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Politics and Government

8 pivotal moments that defined the 2019 legislative session in Colorado

From moments of chaos in the Colorado Senate to tensions on the oil and gas bill, here are the most impactful situations at the state Capitol this year

The Colorado Senate on April 30, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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The 2019 legislative session is one of the most consequential in recent memory — both in terms of the policy shifts under Democratic control and the drama at the state Capitol.

From the first month, major legislation created huge fights between liberal and conservative lawmakers and even tension among Democrats as the party claimed its strongest hold on state government in more than 80 years.

The session “kind of zigzagged, meaning there were times where things were cordial and collaborative and then the next day things had very much changed,” said Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder. “There were moments of compromise and respect for peoples’ differences and there were times those weren’t there.”

Here’s a look at the most pivotal moments under the Gold Dome from the 120-day lawmaking term.

MORE: Colorado’s 2019 legislative session was a doozy, from Democrats’ growing pains to a blabbermouth GOP strategy


1. Gov. Jared Polis sets high bar in State of the State address

Gov. Jared Polis set the tone for the legislative session in his State of the State address on Jan. 10, saying the leaders should “boldly forge a new path into the future.”

The governor set four main goals for lawmakers: improve access to early childhood education; address the high cost of health care; build more jobs in the renewable energy sector; and eliminate special interest tax breaks to lower the state’s overall income tax.

In all, he offered more than three dozen policy proposals, some of which dovetailed with the ambitions of the new Democratic majority in the House and Senate. The legislative leaders worried about becoming overwhelmed, but delivered key victories for the governor — most significantly, state-funded full-day kindergarten.

“I couldn’t be more thrilled we got so many things done just in these last four months,” Polis said Friday, hours before lawmakers adjourned the session.

Gov. Jared Polis speaks to reporters about Colorado’s 2019 legislative session on May 3, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

2. A public show of force on sex education blunts Democrats

Less than a month into session, critics of the Democratic legislative agenda delivered a strong message: The resistance is real.

The realization came Jan. 30, when hundreds of people came to the Capitol to oppose legislation mandating changes to the sexual education curriculum. The testimony took 10 hours and stretched toward midnight, and represented a successful effort by Republican lawmakers to rally their supporters to their side.

“We’re seeing a lot more citizen activation from the conservative movement in the Capitol,” House Republican leader Patrick Neville said at the time.

The scene repeated itself a half-dozen times throughout the session as other controversial social issues — like a measure to make it harder for parents to opt their children out of school-mandated vaccinations — and the oil and gas bill drew prolonged testimony.

In the end, the opposition led to the defeat or neutering of a number of measures, including the sex education bill.

MORE: Colorado’s 2019 legislative session was a doozy, from Democrats’ growing pains to a blabbermouth GOP strategy

3. A Democratic money fight

The state budget became the pinch point for Democratic legislation this term. Polis outlined how he wanted lawmakers to spend the money in January, but budget writers balked. “You have a variety of competing priorities,” said Sen. Dominick Moreno, the Joint Budget Committee chairman.

Full-day kindergarten — initially estimated at $227 million — was the big-ticket item for the governor, and he made a full-court press to get it approved. Amid the stand-off, Polis even recruited allies to lobby the legislative budget committee at its first public hearing, a move that angered at least one lawmaker.

The lawmakers on the JBC entered with their own priorities and hoped to add more money for transportation. In the end, both major priorities received additional dollars, but it required dipping into various reserve accounts to find the money to balance the $30.5 billion spending package for the next fiscal year.

4. Oil and gas bill showcases new Democratic power

The arrival of legislation in March to overhaul how the state regulates oil and gas drilling in Colorado served as a landmark moment. Senate Bill 181 gave local governments more authority to decide where drilling can occur and allowed the state to strengthen its oversight.

The governor and leaders of the two legislative chambers — all three from Boulder — debuted the legislation with fanfare and support from Erin Martinez, who lost her husband and brother in a deadly gas explosion in Firestone two years ago.

Democrats drafted the bill largely in private and rushed it to its first hearing. But it drew massive lobbying and a big-dollar TV ad campaign in opposition, and Republicans vowed to block the bill, in what GOP leaders called “a show of force.”

The bill’s sponsors held their ground until the end, but eventually agreed to a number of changes to make it more palatable to the industry. Still, the legislation is a monumental shift that represents the policy implications of elections.

The oil and gas industry holds a rally outside of the Colorado Capitol on March 5, 2019, ahead of the first committee hearing for Senate Bill 181. The legislation would add significant new regulation to the industry and is being brought by Democrats. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

5. The Colorado Senate hits boiling point

Early on in the 2019 legislative session, tensions began rising between Democrats and Republicans in the Senate.

The GOP had launched effort after effort to slow down pieces of legislation they didn’t support, including a bill to sign Colorado onto a national popular vote compact and a measure to bus students who live in one school district to another.

And then in March, when the oil and gas bill reached the chamber’s floor, the atmosphere became toxic. Senate Republicans asked that a roughly 2,000-page, noncontroversial bill be read at length in protest. Democrats let multiple computers simultaneously and incomprehensibly read the bill.

Republicans then successfully sued Senate President Leroy Garcia for violating a provision in the state constitution mandating how legislation must be read and notching a win that only escalated the friction.

When the red flag bill, which allows judges to order people’s gun seized if they are in mental health crisis, landed on the Senate floor March 22, the chamber was a powder keg. As the debate dragged on for hours, partly on account of Republican stall tactics, five GOP senators left the Capitol for the weekend.

When Monday, March 25, rolled around, a public airing of grievances between the two sides ensued over the group of GOP members’ absence.

“This is insanity,” Sen. Jeff Bridges, a Greenwood Village Democrat, said on the Senate floor. “This is not how this body should operate, even though it’s within the rules.”

State Sen. Larry Crowder, of Alamosa, explains on Monday, March 25, 2019, why he was among the five Republicans absent for a vote Friday night on the red flag gun bill. The absences and the Democratic response led to calls for bipartisanship. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Within hours, Democratic and Republican leadership from the Senate called a meeting and negotiated a temporary detente.

“I think that there’s been multiple breaking points, and I think that was the first,” Sen. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat, said Friday as the legislative session was wrapping up. “There have been pivotal moments where everything could have gone off the ledge and we were able to reroute. And I think that was one of those first moments.”

6. The transportation standdown

Even after Senate leadership negotiated calm in the wake of the red flag law’s passage, big debates loomed and began to unravel the peace.

Republicans wanted more discretionary spending for road construction, and threatened to use parliamentary procedures to slow the process — again — possibly even reading the massive $30.5 billion budget package word for word.

To avoid a showdown, Democrats struck a deal to spend $106 million more on transportation funding, but it was eventually whittled down to $70 million extra, or $300 million total.

The additional money — which came from reserve accounts and other areas — represented a major achievement for the minority party.

“It showed us that within the constitutional process that we have here, the minority still has say and still has a voice,” said Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican who was key in orchestrating the deal. “It was the biggest win because it was the first big win. But it led on to other stuff. Both sides recognized they could have their way.”

MORE: Colorado lawmakers reach deal to spend $300 million on transportation. But it’s unclear what will be cut to pay for it.

7. The death of the death penalty repeal

The friction among Democrats came into stark view on a measure to repeal the death penalty, which was introduced in late March.

Assistant Senate Majority Leader Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, was especially upset given that two of the three men on Colorado’s death row killed her son and his fiancee. Fields is a proponent of capital punishment.

The speed with which it was introduced and moved to committee — three days — was like tossing gasoline on a fire. “I consider that a one, two, three punch,” Fields said in a speech on the Senate floor blasting her colleagues. “When we think about the magnitude of abolishing the death penalty, surely — surely — there should be enough time to ensure a thorough and comprehensive debate.”

There were as many as five Democrats who were going to vote “no” on the measure, which would have killed it, and Fields was planning on mounting an offensive against the legislation.

Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat who was leading the effort, yanked the measure in a tearful speech before the chamber and before the infighting could become public.

State Sen. Angela Williams, D-Denver, speaks to a reporter at the Colorado Capitol on Tuesday, March 5, 2019, during a news conference announcing an effort to abolish capital punishment in Colorado. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

By the end of the session, things cooled down. Fenberg applauded Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, a Parker Republican, for not taking advantage of those raw situations by pointing or gloating about Democrats’ problems.

“On death penalty on (paid parental and family leave), those were really big, hard and ongoing discussions in our caucus and I think the minority leader respected it and gave us the space that it needed,” Fenberg said. “They could have spiked the ball at times and they didn’t.”

8. An all-nighter to start the final week

After a rare Saturday lawmaking session in the House and Senate, the latter chamber returned Monday and the GOP began to delay again, this time by speaking at length to make passing bills nearly impossible.

Only a few of the hundreds of measures left to work through passed out of the chamber on Monday and lobbyists at the Colorado Capitol were jokingly taking bets about how many bills were going to die on the calendar.

Democratic leadership decided to work through the night to start the week, keeping senators on the floor for about 20 hours straight and recessing at 5 a.m. Tuesday.

State Sen. Robert Rodriguez, D-Denver, speaks to Republicans in the Colorado Senate on the final week of the Colorado legislature’s 2019 session. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

For a moment, it appeared as if the Senate might work until they dropped for the last five days of the session. But a combination of fatigue and negotiation took hold and allowed things to move smoothly until the legislature adjourned on Friday — well before its midnight deadline.

“Sometimes the big fights are cathartic and both sides feel closer together,” Fenberg said.

By the last day of the session, Republicans and Democrats in the Senate were joking with each other and even sharing adult drinks and cigars on their outdoor balcony just off their chamber.

“We thought everything might die,” Sen. Pettersen said Friday afternoon, “and now I might be done the earliest I have been in seven years.”


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