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Politics and Government

Chaos and conflict brewing at the Colorado Capitol as Democrats push a big agenda and the GOP resists

A series of major policy shifts is generating tension, with one leading Republican state senator promoting secession

The oil and gas industry holds a rally outside of the Colorado Capitol on Tuesday, March 5, 2019, ahead of the first committee hearing for Senate Bill 181. The legislation would add significant new regulation to the industry and is being brought by Democrats. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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The atmosphere at the Colorado Capitol is becoming chaotic.

A major overhaul of the oil and gas industry is drawing protests. Other controversial legislation is pushing debates late into the night. Gov. Jared Polis is feuding with lawmakers from his own party. Democrats are battling each other on major priorities, including a repeal of the death penalty. The threat of recall elections is looming. And one Republican leader wants part of Colorado to secede.

The tumult peaked Monday as Republican leaders in the state Senate ground lawmaking to a halt by invoking a little-used rule that required the six-hour reading of a noncontroversial 575,000-word bill to make a political point about the speed at which Democrats are moving.

“The temperature is rising,” said state Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat.

The heightened tension comes at the midpoint in the 2019 legislative session as Democrats feel the pressure to make good on their campaign promises but struggle against not going too far and losing the trust of voters.

The new budget forecast set for release Friday only will amplify the mood as Polis and lawmakers get a sense of whether there is enough money to pay for their ambitious priorities, such as full-day kindergarten and more transportation spending.

MORE: Worried about slowing economy, Democrats look to delay Polis pledge for full-day kindergarten

In the face of criticism, the Democratic leaders in the House and Senate remain undeterred and belittled the opposition, calling it manufactured and “Trumpian.” They point to the 2018 election results that gave the party the most power in Colorado since 1936 as a mandate for their vision, dismissing concerns that Democrats were pushing policy changes too far and too fast.

“We are running on the things we said we were going to do. I don’t think there’s any big surprises to that,” said House Speaker KC Becker, D-Boulder. “Instead, we see Republicans doing a lot of fearmongering around this … and these are things people knew were coming — they’re good policy.”

A woman holds a sign at a rally on Tuesday, March 5, 2019, in support of Senate Bill 181, Democrats’ effort to add regulations onto the Colorado oil and gas industry. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Democrats persist as Republicans resist at Capitol

But House Majority Leader Alec Garnett acknowledged the tension evident in the major policy changes his party is pushing.

“It is a lot,” said Garnett, D-Denver. “So, I think the timing, the cadence, of how the big issues are coming forward is something that is creating tension in the building. But we only have 120 days and we are doing the best we can to fulfill those promises.”

The legislation to overhaul the oil and gas regulations — which gives local communities the power to regulate and potentially issue de facto bans on drilling — is the move that is generating the most heated opposition, including from within the Democratic Party.

Democrats hurried the measure debuting it and moving it to the Senate floor in a week. But amid the blowback, Becker, the bill’s sponsor, says the timeline will slow.

MORE: What the landmark oil and gas bill really says — and its significance for Colorado

State Sen. Vicki Marble, a top ranking Republican, suggested part of Colorado should secede because the regulations could hurt oil and gas companies. “My recourse is SECEDE,” the Fort Collins lawmaker wrote on Facebook. “Boulder and Denver metro are so removed from the working man’s reality.” She later appeared to threaten a 9News reporter who wrote about it.

The action to delay Monday’s calendar and force the reading of an unrelated bill is the latest move. It moved more quickly than expected with the help of a computer program that read the bill aloud to a mostly empty Senate chamber. But Assistant Senate Republican leader John Cooke, who made the request on a bill he sponsored, said it was necessary.

“It’s the only arrow in our quiver, so to speak,” the Greeley lawmaker said. “It’s all we have. We’re trying to slow down the process to protect a very important industry.”

Democrats reacted sharply. “They lost fair and square in November and they’re sore losers,” said Sen. Jeff Bridges, D-Greenwood Village. “This is just a desperate attempt to overturn the will of the people.”

Democratic unity starting to show cracks

Alongside the partisan divide, public fissures are emerging within the Democratic caucus.

In the House, a few Democrats broke from the caucus leadership to oppose the national popular vote legislation and red flag gun measure. In the Senate, Rhonda Fields, the No. 4 Democrat in the chamber, launched a rebuke of her colleagues last week for moving a bill to repeal Colorado’s death penalty so quickly.

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It was introduced March 4, announced at a news conference the next day and heard in committee 24 hours later. “I consider that a one, two, three punch,” said Fields, whose son was killed by two of the three men on death row. She supports capital punishment. “When we think about the magnitude of abolishing the death penalty, surely — surely — there should be enough time to ensure a thorough and comprehensive debate.”

Senate President Leroy Garcia is missing from much of the public debate on these measures. He didn’t appear with the governor and other party leaders at the announcement for the oil and gas legislation and he hasn’t taken a public position on the red flag gun measure. Garcia has also not been among those out front in defending how Democrats have rolled out their agenda. He declined to comment for this story.

There are other internal conflicts brewing in the Senate Democrats’ caucus, but Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat, downplayed them and said they didn’t impact the party’s broader agenda.

“Yeah, there are some personality conflicts from time to time,” he said. “There are disagreements, as there should be.”

Top Democratic members of the Colorado legislature — including, from left, Rep. Chris Kennedy, Senate Majority Leader Stephen Fenberg and House Majority Leader Alec Garnett, stand and applaud as Gov. Jared Polis delivered his first State of the State address on January 10, 2019. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Meanwhile, Polis and Democratic leaders are at odds on a number of significant issues, most prominently the question of whether the state has enough money to cover full-day kindergarten costs.

Democratic lawmakers and Polis also want to go to the ballot this year with a measure to put a timeout on the spending caps in the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, but the governor isn’t sure it’s “the right strategy.”

The high-stakes lawmaking is expected to only get more intense in the final two months of the session with the budget bill and other major measures on marijuana, greenhouse gas emissions and rent control still to come. Even Democrats like state Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, who support the party’s approach this session, are concerned.

“I don’t think the whirlwind’s really been wound up yet. I’m worried about the last 53 days,” said Benavidez, an Adams County Democrat and caucus whip. “I think there are still a bunch of bills out there that haven’t come out and some of them are more controversial than bills that have come out.”

Updated at 11:30 a.m. on Wednesday, March 13, 2019: This story has been corrected to reflect that state Sen. Rhonda Fields, of Aurora, is the No. 4 Democrat in the Colorado Senate.

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