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Kelsey Rivera, pictured in this February 2019 photo, took time off under the federal family-leave act and was allowed to bring her baby to work at the Jefferson County Public Health Department. Democrats are expected to run legislation for the sixth time to create a state family- and medical-leave program. (Marvin Anani, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Democrats at the Colorado Capitol won’t meet one of their prime goals this year, passing a paid family and parental leave bill, opting instead to study how to resolve differences surrounding the bill in hopes of pushing forward in the 2020 legislative session.

The resolution comes after weeks of mounting pressure from business groups against the bill and with questions swirling around whether or not there were enough Democratic votes in the Senate to pass Senate Bill 188.

Sen. Faith Winter, a Westminster Democrat and prime sponsor, said the only way to pass the measure onto the House was with changes she and Sen. Angela Williams, a Denver Democrat and another prime backer of the legislation, were not willing to make.

“We were being asked to make amendments based on math I didn’t believe in. They were amendments that we thought went too far and gutted the bill,” said Sen. Faith Winter, a Westminster Democrat and prime sponsor.

The setback is a big one for Democrats, including Gov. Jared Polis, who made accomplishing paid family leave a cornerstone in their agenda with control over both chambers of the legislature and the governor’s office.

One group that was pushing for the measure, 9to5 Colorado, quickly lambasted lawmakers for the outcome. The organization’s co-leader, Judith Márquez, released a statement saying: “Colorado doesn’t need more studies — our legislature needs to make a simple moral decision.”

Business groups, meanwhile, were counting the outcome as a victory.

“Every time I run this bill, I try to lose forward,” Winter said, noting that she’s tried to pass a family leave bill five times. “I’m losing forward.”

Earlier this week, tension surrounding the legislation — which would have enacted an employee and employer fee for a statewide fund to cover workers’ paid parental and family leave for up to 12 weeks — had reached its peak. Winter had prepared a stack of amendments to offer in hopes of winning over her colleagues.

State Sen. Faith Winter, D-Westminster, shows off the stack of amendments she was prepared to offer on her paid family and parental leave bill on Tuesday, April 23, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

She noted the pressure from the business community against Senate Bill 188 weighing on her fellow Democrats in the Senate.

“Every day that we’ve slowed down this bill, for really good policy reasons and really good process reasons, it has allowed the angst in the lobby to increase pressure,” Winter said. “And, in fact, the last meeting I had with the business community there were brand new lobbyists hired on to fight this bill that I had never met or had negotiated with. Every day is another day for the opposition to build pressure and pressure members into voting against the bill.”

The legislation was introduced in early March and has been gummed up in the Senate by amendments and new fiscal analyses. Several Senate Democrats expressed concerns about the bill, including Sens. Nancy Todd, of Aurora, and Pete Lee, of Colorado Springs.

Todd told The Colorado Sun last month that she didn’t think the measure was “ready for prime time.”

Even Polis said Monday that he remained apprehensive.

“We certainly have concerns with some of the language in the bill,” he told reporters. “We’re reviewing the language and obviously we’ve been in discussions with sponsors about how that can be improved. From our perspective, any program would need to be actuarially sound.”

The Democrats’ side of the Colorado Senate. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat, said she was waiting to hear Senate floor debate on the bill before making a decision on to vote. She applauded the delay.

“I think there was a lot of questions and hesitancy and pushback and so I think it’s good that we are taking our time, doing a little bit more due diligence and really digging in a bit more with the evidence so that when we do move forward we’ve checked all the boxes,” she said.

Amendment after amendment was made to the bill to try and appease the business community and Democratic lawmakers undecided on the measure, turning the legislation into a Frankenstein version of its original self. Those changes include an opt-out mechanism and discounts for local governments, an increase in the fees for employees versus employers, and exemptions for businesses that already offer a leave program. The bill’s sponsors even pushed the program’s start date back several years to let businesses prepare.

Republicans have opposed the bill from the start, saying it functions as a payroll and employee tax that will cripple businesses — especially small ones. Sen. Jack Tate, a Centennial Republican who sits on the Senate’s business committee, called it a “big, expensive entitlement.”

Democrats worked for years to bring a paid family leave measure in Colorado, making the effort a key part of their 2019 legislative agenda. It was featured prominently in the opening day speech by House Speaker KC Becker, a Boulder Democrat, and in Polis’ inaugural State of the State address.

Supporters of Colorado Democrats’ paid family leave bill rally outside the Colorado Capitol on Tuesday, April 9, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Winter said in the next nine months, state analysts will study how to best implement paid family leave in Colorado. She says this will not change the timeline for how it was meant to be rolled out in the next four years, based on an amendment made as the bill made its way through the senate. The original version called for the rollout to be more immediate.

That, of course, assumes lawmakers pass the program in 2020 — an election year.

“Basically we are doing everything we were going to do in the next year anyway,” Winter said. “We just have to come back to the legislature with it. We are doing an actuarial study, we’re looking at third-party implementation, we’re creating a staffing plan, we’re creating the advisory board which has employers, employees — different parties that were advising. That was all already in the bill. So this doesn’t actually delay the implementation date. It doesn’t delay when Coloradans will actually have access to this benefit.”

Jesse Paul

The Colorado Sun — Desk: 720-432-2229 Jesse Paul is a political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is...