Colorado Democrats may control the state Capitol, but the story in the final days of the 2019 legislative session was the Republican stranglehold on their calendar.
That’s mainly because of the Colorado Senate, where the GOP ground work to a halt in the waning weeks of the lawmaking term, forcing Democrats to consider what measures to leave behind to ensure there’s enough time to pass their priority bills.
Things have gotten so precarious in the upper chamber that one state representative referred to the Senate as a “black hole,” while the House Speaker urged her Democratic colleagues not to alter a bill because it would have to go back there.
“I’m afraid to send anything over there,” quipped Rep. Jovan Melton, an Aurora Democrat. “Bills go in and they don’t come back out.”
While things have calmed some with the hours winding down, the tension in the final days of session, which ends Friday at midnight, is an illustration of what’s been one of the wildest terms at the Capitol in at least six years, according to interviews with lobbyists, lawmakers and Capitol observers.
With their new Boulder triumvirate — the House speaker, Senate majority leader and the governor all are Boulder Democrats — Democrats pushed through an aggressive agenda that included full-day kindergarten, oil and gas reform and a red flag gun law. “I think this has been one of the most successful sessions for the people of Colorado in the history of the state,” said Sen. Jeff Bridges, a Greenwood Village Democrat.
Republicans, meanwhile, did everything they could to slow the roll.
There were infighting and lawsuits and a near-24-hour session on the Senate floor. There were accusations of overreach and obstruction. There were long-winded debates on bed bugs and doggy life jackets.
“It’s been a long four months,” Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, told reporters Wednesday.
Jason Hopfer, a lobbyist for nearly 20 years tracking bills on health care, education and renewable energy, hasn’t worked this many hours — especially beyond midnight — in years, if ever. The 80-hour work weeks have been grueling. Lobbyists, staff and lawmakers are “fraying at the edges,” he said.
On the longest day of the session, when the Senate worked through the night Monday into Tuesday, Hopfer lasted until midnight. Then he listened online at home until his eyes shut at 3 a.m. He awoke three hours later, and headed back to the Gold Dome.
“I haven’t done as many late nights in a row that I can remember,” he said.
Stall tactics by the minority party are nothing new, but Republicans this session ratcheted them up to a new level, using an old rule to call for the reading of bills aloud, at length — thousands of pages of them. The procedural move could change the legislature for future sessions, and it left some lawmakers calling for reform.
If lawmakers want a bill read aloud, they should have to sit in the chamber and listen to it — without their electronic devices, said Rep. Jonathan Singer, a Democrat from Longmont, suggesting the legislature rewrite its rules next year.
“I’ll be the first to admit that we took on a lot”
Democrats, though, can’t blame Republicans for all of their squandered opportunities.
Despite controlling the Capitol, a bill to create paid family and parental leave imploded without enough support from the business community or from within the party. A proposed repeal of the death penalty went down with the help of some of its most prominent opponents: Democratic lawmakers, parents of children who have been murdered.
Also defeated: affordable housing legislation that would have allowed cities to enact rent control; bans on plastics and styrofoam; and permitting a supervised injection site for opioid users. A plan to make it harder to get exemptions from school immunization requirements died Thursday in the Senate and another to revamp sex education curriculum was heavily amended.
“I’ll be the first to admit that we took on a lot,” Fenberg said. “A lot of these bills and ideas aren’t new. They’re things we’ve worked on the last couple of years. Are some of them not ready for prime time? Sure. We’ve been willing this whole session to negotiate. In the end, we want to make sure we pass the right policy, not just have a win on the scoreboard.”
Each of the bills didn’t make it for different reasons, but together they highlighted a common dynamic Democrats faced this session — namely the Senate serving as the moderating chamber. Lawmakers there were less liberal than their House counterparts, putting the brakes on the most progressive policy proposals.
The quest for paid family leave, expected to sail through after four previous attempts knocked down in years when the GOP controlled the Senate, was watered down to a study.
The measure’s sponsors amended it repeatedly to appease the business community and ease the concerns of their Democratic colleagues. But as the weeks dragged on, the pressure mounted to the point that proponents were no longer willing to budge. More than 200 lobbyists were registered to work on the legislation.
Instead, what passed was a proposal to study family leave, with the intent of returning next year with a more solid plan.
“We were asked to make too many changes that wouldn’t make the bill a good bill,” said Sen. Faith Winter, a Westminster Democrat who was the bill’s main sponsor. “I’m frustrated because we worked to make the bill better, we worked to make the bill more easy to implement on behalf of the business community. But it didn’t matter.”
Sen. Jack Tate, a Centennial Republican, said his party excelled this year at alerting folks in the community about bad policy and bringing their concerns to the floor. “When it comes to a lot of these policies, people outside of the building have a greater depth of knowledge than we do,” he said. “Anytime we can galvanize concerned voices outside and then give them an outlet inside the building, … then we’ve done our job.”
As for stall tactics, Tate said he found this year’s slowdown “refreshing.”
“It’s forced both parties to look at what the priority pieces of legislation are,” he said.
The death penalty repeal effort, Senate Bill 182, met its demise because of Democratic infighting. The legislation didn’t have the votes to pass and revealed deep divisions within the Senate Democratic caucus by the time it was yanked.
There were at least five Democrats in the Senate who were either confirmed to be “no” votes on the measure or were on the fence.
Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat and first-year lawmaker who pushed for the repeal, said she learned lessons from the conflict.
“The process and the way in which we treat each other matters as much as the policy,” she said.
Add to the mix: A new governor learning the ropes
The tension between Democrats in the legislature about how far to go was further complicated by the new governor, who entered office with his own agenda.
Polis discussed roughly 40 different policy proposals in his State of the State address, many of which mirrored the hundreds of promises he made in his campaign. The priorities overlapped with Democratic lawmakers in certain areas, such as lowering health care costs and boosting the renewable energy economy, making them an easy sell and giving legislative leaders and the governor key victories.
But others required convincing.
Polis made his top goal state-funded, full-day kindergarten and managed to win support despite initial reluctance from Democratic legislative leaders to commit the money needed for the program.
His hands-on approach and forceful tactics, however, sowed discord early in the session. His skepticism toward certain legislation throughout the term also undercut key efforts, including the family leave proposal.
Sen. Gonzales said Polis should have “let the legislative process work” instead. Two of her bills, the death penalty repeal and another bill to make it more difficult to claim exemptions from school-mandated vaccinations, died in part because the governor didn’t get behind them.
Democratic leaders meanwhile rebuffed his attempt to lower the state’s income tax rate by eliminating existing tax breaks, one of his top four legislative priorities.
“When I was a legislator, I thought it was great that the legislators write the laws, and I was a big supporter of the separation of powers. As an executive now, I wish I could write the laws,” Polis said with a laugh at an event with business leaders April 25.
Polis said he signed some bills this session that he “didn’t really like,” but decided not to use his veto because he didn’t want to endanger his legislative priorities.
“Once you start vetoing too many, you lose your own agenda,” he said at the event. “Because then people are mad at you and they take it out on kindergarten and health care (bills).”
“I haven’t had to veto a single bill yet — even though I was pretty grumpy about signing some of them,” Polis added.
One of the outstanding measures that caused some friction between Polis and lawmakers was House Bill 1124, which aims to limit Colorado law enforcement from working with federal immigration agents.
“Sometimes it may have seemed he was a little immovable on some policy,” said Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, a Commerce City Democrat who is the lead backer of the immigration legislation. “But I think he had reasons and hopefully there will be better communication next year so that we can collaborate.”
Republicans pulled the emergency brake — and it sometimes worked
One of the GOP’s most effective weapons against the Democratic agenda this year has been a 65-year-old veteran lawmaker from Colorado Springs with an ability to talk seemingly forever.
It was Sen. Bob Gardner, whose tactics have been memorialized on a bumper sticker and are known around the Capitol as “Bobbing.” The steel-haired man would saunter down to the well over the Senate floor and take his time as he spoke at length, turning his gaze from side to side in a room that mostly emptied by the time he was halfway through his talks, referring to himself as a “simple country lawyer.”
His ubiquitous voice has been the tip of the spear, his words — so many of them — used to slow the movement of bills ranging from Democratic efforts to regulate how Colorado colleges respond to sexual assault to another joining the state onto the national popular vote compact.
“I think Sen. Gardner might have a corporate sponsorship from Halls cough drops,” Rep. Singer said. “He’s pretty impressive. I’ve never heard his voice crack before. It just seems to have this lilt that only professional, vocally trained people could have.”
Singer, who is in his eighth year at the legislature, said he has never before experienced this level of stalling and backlog of bills. “Everyone should get their fair say, but every bill should get a fair hearing, and I’m not sure every bill is going to get a fair hearing.”
Republicans weren’t able to change Democratic policy up and down the calendar this year, but they did notch a number of victories halting bills and forcing amendments to others. The effort to allow a Denver supervised drug-consumption site was never introduced in large part because of their outcry. And in exchange for securing $70 million extra for transportation funding — likely the biggest win this session for the GOP — Republicans agreed not to slow things to molasses in approving the state budget.
Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican who led the snail’s-pace efforts, said the slowdowns worked better than he expected. “I didn’t think we would be this successful,” he said.
Hill added: “To me, we proved exactly why our system has been so successful: because it allows some change and it allows people like myself who have concerns about massive, rapid overreaching change to slow things down. They’ve done it in the past. And we did it this year.”
But Kelly Nordini, a long-time lobbyist and former chief of staff for former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff and then-Gov. Bill Ritter, said she has never seen anything quite like the “obstruction” she witnessed this year. Nordini, now executive director of Conservation Colorado, pushed for climate change legislation and oil and gas reform.
“I think it’s unprecedented obstruction,” she said. “The minority, rather than letting the issues work through the process on the basis of the issues, they will debate an issue for multiple hours and then pass a bill unanimously.”
Reading bills at length has only one purpose: obstruction of the people’s business, Nordini said. If GOP lawmakers were concerned about Democrats’ agenda, why not use their time to debate instead of waste time reading noncontroversial bills out loud, she wondered. The delays meant the legislature was scrambling for time for important business during its final days, Nordini said.
“That is not what is done,” she said. “No one is saying that they broke the rules. They are abusing the rules.”
Sen. Gonzales said Republicans weren’t actually able to accomplish anything substantive outside of being a nuisance. “Tell me what policy victories they achieved,” she said. “They sat back and threw spitballs from the back of the room all session. That’s not moving Colorado forward.”
Hill’s response to those who say Republicans went too far? “Bless their hearts.”
The session stands out as one of the rowdiest, or at least among those with the most tumultuous ending.
Other particularly rough sessions include 2012, when the House effectively shut down over a bill to legalize civil unions, and 2008, when former Rep. Douglas Bruce, author of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, kicked a news photographer and spent much of the session fighting with his own party.
As bad as it got, though, some said it wasn’t the worst ever in terms of partisanship.
That honor goes to the big redistricting battle of 2003, when Republicans were accused of ramming through a new map of legislative and congressional district boundaries in an attempt to give themselves an advantage in coming elections.
“We’re going to come back”
As it became clear in the final days of the 2019 session that Democrats were going to have to shelve some of their bills because of timing, they were already vowing to come back in 2020 ready to try again.
Death penalty repeal? Check. Paid family and parental leave? Check. Local rent control? Check. Vaccines? Check.
“Sure, it’s a bummer if things die on the calendar because they just got filibustered,” Speaker Becker said. “I hope that doesn’t happen. But if it does, we’re going to come back with whatever it might be.”
She added: “This isn’t the end. This is one session in a two-year term. I think we have all learned a lot.”
As for Republicans, they will be back, too.
“Nobody’s going anywhere, so if you bring back the same thing over and over again it’s going to have the same result,” said Sen. Ray Scott, a Grand Junction Republican. “That’s the definition of insanity. Right?”