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Politics and Government

With tensions rising in the Colorado Senate, the breaking point is reached — over an attendance record

There was a defining moment in the Senate chamber Monday, when weeks of partisan politics came to a head. That led to attempts to set a better tone for the remaining weeks of the 2019 session. It’s unclear if they will work.

State Sen. Larry Crowder, of Alamosa, explains on March 25, 2019, why he was among the five Republicans absent for a vote Friday night on the red flag gun bill. The absences and the Democratic response led to calls for bipartisanship. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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On Friday night, in the midst of about 10 hours of debate over the “red flag” gun bill, Senate President Leroy Garcia made a request — one that would normally go unnoticed — that became the straw that broke the partisan camel’s back: He called that all of the chamber’s 35 lawmakers be summoned for a vote.

Missing were five Republicans, one of whom was leaving the state for a prior engagement, another who was taking care of a child and three others who were heading home to their far-away districts for the weekend.

When the vote was called, those five were marked “absent” when they would typically have been “excused.” On Monday, they protested that they had been unfairly impugned as not caring.

“I feel like I’m stuck in an Alanis Morissette song,” said Sen. Jeff Bridges, a Greenwood Village Democrat. “Isn’t it ironic?”

Monday marked a defining moment in the state’s 2019 legislative session, specifically in the Senate, where weeks of partisan tension came to a head in an airing of grievances. That set up a meeting of top legislators that could decide whether the remaining four weeks of the lawmaking term will be marked by more tumult or an agreement to finally start working together.

In the past two weeks, Democrats and Republicans in the state Senate have been locked in an increasingly tense battle over the pace of legislation being brought by the former, the majority party. The GOP has been launching effort after effort to slow things down — mainly be asking that legislation be read at length — even suing to uphold its ability under the rules laid out by the Colorado Constitution to make sure legislation moved at a snail’s pace.

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

Friday night’s action by Garcia, a Pueblo Democrat, tossed the rules back in Republicans’ faces. Under the rules, he is the one who gets to decide whether a lawmaker is marked excused or absent.

“Well, I think we can agree on one thing: Today the senatorial courtesy that has existed here for many years is in question,” the normally reserved Garcia said after leaving his perch on the Senate floor’s podium to make his first remarks during floor debate this year. “And that was started, not on behalf of us, but at the request of reading at length and ad nauseam every single thing we can. In the last six years, while I served in the minority party, not one time — not one time — did we ever read the journal at length. Let alone, now, multiple times.”

Colorado Senate President Leroy Garcia, a Pueblo Democrat, speaks at his podium in the chamber on Monday, March 25, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Republican Sen. Jim Smallwood, of Parker, was one of the five marked absent for Friday night’s vote. He was taking his 13-year-old son to the airport.

On the Senate floor Monday morning, Smallwood argued that Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat, had signed off on his being excused. The fact that Garcia then marked him as absent represented a breakdown in trust.

“I guess what concerns me the most about this is (that) this building, at the end of the day, still has a lot to do with relationships,” Smallwood said. “And to be able to rely on information when a colleague tells you, ‘This is what I’m going to do.’ ”

Sen. Bob Gardner, a Colorado Springs Republican, agreed that the rules allow Garcia to make the ultimate decision over whether a senator is marked absent or excused. But at question, really, were fairness and etiquette.

In response, Bridges argued that Republicans were the reason senators were kept at the Capitol so late Friday night: They, he said, were the ones responsible for making long speeches on the floor in opposition to the red flag gun bill. They had introduced amendment after amendment throughout the day to change the measure. They were the ones who, at 7 p.m., requested that the bill be read at length, an exercise to slow down the process. It took about 30 minutes.

“This is insanity,” Bridges said Monday. “This is not how this body should operate, even though it’s within the rules.”

Also gone Friday night was Republican Sen. Kevin Priola, of Henderson, who was catching a flight to celebrate his 23rd wedding anniversary with his wife. GOP Sens. Ray Scott, of Grand Junction, Larry Crowder, of Alamosa, and Don Coram, of Montrose, left early as well to make their long treks home for the weekend.

There is a slate of legislation still left to be debated in the state Senate, from the contentious sex-education bill to funding for full-day kindergarten and a measure to repeal the death penalty. Meanwhile, the budget is going to be debated this week. Lawmakers will have to come to an agreement on how to spend some $30 billion.

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

What remains to be seen is whether Republicans will ask that the budget bill be read at length, which could take days.

In the midst of Monday’s debate over whether senators were absent or excused, the leadership teams for the chamber’s Democrats and Republicans huddled to find a path forward. Both sides hope the brief meeting will help decide the tone of the remaining 39 days of the legislative session. It also could decide how much gets done before May 3.

“I don’t know yet,” Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, a Parker Republican, said after the meeting, referring to whether everything was resolved. Holbert said he still had to speak to fellow Senate Republicans about the discussions.

“I don’t see it getting better until we have that first conversation,” said Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, a Sterling Republican.

He said the tension is the worst he has seen in his more than a decade in the legislature.

“I think that this body could use some grace right now,” Bridges said. “The question right now before us truly is not ‘What are the rules of the Senate?’ The question before us right now is ‘How do we want to be? How do we want this body to be? How do we want to treat each other?’ “


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