As part of our Capitol Sunlight project, aiming to make the Colorado legislature more accessible and understandable to every Coloradan, we fielded questions from you — our readers — about what goes on under the state’s Gold Dome.
You didn’t disappoint, with prompts about everything from how to follow the death penalty repeal debate (which has been shelved until 2020) to Colorado’s common law marriage statute and how to find out who your state senator and representative are.
One reader wanted to simply know: “What happens in the legislature?”
We hope our reporting during the 2019 legislative session has answered that question on most accords.
Here are your questions answered, at length:
How does a private citizen introduce an issue to be considered for legislation?
The state’s residents cannot introduce bills on their own at the Colorado legislature, though they can lobby lawmakers to take up an issue on their behalf. And that’s something that frequently happens.
Legislators will often introduce a bill by explaining that a constituent brought the issue to their attention, whether it be a problematic railroad crossing in Aurora or a lack of a law compelling people to call 911 when they see someone in need of help.
Sen. Kevin Priola, a Henderson Republican, has brought a pair of bills in the past two years stemming from conversations with constituents.
In 2018, he tried and failed to usher through a measure to increase the penalties for driving with a restricted license following an alcohol-related offense. Priola says the measure came after he had discussions with a woman whose husband was killed in a car crash.
This year, Priola added a provision onto a recycling bill increasing the penalties for littering. “That specific paragraph comes from talking to a gentleman in Brighton in 2016,” he said.
Another example: Rep. Barbara McLachlan, a Durango Democrat, is working with other lawmakers to officially change the name of Western State Colorado University to Western Colorado University.
As we reported earlier in our Capitol Sunlight series, lawmakers like to bring bills that have a compelling story behind them and bipartisan support.
“The reality is that there are four main things to consider when working on a bill: The policy, process, politics and people involved,” said Sen. Jeff Bridges, a Greenwood Village Democrat. “Think through all four before approaching a legislator and you’ll have a much greater chance of success.”
If you try to bring a bill idea to a lawmaker while the legislative session is underway, it might be too late. Legislators typically have deadlines before the policymaking term begins each January by which they have to file titles for their measures.
What have Democrats learned from the last time they were in the majority?
Democrats last held the Colorado House, Senate and governor’s office from 2013 to 2014, during which the party passed and signed into law a number of progressive policies, including gun-control measures and one allowing people living in the country illegally to obtain driver’s licenses.
The successes for Democrats, however, came at a cost. Two state senators were recalled in 2013 over their support for the tougher gun regulations and a third resigned. Then, in the 2014 elections, they lost control of the state Senate.
A big question for Democrats in recent months has been whether or not they will be able to retain so much control after the 2020 election cycle, or if they will suffer the same defeats as the last time. It’s a frequent topic of conversation around the Capitol.
Already, there are recall efforts swirling around a number of vulnerable lawmakers, most notably Rep. Rochelle Galindo, a Greeley Democrat in Republican Weld County. You’re starting to see Democrats trying to protect Galindo over what looks to be a credible effort to remove her from her seat.
So what have Democrats learned since the 2013 and 2014 legislative sessions?
“In some ways, we learned a little bit more about how to take the long view — about how to message a little bit better so we’re not just messaging to one side of an issue or the other,” said Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat. “No matter what you do, the message that the other side wanted to get out there about what you’re doing is still going to be said.”
He added that part of that better messaging is how to respond to the Republican pushback early and often.
“The overreach argument was already put out there before we even started session,” Fenberg said.
House Majority Leader Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, echoed that message.
“What we’ve learned is that you have to campaign on the way you’re going to govern,” he said. “And I believe that is happening. So then when you see all this opposition pop up that didn’t appear in years past, it shows that the only tool that the minority has is to be very vocal.”
What happens when a court finds a law unconstitutional?
It’s common for the constitutionality of legislation in Colorado to be challenged in court, but a bill doesn’t necessarily have to become a law before it goes before a judge for a ruling.
“There are a couple ways a statute can be ruled unconstitutional,” said Christopher Jackson, an appellate lawyer at the Denver firm Sherman & Howard who once worked on constitutional law questions at the Colorado Attorney General’s Office.
The governor or attorney general can petition the Colorado Supreme Court and ask them to rule on whether a bill is constitutional. The panel, however, isn’t required to take up the question of a legislation’s constitutionality,
Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper asked the state Supreme Court late last year to weigh in on the constitutionality of the Gallagher Amendment in combination with the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. The justices took a pass.
The other way for legislation to be challenged in court is for an individual or group to file a lawsuit questioning its constitutionality after it is signed into law.
That’s expected to happen after Gov. Jared Polis signs the red flag gun bill into law in the coming days, with Republicans vowing to challenge the policy that would allow judges to order the temporary seizure of firearms from a person deemed a significant risk to themselves or others.
“If it’s ruled unconstitutional, then the short answer is that it’s no longer enforceable,” Jackson said.
The long answer: A court can toss out a provision in a bill while keeping the rest of the legislation intact. It just depends on how intertwined the part in question is with the remaining policy.
Last year, a Denver judge blocked a provision in a school transportation bill that the legislature passed in 2018, finding that it violated the state’s rules mandating laws only tackle a single subject and have a clear title. But a court can reject legislature for a myriad of reasons,
“It could be literally anything,” Jackson said. “It’s a wide variety of different issues. The one I saw most often was First Amendment (violations). My guess is that’s the most common one.”
If legislation is ruled unconstitutional and struck down by a court, lawmakers can go back and pass a new bill to address the issue. That’s what happened this year with the question surrounding the school transportation measure.
Why is it so darn hard to figure out which municipalities are in each representative’s district? Who is my state representative and state senator? Is there an online link?
Thankfully, there is a great tool for this. The Colorado legislature’s website actually has a map where you can input your address and find out who your state senator or representative is: https://leg.colorado.gov/find-my-legislator
If you are looking to find out the boundaries of each state Senate and House district, there are maps for that as well.
What are all the bills being drafted and their progress?
Unfortunately there really isn’t a foolproof way to track every bill and its status in the legislature all at once.
You can see every bill that’s been introduced by visiting this page. However, there are hundreds of bills to comb through, so it’s not the easiest list to navigate.
The best way to find out where a bill is in the legislative process is to know the number and search it that way.
Check out the video below on how to do that on the legislature’s website:
Once you are on a bill’s page, you can search for where it is in the process, what its upcoming schedule is and how lawmakers voted on it.
Check out the video below for an example:
Have more questions about the lawmaking process in Colorado? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.