Christmas comes a little late for Colorado political junkies. Somewhere between a week or two after the traditional holiday, the Colorado legislative session starts.
There are bills to be unwrapped under the Capitol dome and hurried excitement of legislators and lobbyists alike rushing across the marble floors.
There is even a regular Legislative Session Eve gathering where gifts in the form of pre-session contributions (many illegal once the session begins) flow into the coffers of Democrats and Republicans alike.
I go to the events for both annually because it’s the best source for political gossip to start the New Year. Catching up with old friends and being cornered by lobbyists upset by one of my recent columns only add to the fun.
This year the question on everyone’s lips is how far left will the new Democratic majorities set their agenda? As highlighted by the experienced and always excellent Jesse Paul and John Frank for The Colorado Sun, at least 10 big-ticket items already appear inked into Democrats’ wish list.
Everything from climate change to healthcare and gun rights to education funding will be debated. But the answer to every policy issue has degrees on the conservative-liberal continuum. While it is clear that Colorado will see more progressive legislation enacted in 2019, it isn’t quite as apparent how far beyond the current fulcrum Democrats’ answers will be.
Democrats — and, importantly, their electoral base — could rightly interpret the 2018 election results as a mandate to enact an agenda as progressive as possible.
Democrats swept all four statewide elections, gained control of the state Senate and expanded their state House majority. However, how Democrats won may be even more telling than the majorities themselves. Most, including Gov. Jared Polis, won while touting an unabashedly progressive message.
Prior political wisdom dictated Democrats would move to the middle between primary and general elections. Led by Polis, most Democratic candidates took a different tack and must feel vindicated by the results.
The Democratic base certainly does, and failure to come out swinging during this legislative cycle could result in intra-party unrest and angst. Anything less than an aggressive agenda could lead to bitter divisions and primary challenges down the road.
But for recent history, Democrats’ choice would be easy. Rejection of progressive ballot initiatives in 2018 and the backlash engendered by Democratic overreach in 2013 may give them pause.
Those outcomes seemed to be the only two glimmers of hope Republicans grasped for leading up to the session.
Proposals in contrast to the clear will of Colorado voters expressed at the polls, such as oil and gas setbacks, could sour voters on Democratic control and create a path forward for the decimated Colorado GOP.
That’s exactly what happened the last time Democrats controlled both legislative chambers and the governor’s office; they ran roughshod over gun rights and lost both recall elections in 2013 and control of the state Senate the following year.
Additionally, in 2014 Republicans won three of four statewide offices and saw Cory Gardner edge out a Democratic incumbent for the U.S. Senate. Little more than spectators this session, members of the GOP hold out hope that history repeats itself.
Given that backdrop, the most interesting argument I heard at the pre-session gatherings suggested Democrats should treat this as a four-year cycle, rather than the typical two-year variety.
The newly elected statewide officers won’t be up for election for four years. Democrats have not lost the state House this decade and, thanks to gerrymandering, won’t until 2022 at the earliest. The state Senate map for 2020 includes only one true pickup opportunity for Republicans which would still leave them shy of a majority.
That buffer may give Democrats just the kind of confidence necessary to punch every item on their wish list, particularly in the first year of a minimum four-year reign. If they do come out swinging in 2019, there is sure to be even more to talk about during next year’s Legislative Session Eve.
Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, healthcare, and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq
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