Gov. Jared Polis and four top state lawmakers gathered at a forum hosted by The Colorado Sun on Monday evening to talk about the 2019 legislative session.
But they also dove into current events, including last week’s deadly shooting at the STEM School Highlands Ranch and the resignation Sunday of state Rep. Rochelle Galindo.
The group included House Speaker KC Becker, a Boulder Democrat; Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat; Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, a Parker Republican; and House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, a Castle Rock Republican.
Here are six big takeaways from the event, held at the University of Denver and cohosted by television station CBS4.
Solutions offered for tragedies like the STEM School Highlands Ranch shooting are scant
There were few specific policy solutions offered by Polis and the lawmakers on how to prevent future school shootings like the deadly attack last week at STEM School Highlands Ranch.
Fenberg opened the door for legislation next session requiring people to better secure their weapons in light of reports the shooters might have used guns stolen from one of their parents.
“We should make sure if there are firearms in a home with minors, or with school-aged kids, that they’re held in a safe place where someone who shouldn’t have access to them can’t,” he said. “Is there a policy that can help that? Maybe there might be. That’s something I think we’re going to be discussing this summer.”
Becker called for increased mental health options for children. Holbert cautioned against jumping to a legislative solution, saying he prefers a local-control approach.
Neville, a survivor of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, reiterated his support for a policy allowing teachers and school staff to be armed.
Polis advocated for a conversation about school-security standards, while cautioning that there might not be a blanket solution.
“The fact of the matter is, as frustrating as it is for people on the left and right, there’s no easy answer,” he said. “There’s nothing a governor or a legislature can do to end school violence. But that’s not an excuse to do nothing.”
The STEM School lacked a resource officer because of a dispute with the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office. Polis appeared to back an increase in their use in Colorado.
“I’m very supportive of school resource officers, keeping in mind of course that in Florida, in Parkland, there was one and it didn’t prevent from happening what happened,” Polis said, citing last year’s attack on a south Florida high school.
Becker, though, went on to toss some cold water on expanding the use of school resource officers. “I don’t think having police in your hallways, in your schools, is the best approach,” she said.
Polis, House speaker say they didn’t know ahead of time about allegations against Galindo
They both, however, agreed with her decision to step down.
“By the time I spoke to Rochelle she had already decided to resign,” Becker said when asked if she pressured the first-year Democratic lawmaker from Greeley to leave her post. “We take concerns around sexual harassment or sexual misconduct very seriously. I think it’s important for public officials to hold themselves to the highest standards. I think for Rochelle, with these questions being raised and also facing a recall, it was just too much.”
Becker said she heard about the allegation on Thursday afternoon and then spoke to Galindo on Saturday. Galindo has denied the allegations against her, details of which have not been made public.
Polis echoed Becker’s sentiment. He said he found out about the allegations through the rumor mill first and then read about them in the media.
“I have not spoken to Rochelle, who did, I think, a great job representing the people of Greeley in the last legislative session,” he said. “I think she made the right decision. It sounds like she might have to fight allegations on the criminal front — it’s not clear yet if she will face any type of criminal allegation — where she might have to defend herself. At the same time she was facing recall. That’s a lot for anybody to handle.”
Polis thinks 2019 vaccine bill wouldn’t have changed immunization rates
One of the most contentious pieces of legislation during Colorado’s 2019 lawmaking term was a failed effort to boost the state’s vaccination rates by making it more difficult for parents to seek a religious or personal-belief exemption for childhood immunizations required for school.
Polis expressed caution early on about not forcing vaccinations on parents, cautioning that the approach “decreases trust in both government and vaccinations” and instead advocating for education and accessibility. But when a scaled-back version of the effort was introduced, he said he was moving toward being supportive.
On Monday, however, he revealed that he felt the measure — which would have required parents seeking an exemption to complete a standardized form and get it certified by a state or local public health agency — wouldn’t have been very effective even if it had passed.
“We had been working with the bill sponsors and, as you know, it was very close to what we were willing to support,” Polis said. “Basically, we don’t think that that bill would have transformed immunizations in Colorado. It moved (exemption approvals) from school districts to county health departments. That alone doesn’t improve the immunization rate. To improve the immunization rate, you need to actually convince people of the science and show them that this is (not only) the best decision that they can make for their child, but also for their school community and their broad community.”
He pointed to efforts by his state agencies to increase education and accessibility around immunizations as working toward that goal.
Governor says his immigration stance is about local control
Polis faced some backlash during the legislative session for his stance on unlawful immigration and his decision to pump the brakes on a bill that would have made it harder for state and local police and sheriffs to enforce federal immigration law.
But the governor said that point of view simply falls in line with his broader governing philosophy around local control.
“We have very politically diverse, culturally diverse communities in the state,” he said. “We have several cities that have identified themselves or have done sanctuary policies. I will defend them against federal retribution against their policies. We have other cities that have not decided to go that route and have cooperated more closely with federal immigration enforcement. I will also — while I might personally disagree with everything they are doing — defend their right to do so.”
Polis added: “I think that’s the best way we get along in this kind of diverse state rather than force a kind of one-size-fits-all policy on divisive issues like immigration.”
He also said he did not know ahead of time of the more than 50 immigrant refugees who were transported from the border to Colorado in recent days to get care from local churches and nonprofits. However, he is supportive of them being here.
Two different approaches from top statehouse Republicans on recalls
Neville and Holbert made clear their different approaches on using recalls against Democratic state lawmakers, with the former Republican embracing a more hands-on approach and the latter endorsing a wait-and-see strategy.
“We’ve set out to basically be a clearing house for those who actually want to recall their legislators,” Neville said. “… So yes, we did give some advice. We haven’t had any involvement in signature collection.”
He called recalls an “appropriate tool for those who think they were misled by their elected officials during campaign season” and he feels that misleading did happen in some cases.
Becker blasted Neville’s comments, calling the recall attempts an “effort to short circuit the regular election process” and “an effort to intimidate legislators.”
“I think it’s trying to do a do-over in way that doesn’t include nearly as many people as a regular election,” she said.
Holbert, meanwhile, vowed not to get involved in any recall elections — at least not early on. He also said state Senate Republicans would stay out of recall efforts until enough signatures are gathered to prompt the actual setting of a recall election.
“Then we can put a candidate on the ballot and that point we can get involved,” he said.
Death penalty repeal will be back, even if it’s not wildly popular with voters and lawmakers
Fenberg painted the failure of an effort to repeal the death penalty in the Colorado Senate as an internal issue that pitted members of his Democratic caucus against each other. But he also admitted that its support is not clear cut.
“I think this is an issue that voters are pretty split on,” Fenberg said. “I think legislators are split on it, frankly. I think overall, though, this is something that — eventually Colorado is going to repeal the death penalty.”
He said the effort to abolish capital punishment was a learning opportunity.
“The biggest thing I learned is making sure our members were facilitating a conversation among themselves — especially when it’s so deeply personal. And making sure that not only are we thinking about the public policy we’re working on, but how does it impact each other, because that impacts how we do our work every day.”
Sen. Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat, was deeply opposed to the repeal bill. Two of the three men on Colorado’s death row killed Fields’ son and his fiancée. That created deep fissures among Democratic senators and put votes for the measure’s passage in question.
“I think the voters were there this year on the issue itself, but the process got in the way because it wasn’t rolled out in a way that respected everyone and made sure that everyone’s voices were heard,” Holbert said.
He advocated for the voters to decide whether or not to repeal the death penalty. “We have the authority to make that change,” he said, “but I really think that (we would) probably be better off asking the people of Colorado.”