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Split among Democrats on two major issues comes as Colorado’s legislative session heads into final sprint

The paid parental and family leave bill, as well as a measure to abolish Colorado’s death penalty, have been delayed by internal party concerns

Lobbyists gather outside of the Colorado Senate chambers on Feb. 22, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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Democrat-on-Democrat pushback on two of the party’s major pieces of legislation at the Colorado Capitol this year has delayed the measures ahead of the sprint toward the finish of the 2019 session.

A priority bill that would create a state-run parental and family leave program impacting every Colorado employer and employee was temporarily shelved Tuesday because of concerns from some in the Democratic majority on the Senate Finance Committee.

“It’s not ready for prime time,” said Sen. Nancy Todd, an Aurora Democrat who sits on the panel, adding that she wants to make sure the legislation is carefully crafted and fully thought out. She is a co-sponsor of the measure, Senate Bill 188.

That effort is poised to eventually pass, but another measure, to repeal Colorado’s death penalty, is in a more precarious spot. Senate Bill 182was laid over until April 1 on the Senate floor this week as questions mount about whether there are enough Democratic votes to advance.

Democrats hold a 19-16 majority in the chamber, and while one Republican — Sen. Kevin Priola of Henderson — has said he will vote for the bill to abolish capital punishment, one Democrat has also announced her opposition.

Four more Democratic senators — Todd, Joann Ginal of Fort Collins, Tammy Story of Conifer, and Sen. Jessie Danielson of Lakewood — are either undecided or have not publicly said where they stand.

MORE: Read The Colorado Sun’s series on the death penalty in Colorado

The state budget, a massive bill that takes days to get through, is expected to consume at least the beginning of next week, so time is running out to get everything done before the session ends on May 3.

Senate Bill 181, Democrats’ omnibus oil and gas regulation bill, is heard Tuesday, March 12, 2019, in the Colorado Senate. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Adding to the time crunch: Republicans angered by the speed with which Democrats have pushed through legislation plan to continue their efforts to slow the Senate in protest. GOP Sen. Owen Hill, of Colorado Springs, is among those leading the charge, which has been centered around asking that bills be read at length.

“I don’t believe we actually have time to appropriately discuss the policies we are pushing here,” said Hill, who championed a delay of more than an hour on Thursday.

A long list of bills still to go

Still on the Democrats’ slate in both the Senate and House: Passing the red flag gun bill in the Senate; passing the omnibus oil and gas bill in the House; passing Gov. Jared Polis’ campaign promise for full-day kindergarten across the state, which has yet to be introduced; passing a bill asking voters in November to alter the structure of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, which was just introduced; passing a bill requiring men and women be paid equally, which still needs to clear the Senate before heading to the House; passing a sex education bill in the Senate, which has drawn fierce pushback from the GOP.

And there are dozens of other bills that still require several hearings but are less controversial.

Democrats also on Thursday evening introduced a bill that seeks to place a list carbon emission reduction goals into Colorado law to battle climate change, according to House Speaker KC Becker, a Boulder Democrat. It’s legislation that could have impacts on electricity generation and is likely to prompt more intense debate and Republican opposition.

The result: more late nights, hearings into early mornings and potentially weekend work at the Capitol ahead as Democrats maneuver to get all of their goals across the finish line.

The Colorado House chambers, photographed on Jan. 4, 2019. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“This past election season, the electors sent us here to do a lot of things — and we also came here with a pretty big mandate — and we have 120 days to do that,” said Sen. Kerry Donovan, a Vail Democrat and the Senate Majority Whip. “To manage what we were sent here to do in 120 days was a hard thing to accomplish on Day One and now we are halfway through the session and that challenge hasn’t changed. We were sent here to do a lot and we’re going to try and do it.”

The Senate, with its slimmer Democratic majority and where the political stakes are higher, is where the slow down is really focused and more crucial. Lawmakers say their internal disagreements are normal and simply a part of the lawmaking process.

“We’re a big tent party. We don’t all agree on everything and I think that’s one of the strengths of the party,” said Sen. Jeff Bridges, a Greenwood Village Democrat. “We don’t march in a single file line, and I think that’s one of our caucus’ strengths.”

The paid parental and family leave bill is widely opposed by Colorado’s business community, and some Democrats are taking those concerns seriously.

“There’s obviously a need,” Todd said. “… I think we’ll come up with something, in terms of a lot of us coming together to make it better and to make it feasible for people to receive benefits but not totally on the backs of business.”

Another lawmaker who would like to see changes is Sen. Pete Lee, a Colorado Springs Democrat who also sits on the Senate Finance committee. Democrats have just a one-vote majority on the panel, and the Republicans on the panel are opposed.

“I look forward to working with bill sponsors and other stakeholders to help resolve concerns and craft legislation that can receive bipartisan support,” Lee said. “I’m favorable to the principles articulated in the bill, the devil is always in the details.”

Sen. Faith Winter, a Westminster Democrat who is a lead sponsor of the bill, said she’s not worried about the outcome. The legislation would create a new division in the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment to oversee a fund of up to $1 billion.

Sen. Faith Winter poses for a photo with her daughter Sienna Snook, 7, on her first day as a state senator. (Kathryn Scott, The Colorado Sun)

“As we have seen with other big bills, like oil and gas, it is going to have a lot of amendments as it goes through the process,” she said. “I think some people had both questions and ideas for future amendments, but because it’s a big program we want to make sure that implementing those ideas is feasible with the department, that the fund remains solvent and we didn’t want to be running numbers at midnight through our model without giving it a serious look.”

The bill is expected to be revisited in about a week.

Death penalty repeal awaiting debate

As for the death penalty measure, Sen. Rhonda Fields, of Aurora, is the Democrat in firm opposition. Two of the three men on Colorado’s death row are convicted of killing Fields’ son, Javad, and his fiancée, Vivian Wolfe. Fields, the assistant Senate majority leader, says lawmakers have been coming to consult with her on the topic.

“They are expressing sympathy and condolences — that kind of thing,” Fields said. “And they’re concerned. And they’re somewhat baffled or not quite sure how they’re going to vote. There’s a lot of sense of uncertainty — they’re not quite sure how they’re going to vote. So, a lot of people are thinking and I think many people have not decided … I just don’t know how it’s going to play out when it hits the floor.”

MORE: “Those scars will always be there”: Rhonda Fields’ son was murdered by two of the three men on Colorado’s death row

Todd said weeks ago she was on the fence, and still had not made up her mind on the bill as of Wednesday. “I’m making (a decision),” she said. “I’m making it.”

Democratic Sens. Ginal and Story are also undecided. Sen. Danielson has not publicly said where she stands.

“This is an issue that my colleagues are exploring with both their heads and their hearts, and it is not a decision that you come to lightly or easily,” said Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat who is a prime sponsor of the death penalty repeal bill. “We have the ability to give our colleagues the time that they need to be able to hear from victims who are supportive of capital punishment. My colleagues now have the opportunity to hear from victims who are fundamentally opposed to the death penalty. We have that ability to give them that time, so we’re giving them that time that they need.”

Updated at 11:25 a.m. on Friday, March 22, 2019: This story has been updated to correct that state Sen. Tammy Story is from Conifer.

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