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The top 10 issues to watch in Colorado’s 2019 legislative session

Colorado lawmakers will focus on everything from oil and gas and health care to education and immigration when the 2019 term begins Friday

The floor of the Colorado Senate on Jan. 4, 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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The new Democratic majority at the state Capitol is poised to make significant policy shifts in Colorado after four years of stalemate in a divided General Assembly.

The party’s complete grip on the levers of power will move different issues to the forefront and put Republicans — who had held the state Senate since 2015 — in the spectator seats for the 120-day lawmaking term that begins Friday.

Democratic Gov.-elect Jared Polis is expected set the tone as he enters with a lengthy wish list that includes money for full-day preschool and kindergarten, an expansion of the state’s health care system and efforts to address climate change. And lawmakers will only add to the list of priorities themselves.

Here’s a look at the top 10 issues in the 2019 legislative session:

Dome of Colorado state Capitol building on July 21, 2018. (Jeremy Martinez, Special to The Colorado Sun)

1. How far will Polis push Colorado to the left?

Not only does the power dynamic shift in the legislature, but Polis represents a leftward step from outgoing Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Jared Polis speaks in Weld County on Friday, Oct. 19, 2018. (Jacob Paul, Special to The Colorado Sun)

In the campaign, Polis embraced bold Democratic priorities such as government-run health care and a move toward 100 percent renewable energy in the next two decades. And to deliver on his promises, he’ll need lawmakers to get aggressive despite blowback from opposition forces.

Still, Polis is fickle and deviates from the party in certain policy areas, such as education. So, he may be able to reach across the aisle and moderate the tone.

Either way, the new chief executive will set the direction. The five-term Boulder congressman is making clear to lawmakers that he wants to be more involved in the lawmaking process than his predecessor, and, so far, key Democratic leaders say they’re willing to cede the lead to him.

MORE: This is the expected road map for Democrats in the Colorado Capitol

2. A focus on climate change means big changes for the oil and gas industry

Democratic lawmakers see climate change as an existential threat that needs to be addressed this session. The details are still being formulated, but lawmakers want to move on a number of fronts to lower carbon emissions.

The legislation being considered includes efforts to encourage greater use of electric vehicles,  to boost solar and wind energy, and to improve energy efficiency — from both state government and private companies.

The environmental focus will impact the state’s oil and gas industry, and lawmakers are looking to make significant changes in how oil and gas sites are regulated. At the state level, Democrats want to make the commission that regulates the industry place more emphasis on health and safety concerns. The effort also includes proposals to give more power to local authorities to negotiate where to locate future drilling operations.

MORE: Environmentalists are demanding aggressive action on climate change. How far will Colorado Democrats go?

3. A push toward universal coverage and health-care cost reductions

Sen. Kerry Donovan of Vail and Rep. Dylan Roberts of Eagle will introduce legislation seeking to create a public health-insurance option for the state. It remains unclear, however, how much the public option would cost, how it would work and whether doctors would even accept the plan.

The proposals represent an ambitious ask from the two Democrats and part of a larger focus this session — driven largely by Polis — on improving the state’s health care coverage.

“The urgency of this issue could not be higher. I think, because of the level of urgency, we will find a solution this session,” Donovan said.

MORE: 11 charts that help explain health-care costs in Colorado

On the table again this year is a bill seeking to create a state-run reinsurance program, which would create a pool of money to help pay for the costliest patients. It would work by forming a pool of money that insurers could apply to tap into to help pay for their costliest clients who drive up overall premiums.

Estimates suggest it could lower costs by 20 or 30 percent. The question remains: Where does the money for that pool originate? “We’re exploring what our funding mechanisms might be,” said Rep.Julie McCluskie, a Democrat from Dillon.

Also expect to see legislation addressing the costs of insulin and other prescription drugs, as well as a measure attempting to give consumers a better idea of their health-care costs before they are billed and another that would protect consumers from surprise charges.

The Colorado House of Representatives, pictured in September. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

4. “Red flag” legislation revives talk of tougher gun regulations

Democratic leaders will again propose legislation giving Colorado judges the ability to temporarily seize guns from people deemed a risk to themselves or others. A similar attempt in 2018, despite some bipartisan support, fell short.

This could be one of the most highly charged debates under the gold dome this year and may split Democrats — some of whom, including Senate President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, are uncommitted on the issue. House Majority Leader Alec Garnett of Denver and Rep. Tom Sullivan, a Centennial Democrat whose son was killed in the 2012 Aurora theater massacre, probably will shepherd the legislation.

As for other gun-control measures at the Capitol, look for lobbying groups to push for more to be done. But it’s a touchy issue for Democrats, given that two of their senators were recalled and a third resigned after the party pushed through tougher firearm regulations in 2013.

MORE: A “red flag” bill will return in the Democrat-controlled Colorado legislature. But what about other gun-control laws?

5. A search for more money for K-12 and higher-education

The big-ticket education item for the Colorado legislature is a Polis priority to fund full-day kindergarten and preschool. The idea is not new, but it failed in previous sessions in large part because lawmakers would not divert millions from other areas to cover the additional costs.

“It’s not so much the funding source as the funding priority,” said Rep. Jim Wilson, a Salida Republican who has led the effort on funding kindergarten.

The estimated annual cost for all-day kindergarten alone could be between $225 million and $247 million, which Wilson hopes will be covered by increased revenues from the state’s economic growth. The preschool proposal is complicated by a mosaic of school districts that already offer the service and differing beliefs on whether it should be part of public education or up to parents to cover.

Morey Middle School in Denver on Nov. 8, 2018. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

The broader education problem lawmakers face is a unequitable system regarding how schools are funded — one they hope to address in a comprehensive fashion this session.

Meanwhile, incoming state Sen. Faith Winter is working on a bill that would require providers of student loans to be licensed with the state’s attorney general, giving the office investigatory authority to look into consumer complaints and take action where wrongdoing is found. She also plans to resurface a bill that Republicans rejected last year seeking to unify how Colorado colleges and universities respond to sexual assault on campus.

6. Democrats to revive plenty of legislation Republicans defeated in the past

Expect to see efforts to protect access and coverage for abortion and other reproductive healthcare in Colorado. Women’s-rights organizations are fearful that the U.S. Supreme Court will overturn or roll back the protections in Roe vs. Wade and that changes to federal health care law could also create problems.

Another bill expected this session will restrict licensed mental health professionals from practicing so-called “gay-conversion therapy” on anyone under 18 years old. The measure failed in the Republican-led Senate in recent years but finds new life with a Democratic majority in both chambers.

Other legislation is expected to address family and economic issues.

A paid family- and medical-leave bill is among the Democrats’ priorities this year. They’ve focused discussion on how to ensure that all Coloradans have the ability to get paid time off work when they have a newborn or become sick.

Winter, who is leading the charge, called the measure “a social insurance program.” It’s not clear yet who will pay and how much, although preliminary estimates show employees and employers each paying about $1 to $2 a week into a fund. Initial costs would be covered by bonding.

Republican Rep. Lois Landgraf of Fountain plans to introduce her own paid-leave legislation, which would reimburse workers through tax credits.

The issues of taxes is poised to become a major dividing line. House Republican leader Patrick Neville said his party will oppose any proposals to increase taxes or fees — and House Democrats believe new revenue is needed to pay for their priorities.

The Colorado Capitol rotunda on Thursday, Dec. 20, 2018. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

7. A re-examination of pot in Colorado, as industry looks to mature

The state’s marijuana regulations face a regular review this year, and the Hickenlooper administration is recommending a simplification that would combine the medical and retail codes. The move, if approved by lawmakers, would represent a significant overhaul.

Elsewhere, the cannabis industry is looking to Polis to sign legislation — vetoed by Hickenlooper — to expand marijuana consumption to “tasting rooms,” allow for more outside investors and make autism a condition eligible for medical marijuana.

And incoming Attorney General Phil Weiser, a Democrat, wants to expunge old pot convictions statewide.

Other smaller measures are expected, too. Rep. Matt Gray plans to bring a bill allowing both parents of a child who uses medical marijuana to be a caregiver legally allowed to purchase, transport and possess the drug. Currently, only one parent can be designated as the child’s caregiver.

8. The gaps in campaign-finance laws and enforcement get new look

The role of big money in politics may get renewed attention from lawmakers who want to see tighter regulations, more disclosure and fewer gaps in Colorado’s law. And all of this comes against the backdrop of data-analytics firm Cambridge Analytica’s controversial role in the state’s 2014 and 2016 elections.

Incoming Secretary of State Jena Griswold, a Democrat, is making it a priority to address the lack of transparency from organizations that don’t identify their donors and spend big sums, known as dark money.

Other issues lawmakers may address involve disclosure loopholes regarding political advertisements that don’t mention who paid for them.

MORE: Dark money and disclosure gaps are priorities for new state election chief, Democrats

9. The search for road money continues, despite ballot failures

Even though two competing ballot measure on transportation failed in the 2018 election, another will appear on the 2019 ballot to issue $2.3 million in bonds for road and transit expansions.

But lawmakers are considering whether to intervene — and retract that ballot measure slated to go before voters this year, potentially replacing it with another funding mechanism.

Republican lawmakers made clear that spending more money on roads is a top priority, but the two parties struggled to come to terms on a deal in the past. And Democrats are drawing a line in the sand — without a new source of money, whether through taxes or fees, they don’t want to issue transportation bonds.

10. Immigration measures Republicans blocked

Democrats’ efforts in recent years to pass legislation to support Colorado’s immigrants living in the U.S. illegally repeatedly have been blocked by Republicans. And now they are expected to return.

Look to Democrats to bolster funding and potentially work to expand the state’s driver’s license program for those in the U.S. unlawfully. It has been plagued by long wait times for applicants because of a lack of resources.

Also, state Rep. Leslie Herod said she plans to reintroduce a measure rejected by Republicans rejected that would reduce the maximum jail sentence for Class 2 misdemeanors from one year to 364 days. The change would help prevent those living in the country illegally who are convicted of such a crime from getting on the radar of federal immigration officials.

“It will be very similar to last year,” the Denver Democrat said.

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