The Colorado legislature is entering the final month of its 2021 lawmaking term with a host of unresolved, complicated Democratic priorities, including an effort to reshape the state’s transportation funding system, an overhaul of the health care industry and an equity-focused rework of the tax code.
On top of all that, Gov. Jared Polis and Democrats are battling over a climate change bill, and two police accountability measures are drawing stiff opposition from law enforcement. Oh, and there’s a $900 million stimulus package to be finalized and $3.8 billion in federal aid still to be spent.
In all, there are about 250 pieces of active, unresolved legislation. And more meaty bills are being introduced by the day.
“There are a lot of big items still out there,” said House Speaker Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat. His party is in the majority at the Capitol, meaning they control the calendar.
The legislature must adjourn by June 12, when its 120-day allotment runs out. If bills haven’t passed or been rejected — because, say, Republicans use stall tactics to slow down the lawmaking process — they evaporate to be debated another year.
“Our objective is to try to limit the number of bad bills that come out of this session. The more controversial bills, the longer the debate,” said Rep. Rod Bockenfeld, an Arapahoe County Republican.
But if Democrats are worried, they’re not showing it. “We’re optimistic that we’re going to be able to manage it well,” said Senate President Leroy Garcia, a Democrat from Pueblo.
The end of every legislative session Colorado is a sprint. But there’s a feeling in the Capitol that lawmakers may be forced to run faster than normal in their last month.
“Every year I’ve been here, we’ve said you do 50% of the work in the first 100 days and 50% in the last 20,” said state Sen. Faith Winter, a Westminster Democrat who is the prime sponsor of several unresolved, big-ticket measures.
She’s preparing for the final stretch with deodorant wipes, eye treatment masks and lots of Diet Dr. Pepper.
Is she worried there won’t be enough time to get all of the complex policies right? “No, because all those bills had so much work done on the front end that putting the final details in 20 days is fine,” Winter said.
Republicans, who are in the minority, don’t feel the same way.
“I do think (bills are) being rushed through,” said Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, a Brighton Republican who is in her first session at the Capitol. “I know they keep talking about this huge stakeholder process, but there are things that keep getting added to these bills that haven’t been stakeholdered. I think we should take the time because there’s huge consequences of this legislation for the people of the state of Colorado.”
Cutting tax breaks for the wealthy
Democrats are pushing one of the biggest shifts in the Colorado tax code in years through two measures, House Bill 1311 and House Bill 1312, that would eliminate $350 million to $400 million in tax breaks for businesses and the state’s wealthiest residents.
The recouped revenue would fund expansions in three major tax programs aimed at helping working-class families and small businesses: the earned income tax credit, the child tax credit and the business personal property exemption.
The goal is to curtail or eliminate “manifestly ineffective, wasteful tax expenditures, particularly those that are prone to gaming of the system,” said Rep. Mike Weissman, an Aurora Democrat and prime sponsor of the bills.
The bills would limit or eliminate personal and corporate income tax breaks, including for:
- Itemized deductions, which would be capped at $30,000 for individual filers who make more than $400,000 a year
- College savings accounts, which would be capped at $10,000 or $15,000 for single and joint filers, respectively. Currently, taxpayers can deduct the amount they contribute to a 529 account without a limit
- Pass-through deductions, which would be eliminated for individuals making more than $500,000. The 2017 federal tax law, championed by Republicans, let business owners deduct 20% of certain “pass through” income from partnerships, sole proprietorships and other businesses reported on individual returns
- Certain capital gains, which no longer could be deducted from state income taxes
With the recouped revenue, the bills would expand existing programs, including by funding the state’s child tax credit available to households with children under age 6 and have annual incomes below $75,000 for individuals, and $85,000 for families.
The two other affected programs would be:
- The earned income tax credit, which would be increased to 20% of the federal credit, up from 15%. The state credit is available to those eligible for the federal benefit, as well as people who meet the requirements but lack a Social Security number
- The business personal property tax exemption, for which the threshold of personal property that businesses are not required to pay taxes on would be increased to $50,000. Currently, businesses don’t have to pay personal property tax if the personal property is worth less than $7,900. The state would be required to reimburse local governments for lost revenue as a result of the exemption
The measures would also clarify that all Social Security income is excluded from state income tax liability, and provide income tax benefits for worker-owned co-ops, employee stock ownership plans and employee ownership trusts.
The tax overhaul, which is still making its way through the House, is drawing pushback from business groups.
The Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, for instance, opposes the bill. Kelly Brough, the organization’s president and CEO, said the chamber supports expansions of the child and earned income tax credits, but the measures send a “mixed message” to businesses struggling to recover from the pandemic.
Brough cited provisions that could complicate tax filings for small companies that operate in multiple states and would add digital goods and services, such as media for download or streaming, to what’s subject to sales and use taxes.
“You don’t have to hurt employers to address these issues. Assistance alone isn’t going to help families come back from the pandemic — they need jobs too,” Brough said.
Bill sponsors say the income inequality exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic only underscores the need for an overhaul of the tax code, pointing to an uneven recovery where low-income workers are still struggling to meet basic needs while the rest of the economy begins to rebound.
“We think this is exactly the right time to be modernizing our tax code to ensure fairness for all Coloradans and to support our working families and small businesses in an ongoing way,” said Rep. Emily Sirota, a Denver Democrat and another prime sponsor of the bills.
Criminal justice reform is still pending
On the criminal justice front, there are a number of big-ticket policies that remain unresolved. That includes a bipartisan, 336-page measure introduced Thursday that would change the sentencing guidelines for misdemeanor offenses.
Right now, people convicted of a Class 1 misdemeanor can be sentenced to up to 18 months in jail and a fine of up to $5,000. For a Class 2 misdemeanor, the penalty is 364 days in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. There’s also a Class 3 misdemeanor that’s punishable by to six months in jail.
Senate Bill 271 would eliminate the Class 3 misdemeanor and change the penalties for Class 1 and Class 2 misdemeanor offenses. Under the measure, a Class 1 misdemeanor would be punishable by up to 364 days in jail and a fine of up to $1,000, and a Class 2 misdemeanor would be punishable by up to 120 days in jail and a fine up to $750.
A number of crimes would also be reclassified along with the changes. Prostitution, for instance, would become a petty offense instead of a misdemeanor.
“The misdemeanor sentencing bill really represents over a year of work by the Colorado Criminal and Juvenile Justice Commission,” said Sen. Bob Gardner, a Colorado Springs Republican. “It’s really an effort to rationalize misdemeanor sentencing.”
One effect of changing the maximum sentence for Class 1 misdemeanors is it would shield immigrants living in Colorado with visas or permanent legal status from facing mandatory deportation proceedings triggered by being charged with a crime carrying a penalty of a year or more in jail.
While the misdemeanor reform bill was being introduced, another headline-grabbing measure fell apart.
Democrats are spiking Senate Bill 62, which aimed to reduce jail populations statewide by limiting what offenses law enforcement could arrest someone for. The legislation would have prohibited police and sheriff’s deputies from jailing people for petty offenses, misdemeanors and even many felonies and was opposed by law enforcement groups.
Instead, lawmakers will now debate Senate Bill 273, which was introduced on Friday and represents a scaled-down version of the earlier legislation. The new bill would no longer place arrest prohibitions on law enforcement for people accused of committing lower-level felonies.
Police accountability bills advance toward Senate
Two other measures aimed at police accountability — House Bill 1250 and 1251 — are en route to the Senate.
House Bill 1250 would allow law enforcement to use deadly force only as a “last resort,” and requires that, when force is used, it be “necessary and proportionate” to the threat at hand. The legislation builds on a historic law enforcement accountability measure that passed last year after George Floyd was murdered by police officers in Minneapolis. Senate Bill 217 set new-use-of-force standards, including a requirement that officers must face an “imminent threat” before using deadly force.
This year’s measure also adds the Colorado State Patrol to the list of law enforcement agencies whose officers can be individually sued.
Lawmakers have made a number of alterations to the bill in response to feedback from law enforcement groups, including:
- Clarifying that officers must employ de-escalation techniques where “practicable” in recognition that situations can escalate quickly and de-escalation techniques may not be an option
- Exempting off-duty peace officers from requirements that officers intervene in improper use of force by their peers
- Extending the date by which new training standards and must be implemented on Jan. 1, 2022
The House gave the measure preliminary approval Monday over the objections of Republicans, who argued the definitions and standards in the bill surrounding use of force were still too vague.
“We have just trained on rules in (Senate Bill) 217, we’re now going to do a wholesale change to new rules on the use of force, that have significant challenges in the complexity and subjectivity,” said Rep. Terri Carver, a Colorado Springs Republican.
Democratic lawmakers have also advanced House Bill 1251, a bill to restrict the use of ketamine, a powerful sedative, in situations outside of hospitals that involve law enforcement. It’s a response to the death of Elijah McClain, an unarmed 23-year-old Black man who died days after he was stopped by Aurora police and sedated with the drug, though he committed no crimes.
The legislation prohibits use of ketamine to sedate, subdue or incapacitate a suspect unless there is a medical emergency. The measure also adds a host of requirements for when ketamine can be administered in the presence of a law enforcement, including mandates that a person be weighed properly before receiving the drug and that paramedics be properly trained and attempt to obtain permission from their medical director before administering the sedative.
House Bill 1251 also prohibits law enforcement from directing or “unduly influencing” emergency medical staff to administer ketamine. It also requires other officers to intervene or report a colleague whom they witness doing so.
Law enforcement groups have argued the measure places responsibility on officers even though emergency medical staff ultimately make decisions about administration of the drug. Republicans in the House also sought unsuccessfully to soften that language in the bill.
House Bill 1251 passed the House with Republicans uniformly opposed. One Democrat, Rep. Donald Valdez of La Jara, also voted against it.
Transportation bill has something for everyone to complain about
The Colorado Senate on Monday sent Senate Bill 260, the $5.3 billion transportation fee and spending bill, over to the House after passing a phone-book sized package of amendments to appease wary Democrats.
The legislation is backed by the governor and business groups. But some Democrats and liberal transportation groups are concerned that it’s too roads-focused. Republicans, meanwhile, almost uniformly oppose the proposal and the fee structure within it, questioning its legality.
Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, is a prime sponsor of the measure. While he says it would “future-proof our transportation system,” he admits it’s “not a perfect bill.”
“But I think everybody sees something in this bill that is incredibly important to them, whether you’re a rural community, a metro community, whether you want more investment in transit versus roads, whether you want more electrification or ways for lower income folks to benefit and be part of the electric vehicle revolution that’s happening,” Fenberg said. “This clearly has a lot of interests involved and a lot of those interests are contradictory.”
Among the host of amendments passed in the Senate include provisions that would:
- Require state transportation officials to evaluate the potential environmental and health effects health effects of future projects on disproportionately impacted communities
- Increase the amount of state budget money being allocated to transportation projects
- Require the Colorado Department of Transportation to set aside millions of dollars to mitigate the impacts of increased air pollution from vehicles, in part by funding projects that reduce vehicle miles traveled
Republicans are especially upset that the bill undoes a bipartisan deal reached in 2018 at the legislature that would ask voters to approve $1.3 billion in bonds for transportation projects. There are also concerns about how the measure increases the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights cap, the limit on how much tax revenue the state can keep and spend, by $225 million after it was lowered by that amount (minus inflation) in a bipartisan deal in 2017.
GOP lawmakers also want to see even more money from the legislature’s general fund dedicated to transportation.
“Our concern is: Is it enough?” asked Sen. Ray Scott, a Grand Junction Republican. “Is it really enough to address the need we have?”
Sen. Paul Lundeen, R-Monument, said the fees are regressive. The measure would impose a host of new charges on road users, including a 2 cents per gallon fee for gasoline and diesel fuel starting in July 2022 and increasing 1 cent every year up to 8 cents.
“We’re putting the weight of funding all of this … on the backs of the working families of Colorado,” Lundeen said. “I cannot in good conscience vote ‘yes’ on that.”
GOP lawmakers spent hours pushing back against the measure in the Senate. A similar amount of debate — if not more — is expected in the House.
A fight with the governor and the public option
One of the biggest topics of conversation at the Capitol in recent weeks has been what will happen to Senate Bill 200, the Democratic effort to turn the governor’s greenhouse gas emissions reductions goals into mandates.
Polis has threatened to veto the measure, but that hasn’t stopped members of his party from pushing forward with the proposal.
Democratic lawmakers are stuck between a rock and a hard place. If they vote for the legislation they risk upsetting the governor. But if they vote against it they could be painted as not taking enough action on climate change.
“There is intense pressure,” said Sen. Chris Hansen, a Denver Democrat. “But my understanding is that there is conversation happening to see if it can be resolved.”
Negotiations were continuing over the weekend and a deal could be reached. But, for now, the measure is stalled in the Senate.
“We’re continuing to negotiate on how we are meeting our climate goals in a way that provides flexibility and is done through a sector-by-sector approach,” said Winter, the Democratic state senator from Westminster, who is a prime sponsor of the measure.
And, finally, there’s House Bill 1232, Colorado Democrats’ bill to reduce health insurance costs by requiring private carriers to offer a standard plan that’s highly regulated by the state.
While proponents appeased the Colorado Hospital Association by dropping plans to implement a state-offered health insurance insurance plan, many groups remain opposed.
Republicans are planning to put up a fight in the Senate, where the measure is now being debated, but as long as there aren’t any Democratic defectors it should pass.
“I’m feeling good about its chances. We worked really hard on that bill in the House,” said state Rep. Dylan Roberts, an Avon Democrat. “I think it has solid momentum now that it’s in the Senate.”