Skip to contents
Politics and Government

How a first-year Colorado lawmaker tried to “go big or go home” with a zero-waste bill

“It’s sort of messy, but that’s part of the beauty in a way,” says state Rep. Lisa Cutter, on the lessons she learned about the legislative process

State Rep. Lisa Cutter, a Jefferson County Democrat, in the Colorado House chamber on April 23, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
  • Credibility:

This is the second story in an occasional series as part of The Colorado Sun’s Capitol Sunlight project explaining how state government works. Read part one — and part three.

The deadline for her bill title looms, and Lisa Cutter doesn’t know where to start.

Just two months earlier, the first-time candidate won an improbable victory for the state House, taking a Republican seat in a tough race. Now the hard part began: Taking the ideas from the campaign and putting them into legislation at the Capitol.

In her conversations with voters, Cutter talked a good deal about the environment and her passion for reducing the amount of trash sent to landfills. Her mentor, Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a second-term Democrat from Commerce City, told her to embrace the mantra of the new Democratic majority at the state Capitol — and be bold.

“I said, ‘This is your opportunity — this is your moment — to take your idea and put it out there,’” Michaelson Jenet recalls. “You can always scale it back, but don’t dip a toe — really use your time in this seat to bring the big, bold ideas that you have been working on and that you believe in.”

So Cutter did. Her bill title: “Moving Colorado to Zero Waste.”

Other states are working on similar initiatives, but analysts say no state has approved such legislation. “This is my pie in the sky,” Cutter said.

The path from an idea to a bill — let alone a law — is not linear, nor easy. It’s not like the grade school cartoon about Congress. Often, the process ends in disappointment. And there’s a limit on good ideas.

In Colorado, each of the 100 lawmakers are allowed to introduce five bills each legislative session. Some get permission for more, but it’s the core five that define a lawmaker’s agenda in representing their district and the state.

The decision on which five bills to introduce is a particularly steep challenge for newcomers to the political process, like Cutter. She became more engaged in politics after the election of President Donald Trump and decided to run for office after helping to organize the first Women’s March in Denver.

She became the epitome of the movement — from the sidelines to the political arena to the legislature. Next came time to take action, the time to put her ideas to the test.

MORE: From the sidelines to the march, and now to the Capitol: One woman’s journey in the Trump era

Her bills aim to require media literacy instruction in public schools, address the supervision of physician assistants, limit lawsuits that attempt to silence critics  and license substance abuse treatment facilities.

Most of them are making progress. But one didn’t even make it to the starting line for introduction: Moving Colorado to Zero Waste.

Its failure offers lessons in how the state Capitol works and the difficulty in taking an idea and putting it into law. Cutter allowed The Colorado Sun to shadow her as she crafted the legislation, providing a behind-the-scenes look at the legislative process that few get to see.

She ran headlong into a number of political roadblocks that forced her to moderate the idea, but it did not sour her outlook on the job. “It’s better to be here than outside complaining,” the lawmaker says. “Because you can’t complain about something and not do something.”

The campaign is all-consuming in contested districts like the one Cutter won in western Jefferson County, but toward the end, the 55-year-old public relations consultant started thinking about what’s most important to her and where she wanted to make her mark.

She loves the outdoors and the environment, and she felt Colorado needed to do more to cut down on plastic waste and address its dismal recycling rate.

The state produced an estimated 9.3 million tons of trash in 2017 — a record, according to a recent report from an environmental organization. And the state ranks in the bottom half nationwide for its recycling rate, according to a recent Colorado Sun investigation.

“To most people, Colorado is the environment — people think of us as a green state,” Cutter says. “Recycling is a big piece of the climate change puzzle that I don’t think people talk about often enough, so that’s why I latched on to it.”

State. Rep Lisa Cutter, center, talks to her colleagues on the opening day of the 72nd General Assembly session Jan. 4, 2019 (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

This is what she explains to a nonpartisan attorney from the legislative legal services office who is tasked with drafting her zero-waste legislation. The meeting in the basement at the Capitol comes early in the session, but pressure is mounting to take the idea and transform it into a policy proposal and put that proposal into a bill.

She offers the bill drafter the research she’s done on the topic. She mentions that cities like New York and even Boulder are trying to push toward zero waste. “I’m trying to figure out how to be a part of that conversation and do something big and bold,” she tells the drafter.

The concept of zero waste certainly fits the description. The goal is to divert trash from landfills through programs that reuse, recycle or compost the materials. Even proponents acknowledge it would require a massive realignment of the nation’s waste stream to achieve.

A number of cities have set zero-waste goals, and California regulators adopted a strategic plan in 2002, but no state laws mandate the practice, according to a policy analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures, a Denver-based bipartisan organization. This year, legislation on the issue is under consideration in Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts and New York, NCSL reported.

In the bill draft meeting, the magnitude of the Cutter’s bill is clear. The question is how to get to the end goal without using expensive mandates. Cutter is back to the beginning trying to figure out how to make it happen.

The concept of zero waste is more complicated in Colorado than most states.

Here, counties and municipalities have significant authority under what is known as “home rule.” It prevents the state from imposing unfunded mandates, and lawmakers often are wary of one-size-fits-all rules in such a diverse state. And when it comes to waste, the local authorities run the show and don’t want the state to tell them what to do.

MORE: Coloradans generate 9.6 pounds of trash per person, per day. Where does it all go?

State Sen. Faith Winter, D-Westminster, explains this to Cutter in a meeting later in the day.

“Dammit,” Cutter tells Winter. “It sounds like a nightmare.”

The issue of waste diversion and recycling is one that Winter has spent significant time discussing, first as a member of the House and now as a first-term state senator. The two lawmakers soon move to brainstorming less consequential policy proposals. But it’s still tough to find one that will work. Most of the proposals feature a tricky political interplay with the interest groups such as local governments, trash haulers, recycling companies or state public health officials.

“I better buckle up,” Cutter jokes.

Her laugh is boundless, as her colleagues often tell her, but it’s starting to fade when it comes to her idea for zero waste.

She leaves the meeting with a sigh. “I pulled this bill title, so go big or go home,” she says.

The political picture for Cutter’s not-even-introduced bill looks bleak. Even Eco-Cycle, the state’s leading advocate for zero waste, doesn’t want a part of the legislation. Instead, the Boulder nonprofit recycler is working on a separate measure to develop better markets for recyclers in Colorado so the materials aren’t shipped outside the state.

“Zero waste is a much bigger and broader category,” Randy Moorman, a program manager at Eco-Cycle, explains later. “Of that, we were focusing on some key components we need the state to work on to help us get to zero waste.”

The organization’s approach also is an easier political sell — a small step toward a bigger goal. Cutter acknowledges it’s a smarter approach, too. She drops her zero-waste idea and joins the Eco-Cycle effort originally led by other lawmakers and puts their proposals into a bill under her name.

The new proposed title — “Concerning the Economic Development of Recycling End Markets” — is far less bold, but Cutter says she is excited to keep the idea alive.

“You enter thinking, ‘This is a great idea, let’s do, let’s do it,’” she says. “But you (need to) figure out how it’s actually going to happen.”

With the new, less-ambitious legislation almost ready, one major hurdle remains before Cutter introduces the bill: Gov. Jared Polis.

To implement an economic incentive program, Cutter and her Democratic colleagues would like the Polis administration — specifically, the Office of Economic Development and International Trade — to give the go-ahead. The agency would be tasked with helping to implement the legislation and a support an advisory council that would recommend how to attract more recycling businesses to Colorado.

Colorado state Rep. Lisa Cutter, who is sponsoring mental health parity legislation this year, listens with fellow colleagues to the State of the State address in the House chambers Jan. 10, 2019. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“I think it’s smart to offer incentives to companies,” Cutter says. “Some of these industries are hard to get off the ground.”

In a meeting room in a legislative office building, the lawmakers gather with lobbyists and the Polis administration to get an answer to a key question: Does the administration support this idea?

The exact response is unknown because a lobbyist asked The Sun to leave, even though it qualified as a public meeting under Colorado law.

But Cutter appears deflated afterward, and it’s clear the Polis administration wasn’t interested. An economic development agency spokeswoman later told The Sun the same, saying recycling incentives were not a top priority for the agency at the moment.

The lawmakers could force the issue — the legislature passes the laws. But Cutter and her colleagues say for the program to be successful, the administration needs to support the idea.

In her regular email newsletter to constituents days later, Cutter acknowledges the end. “Please take a moment to mourn with me the death of my Zero Waste/Recycling bill,” she writes. “We’re not supposed to get too attached, because a lot can happen during the process … But I’m not giving up.”

Cutter’s mentor, Michaelson Jenet, says all lawmakers know the feeling of defeat, especially the newcomers.

“I think there is a very steep learning curve,” she says. “Do good ideas come to get beaten up, torn down, reshaped and brought in front of us in a way that makes sense? Absolutely.”

The concept of incrementalism sounds like a cliché in lawmaking, but it’s one of the lessons Cutter says she took from the process. The other is the need to get support from a broad array of political forces — the ones that can torpedo legislation at any point in the process if they don’t agree with the concept.

Cutter admits she’s frustrated, but she doesn’t consider the Capitol the place where big ideas go to die. To the contrary, she joined as a sponsor on two Senate bills about waste diversion and proposed to create a special committee to further study zero waste in between legislative sessions. She’s not demoralized.

And that’s what she’d tell others thinking about making their first run for office.

“You can’t charge into something and think you know everything and can make change. You have to listen, you have to learn, you have to sort of work through it,” she says. “It’s sort of messy, but that’s part of the beauty in a way.”

The Colorado Sun has no paywall, meaning readers do not have to pay to access stories. We believe vital information needs to be seen by the people impacted, whether it’s a public health crisis, investigative reporting or keeping lawmakers accountable.

This reporting depends on support from readers like you. For just $5/month, you can invest in an informed community.