension program currently being debated by the legislature.

Statehouse reporter Bente Birkeland spoke with Brian Eason of The Associated Press and Ed Sealover with the Denver Business Journal about the rallies.

Senate leaders expect to meet soon to address next steps in possible punishments for Sen. Randy Baumgardner. Three independent investigations by two agencies have found allegations of sexual harassment against him at the Capitol credible.

Democrats are pushing for swift action. Baumgardner, a Hot Sulphur Springs Republican, survived an expulsion vote on April 2. That vote hinged on the findings of just one of the three investigations, which concluded that Baumgardner more likely than not grabbed and slapped a former legislative aide’s buttocks.  The two other investigations had not been finalized at the time of that vote. They were only released to the accusers last week. We made them fully available to the public on April 24 with the accusers’ consent.

A major piece of legislation to reform the state’s pension plan is making its way through the state legislature during the final days of the session. One in 10 Coloradans receives a public pension through the Public Employees Retirement Association (PERA). But PERA has unfunded liabilities totaling about $32 billion, and lawmakers are divided over how best to shore up the program.

Statehouse reporter Bente Birkeland spoke with Marianne Goodland with Colorado Politics and Ed Sealover with the Denver Business Journal about the possible changes and its likelihood of passage.

An outside consultant, who studied workplace culture at the state Capitol, found nearly half of the roughly 500 people surveyed had witnessed sexist and/or seriously disrespectful behavior. A third said they had experienced sexual harassment first-hand. And nearly 90 percent of those who say they were harassed didn’t speak out or file a complaint. Many said they feared retaliation from their accusers and others.

Those findings, by the Investigations Law Group, mirror what we’ve discovered in almost six months of reporting on this issue.

A 235-page report from an outside consultant says the culture at Colorado’s state capitol is unhealthy -- and the system in place to detect and deter harassment is not working. It contains about two dozen recommendations on how to improve the culture and strengthen policies to deter workplace harassment – which means legislative leaders have a lot to wade through and some tough decisions ahead.

Statehouse reporter Bente Birkeland spoke with Brian Eason of the Associated Press and John Frank with the Denver Post about how lawmakers might use the information to make changes.

A more than 200-page report from the Denver-based Investigations Law Group reaffirms that there are systemic cultural and sexual harassment problems at the Colorado state Capitol.

Our reporting first uncovered the problems in November, which has led to multiple allegations and investigations into a handful of lawmakers and the historic expulsion of former Democratic Rep. Steve Lebsock.  

Passing a balanced budget is the only thing Colorado lawmakers are required to do during the annual 120-day legislative session. A strong economy means there is more general fund money to spend on priority items including roads and schools. The ‘long bill’ as its known has cleared the Democratic-controlled House and now goes to the Senate which is controlled by Republicans.

Statehouse reporter Bente Birkeland breaks down what’s in the budget with reporters Brian Eason of the Denver Post and Ed Sealover with the Denver Business Journal.

For the second year in a row, Colorado lawmakers are working on a way to provide funding for the states roadways. In 2017 it was a proposed tax measure that failed. This time around it’s a bonding plan that would lock the state into annual payments coming from the general fund. This is where Democrats and Republicans disagree on the plan.

Sen. Beth Martinez Humenik said she has filed a formal workplace sexual harassment complaint against a fellow senator, Daniel Kagan, alleging that he was inside a restroom designated for female legislators and staff multiple times.

Colorado’s public pension system needs more money to remain viable. The Public Employees Retirement Association, or PERA, is the retirement benefit for teachers and other public employees. Right now, it’s only 58 percent funded. Senate Bill 200 is starting its journey through the legislature and it will need bipartisan support if it is going to pass.

Statehouse reporter Bente Birkeland spoke with Brian Eason of the Denver Post and Ed Sealover with the Denver Business Journal about the bill, and what’s at stake.

As word came this week that yet another round of layoffs were planned for The Denver Post's newsroom, lawmakers at the Capitol worried about what the future would look like with less news. Among those concerned about the fate of news is Rep. Larry Liston, who for years has clipped articles from newspapers to keep track of what's going on. 

More than 100 Senate staff, aides and interns have been warned against speaking to journalists about workplace issues, including sexual harassment, and the trainings aimed at preventing it.

At issue are two emails obtained from Senate sources that say it is a violation of the chamber's policies for workers to grant interviews to reporters. A third email, sent directly to us by the top Senate administrator, asked us to tell members of other news organizations not to approach aides and interns for interviews, but rather to speak with communications secretaries. We didn't act on that request because it's not our role to direct the reporting of other news organizations. 

Senate Republicans have passed a bill that would allow Coloradans who already have a handgun to conceal carry without a permit. It passed along party lines and will soon be debated in the Democratic-controlled House where it’s future is more uncertain.

Colorado lawmakers from both sides of the aisle recently voted out one of their own. The decision to expel Representative Steve Lebsock, (D) came after an independent report found the allegations of sexual harassment brought forth by five women to be credible.

Bente Birkeland discussed the outcome of the vote with Brian Eason of the Denver Post and Marianne Goodland with Colorado Politics, specifically about what swayed some lawmakers, and how that could impact what’s happening in the Senate where three lawmakers have also been investigated for sexual harassment.

Democrats are harshly criticizing state Senate President Kevin Grantham, saying he’s preventing lawmakers accused of sexual harassment from being held accountable. Grantham has countered by saying that sexual harassment is a “cancer” that must be rooted out and that any lawmaker convicted of a crime should be expelled. But that answer hasn't satisfied Democrats.

In a nonbinding straw poll, Democrats gave Cary Kennedy a decisive victory in caucuses for Colorado governor. She took 50 percent of the vote. Congressman Jared Polis came in second with 33 percent and former state senator Mike Johnston finished a distant third with 8 percent.

The leader of Colorado’s Senate said that last week’s historic decision in the House to expel a legislator amid sexual harassment allegations would have no bearing on how similar cases in the Senate are resolved. Senate President Kevin Grantham said the House made a tough decision to remove a fellow legislator from the Capitol.

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