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Politics and Government

Colorado lawmakers won’t finish their calendar. Now Democrats have to decide which bills to let die.

There are hundreds of bills left unresolved in the General Assembly as lawmakers enter the final week of the four-month legislative session

The Colorado Senate, photographed on Monday, April 22, 2019. (Jesse Paul The Colorado Sun)
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If the state Senate worked 24 hours a day for the final week, it probably still wouldn’t get through the remaining list of bills before adjournment.

“There will be some bills that simply die on the calendar,” said state Sen. Jeff Bridges, a Greenwood Village Democrat. “We just don’t have time.”

The reality became clear to Bridges at the end of last week. In a room just off the Senate floor, he calculated the math problem for the final push. With more than 200 bills remaining — and new ones introduced Saturday — there’s less than an hour to debate each one before session ends Friday by midnight.

“It is mathematically highly unlikely that we will get through everything that we have to get through,” Bridges said.

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The zero hour comes as tensions are once again rising at the Capitol, and the Boulder triumvirate that runs the chambers and the governor’s office are facing increased pressure.

Entering the final week: Gov. Jared Polis is suggesting he would veto a bill to improve vaccination rates in Colorado. A lawmaker made a public announcement about a threat regarding legislation without offering details. And Democratic lawmakers are becoming increasingly frustrated that they may squander their majority and hard work.

Republicans are working to slow the lawmaking process, only extending the backlog of legislation. The question now facing Democratic leaders: What bills are must-pass priorities and which will die on the calendar?

House Speaker KC Becker, left, and Senate President Leroy Garcia stand on the dais during a joint session. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A rare weekend lawmaking session Saturday helped make progress, but lawmakers didn’t clear the dozens of key measures that still hang in the balance, from regulating how Colorado colleges and universities respond to campus sexual assaults to a proposal to ask voters to enact a nicotine tax and a measure to allow local governments to put rent control policies in place. Many of the bills are expected to generate hours of debate.

Polis’ agenda is part of the scrum, particularly his health care proposals. A major climate bill sponsored by House Speaker KC Becker, D-Boulder, also awaits final action. And dozens of other Democratic-led bills are in jeopardy of not making it to the finish line, as well as some Republicans want to see approved.

The legislation that faces the toughest road is a late effort to put an increase in nicotine and tobacco taxes on the 2019 ballot for voter approval. Polis and Democratic lawmakers introduced the bill with 10 days left in the session, but time is not the only hurdle — the measure is drawing opposition from Democrats and may struggle to pass.

“We’re on track with ‘Game of Thrones’,” said Sen. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat. “Everything’s at risk of dying.”

How this year compares to others

The logjam started to come into focus with two weeks to go in the 120-day session. The legislature’s productivity rate — as measured by action on introduced legislation — is the slowest in five years, according to an analysis of legislative statistics released April 22.

The pileup is largest in the Senate, where Democrats hold a 19-16 majority. Senate Majority leader Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, acknowledges some Democratic bills will not make it. The priorities, he said, are measures “that are core to our economic security agenda, to our health care affordability agenda and to our education agenda.”

“There are plenty of bills on the calendar that are important, that are core values for our caucus, … but they may not be do-or-die,” he said in an interview Saturday.

The slow progress is partly by design. The Republicans in the Senate minority are spending more time than usual discussing legislation, part of an effort to use the clock to their advantage in the hopes they can defeat certain bills.

“We’re witnessing weapons of mass discussion,” said Sen. Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican.

Top Democratic members of the Colorado legislature — including, from left, Rep. Chris Kennedy, Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg and House Majority Leader Alec Garnett — stand and applaud as Gov. Jared Polis delivered his first State of the State address on Jan. 10, 2019. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“The commodity we are dealing with is time,” said Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, a Parker Republican. “The reality right now is that there have been fewer bills introduced this session than last, and yet we are much further behind where we were (at this point) last year.”

Holbert said if Democrats bring the GOP’s least favorite measures to a vote — including bills to make vaccination exemptions more difficult, raise tobacco taxes, revamp sex education in schools and limit immigration authority — they should be prepared for lengthy debate.

“We’ve identified a list of bills we consider particularly bad, potentially overreach,” said Holbert said, who declined to share what’s on that list. “… What do you want to do Mr. President? What do you want to do Mr. Majority Leader? At midnight Friday, May 3, the crystal carriage turns back into a pumpkin and we’re just regular, old citizens again.”

Fenberg suggested the GOP stall tactics are counterproductive and only designed to appeal to the party’s base. “The bills that they absolutely want to make sure they delay as much as possible in order for us to not accomplish anything on are actually ones that, generally speaking, voters are on our side,” he said. “Does that mean it backfires? I don’t know.”

Capitol Sunlight: A citizen’s guide to lawmaking and lobbying in Colorado

Major bills remain on the legislative agenda

Here’s a look at some of the big ticket items left on the legislative calendar for the final week:

  • Colorado campus sexual assault response (Senate Bill 7) The legislation would regulate how Colorado colleges and universities respond to allegations of campus sexual assault. It requires confidential reporting options for victims, procedures for investigations, policies against retaliation and an appeals process for both the accuser and the accused. Status: Needs final action in Senate before it moves to the House.
  • Banning styrofoam products (Senate Bill 243) The measure, which would take effect in 2024, bans polystyrene foam from being distributed by restaurants for take-away orders or leftovers. Status: Needs two votes in Senate before it moves to the House.
  • New sexual harassment response policies for lawmakers (Senate Bill 244) This bill comes in response to the 2018 sexual harassment scandal at the Capitol. It changes the way harassment accusations are reported and handled. Status: Needs final action in Senate before it moves to the House.
  • Gallagher Amendment residential tax rate setting (Senate Bill 255) This measure would reduce the residential property taxation rate in Colorado from 7.2% to 7.15%. Status: Passed the Senate and moves to the House for committee hearing and votes.
  • Allow rent control (Senate Bill 225) The legislation removes the ban on rent-control ordinances in Colorado to let cities cap rent increases on private housing. Status: Needs two votes in the Senate before it moves to the House.
  • Comprehensive sexual education (House Bill 1032) One of the most contentious pieces of legislation of the 2019 legislative session in Colorado, this measure would require schools to ensure students have an understanding of sexuality, sexual activity and sexual orientation as a normal part of human development. Status: Needs two votes  in the Senate and a House concurrence vote.
  • Immigration law (House Bill 1124) The measure would codify a court ruling barring Colorado jails from holding people solely on the basis of their immigration status after they are supposed to be released and would also prevent the state’s probation department from sharing personal information with immigration officials. Status: Passed the House and goes to the Senate for a committee hearing and votes.
  • Reinsurance (House Bill 1168) This measure would create a pool of money from which health insurance companies could apply to cover high-cost patients. Status: Needs a committee hearing and votes in Senate before it goes back to the House to concur on the changes.
  • Local minimum wage (House Bill 1210) This measure would allow local governments in Colorado to set their own minimum wage. Status: Needs two votes in the Senate before it returns to the House to concur on changes.
  • Drug charges (House Bill 1263) The legislation would reduce all possession-level offenses of illegal drugs to a misdemeanor and remove some drug paraphernalia charges. Status: Needs committee hearing and final action in Senate before it returns to the House for concurrence.
  • Immunizations (House Bill 1312) To improve the state’s vaccination rates, the measure would make it more difficult for parents of school-aged children claim a personal belief or religious exemption for the first time. Status: Passed the House and now goes to Senate for committee hearings and votes.
  • Elections (House Bill 1278) The legislation increases the threshold for third-party or independent candidates to qualify for the ballot, extends the window for voting and clarifies other rules surrounding petition gathering. Status: Needs final action in Senate before it returns to the House to concur on the changes.
  • Regulation of sober-living facilities (House Bill 1009) The legislation would regulate substance abuse recovery facilities and expand a state housing voucher program to individuals who are struggling with substance use. Status: Passed the House and goes to the Senate for committee hearing and votes.
  • Reduce carbon emissions (House Bill 1313) On the topic of climate change, lawmakers want to set carbon dioxide reduction goals for the state and require climate plans from utilities. Status: Passed the House and moves to Senate for committee hearing and votes.
  • Authorize and tax sports betting (House Bill 1327) The bill would refers a question to the November ballot about whether to legalize and tax sports betting in Colorado starting in May 2020. Status: Passed the House and needs a committee hearing and votes in the Senate.
  • Nicotine and tobacco tax (House Bill 1333) The measure would put a question on the fall ballot to create a tax on nicotine used in vaping products and increase taxes on cigarettes. Status: Needs hearing in House committee and final action before it moves to the Senate for committee hearing and votes.
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