Lawmakers huddling at their desks. Lobbyists crowding the chamber doors. Legislative staffers scurrying through the hallways.
The Colorado Capitol can appear to be an intimidating place. But it’s not — once you know how it works.
Here we offer the details on what you need to know to get your voice heard in the Colorado lawmaking process, according to conversations with dozens of legislators, lobbyists and policy experts.
The basics you need to know
The Colorado General Assembly consists of the House and Senate. Both chambers are controlled by Democrats for the two-year term that starts Jan. 4, 2019.
Here’s the breakdown by party of the 100 lawmakers from across the state:
- 65 House members: 41 Democrats, 24 Republicans
- 35 Senate members: 19 Democrats, 16 Republicans
Each chamber’s leader helps determine committee assignments, the direction of legislation and, in large part, the party’s agenda. The House speaker is Democrat KC Becker, an environmental lawyer from Boulder. The Senate president is Democrat Leroy Garcia, a paramedic from Pueblo.
The House minority leader is Republican Patrick Neville of Castle Rock. Republican Chris Holbert of Parker is the Senate minority leader.
The General Assembly meets weekdays — this session runs through May 3 — and select committees can meet sporadically for the remainder of the year before the next lawmaking term.
The best way to know what’s happening is to check the General Assembly website. It features calendars for each chamber and respective committees; links to watch or listen to the action; contact information for lawmakers; and a place to search for bills.
Here’s a search tool to find out which lawmaker represents you.
What to expect at the Capitol
There are two public entrances to the Capitol — one off of East Colfax Avenue on the building’s north side and another off East 14th Avenue on the south side on the basement level. To enter, you must go through security similar to what you’d find at an airport.
Once inside, you are mostly free to roam about. Here’s the general layout:
- Basement: The rooms, each of which is marked by a number beginning with a zero, include House committee meeting rooms, the legislative library, and a cafeteria area with a small snack bar and vending machines.
- First floor: This is where you can find the governor’s office (Room 136) and other offices for administration staff. It’s also where Capitol tours begin.
- Second floor: The Senate and House chambers are here, and lobbyists and visitors can gather outside the doors to visit with lawmakers during the sessions. Some legislative offices and a committee meeting room are located here, too.
- Third floor: This is where you can enter the galleries above the chambers to watch the House and Senate. More Senate committee rooms and lawmaker offices are also on this floor.
- The Dome: If you want a tour, check in with the desk on the first floor. But you can walk up into the Dome from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays.
Members of the public cannot enter the floor of the House or Senate unless they are the guest of a lawmaker. The committee rooms are open to the public during meetings.
If you have questions, ask the green- or red-jacketed sergeant-at-arms at the entrance to each chamber for help.
What lawmakers do every day
The two chambers convene about 9 a.m. Tuesday through Friday and about 10 a.m. Monday. The work on the chamber floor often concludes quickly to make time for committee meetings in the morning and afternoon. (Toward the end of session, the lawmakers will spend more time in the chamber debating bills and voting.)
The lawmakers spend most of the day in committee hearings, meetings with constituents and lobbyists, and responding to calls and emails. Colorado has a citizen legislature, so many of the lawmakers also have other jobs.
How a bill becomes a law, Colorado edition
The process of how a bill becomes a law is different than what you see in Washington, D.C. The step-by-step process can get complicated. But here’s a video that outlines how it works.
If a chart is easier for you, here’s one that explains the process. And keep in mind that the video represents the standard protocol, but it doesn’t work like this every time.
How to watch the action
If you want to watch the House and Senate chambers, you can visit the Capitol and sit in the gallery, as mentioned above. But if you don’t want to leave your couch or office, you can still watch online. When lawmakers are convened as a whole, the sessions are broadcast live and then archived by the Colorado Channel on YouTube. Here is the link.
The committee hearings are not broadcast or recorded on video, but you can listen to them live through an audio feed or find them archived after the fact. Here’s the link. (For committee hearings, the entire audio often isn’t posted until hours later, or even the next day.)
How to find a bill
To find a bill, the easiest way is to search for keywords or to browse by topic at this link.
If you just want to look at a list of all the bills introduced so far, you can find them here by type of bill and chamber.
How to get involved: Contact or visit your lawmaker
The easiest way to get involved in the lawmaking process at the state level is to contact your lawmaker about issues important to you. (Again, here’s how to find your lawmaker and here’s the contact information.)
Each lawmaker is different — some prefer phone calls, while others prefer emails. (So, do both!) You can also stay tuned to lawmakers’ social-media accounts to find out when they hold town halls in the community, or you can connect with a like-minded advocacy organization to learn more.
Even better: Ask for a meeting at the Capitol or in the community.
“We get so much email, it becomes just a ton of noise,” says Rep. Matt Gray, a Broomfield Democrat. “I’ll tell you frankly — and it’s tough because it takes more sacrifice — anyone who has the time and ability to set up a meeting or just come down physically to Denver, … it’s the best way to get the most attention and the most focus out of a lawmaker.”
Rep. Jim Wilson, R-Salida, offers visitors from his district the chance to sit on the chamber floor and see how lawmaking works. “I give that invitation out to people all the time,” he said. “It’s the people’s house. They totally need to be involved in it.”
Once you meet a lawmaker in person, you’ll find “most of us are nearly normal,” Wilson joked.
If you visit during a session, you can give a note to the sergeant-at-arms at the door to the chamber and they’ll deliver it to the lawmaker, who may be able to come meet with you.
But whether emailing, calling or stopping by, the keys are to know that your voice is valued and to have the confidence to tell your story, Capitol veterans said.
The best conversations are prepared ahead of time. Know the message you want to convey to your lawmaker and explain how it is personal for you and/or your community. “Let them know who you are, your background and why this is so important. And bring along a synopsis on how to vote on this bill,” said Katie Farnan, an activist with Indivisible Front Range Resistance, a liberal organization.
Morgan Carroll, a former Senate president who now serves as chairwoman of the Colorado Democratic Party, says you can take it a step further: Get a lawmaker to introduce a bill on your issue. “All you need is one of 100 legislators to say ‘Yes,’ ” she said.
How to get involved: Testify on a bill
Unlike other states — and Congress — every bill in Colorado must get at least one committee hearing in the respective chamber where it was introduced. And the public is allowed to testify on the legislation.
The committees are typically where most of the debate on an issue takes place and bills are amended before they’re moved to the next committee or the full chamber. The testimony can last minutes for simple matters or hours on emotionally-charged issues.
Here’s how it works: Use the calendars linked above to find out when and where the bill will get a hearing. Arrive early to sign up on the sheet near the front of the room and wait your turn to sit at the front table in front of the microphone.
The length of public testimony is at the discretion of the committee chairperson, but it is usually limited to 2 to 3 minutes. Prepare what you want to say ahead of time, but lawmakers prefer that you don’t just read it.
The basic format for testimony is simple:
- Introduce yourself.
- State your position on the bill or issue.
- Share your personal story with two or three points to make your case.
- Restate your position with a clear ask to support or oppose.
- Thank the committee members for their attention.
The lawmakers may ask you questions, but if you don’t know the answer, just say so. And you’re welcome to bring handouts to give to the lawmakers. (In rare cases, committees will take remote testimony via a video link so that you don’t have to travel to Denver. Contact the committee chair or your lawmaker to ask whether this is available.)
One pro tip: Often, the committee members will enter the room decided about a particular issue, so it’s good to reach out as soon as possible to your lawmaker or the members of the committee. (The bill page will state the committees to which the bill was assigned and the committee membership list is here.)
“Don’t just show up to committees,” said Rep. Jeff Bridges, D-Greenwood Village. “Talk with the committee members ahead of time. The most effective way to lobby a bill is to meet with legislators as far in advance as you can. If you come to a legislator on the last time they are going to vote on a bill, you are probably too late.”
Carroll, the former Senate leader, offered this advice: “The earlier in the process, the better — but there is no wrong way to advocate except to sit it out.”
Tell your story
Do more than just tell your story to lawmakers — share it with others. Whether via social media or the press, your viewpoint may resonate with like-minded people and reach a broader audience.
If you want to contact The Colorado Sun to share your view on legislation or to talk about how an issue affects you, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.