Before lawmakers left the state Capitol earlier this month, they issued homework for the interim. And if the assignments are any indication, the next legislative term is expected to be another doozy.
The Democratic-led General Assembly is preparing to study eight major policy topics — ranging from school safety and college affordability to private prisons and tax breaks — and recommend about two dozen bills for the 2020 session.
The interim study committee work is expected to begin in June and continue for six months — a stretch designed to give lawmakers more time to tackle complex issues that went unresolved in the 2019 lawmaking term. The committees are approved by top lawmakers and assigned a maximum number of meetings and bills. Other requests to focus on issues such as affordable child care, wage theft laws, teacher evaluation didn’t win approval.
In addition to the interim committees, lawmakers created five additional panels to look juvenile justice, health care costs, a transition from fossil fuels, youth issues and health insurance. Other bills tasked Gov. Jared Polis’ administration with studies on major issues expected to emerge in legislation next year, including a paid sick leave program as well as a public option for health insurance.
All together, the efforts will help Democratic lawmakers move forward on their priorities.
“With a citizen legislature that only meets 120 days, there are obviously big, complex issues that are hard to dig into while we are in session,” said House Majority Leader Alec Garnett. The interim allows for “a more comprehensive environment to dig in listen to experts from around the state and formulate solutions in a more collaborative way than normally happens in session.”
Here’s a breakdown of the issues lawmakers will study before they reconvene in January.
The School Safety Committee is evenly split with four Democrats and four Republicans and it is tasked with reviewing existing state laws regarding safety, emergency response, threat prevention and identifying students in crisis to see where improvements can be made.
“Clearly we can do more to protect our children and our schools from these violent attacks,” House GOP Leader Patrick Neville said in a statement.
But the debate ahead of the committee’s first meeting reveals a significant divide.
At a public forum sponsored by The Colorado Sun earlier this month, leaders from the two parties offered disparate responses to the latest school shooting. Democrats are looking at access to firearms while Republicans want to boost school security measures.
The committee is expected to meet at least three times and it can consider as many as five bills for the next session.
Energy market and climate change
The topic of oil and gas regulation and climate change dominated the 2019 legislative session, but lawmakers believe more work is needed.
The Energy Legislation Review committee is expected to cover a broad range of issues, from the state’s electric grid and electric vehicle market to climate change and energy storage. The transition to renewable energy from fossil fuels and the impact on the state’s economy is another possible topic of discussion.
“This is a perennial issue. Yes, we got a lot of work done on energy issues in the ‘19 session, but the marketplace continues to evolve, technology continues to evolve and I think this is something the legislature takes on every single session,” said Rep. Chris Hansen, a Denver Democrat who requested the committee and wants it made permanent.
State Rep. Sonya Jaquez Lewis, a Democrat from Boulder County, proposed a similar committee, shorthanded as the “Green New Deal,” focused on jobs in renewable energy and the environment but it was rejected amid partisan concerns.
The energy committee will include six Democrats and four Republicans, who are expected to meet four times and propose as many as three bills.
Senate President Leroy Garcia wanted to do more when it came to the regulation of investor-owned utility companies in Colorado, so he used his clout to win approval for an interim committee.
The Pueblo Democrat is a frequent critic of Black Hills Energy, which serves his district and has some of the highest rates in the state. And the panel is expected to look at issues related to the company.
The Investor-owned Utilities committee is poised to look at energy assistance programs, the price of energy, consumer programs run by the companies and whether an audit is needed.
The committee will include four Democrats and two Republicans. It will meet twice and may consider as many as three bills.
First formed in 2017, the Legislative Interim Committee on School Finance is being extended one more year.
The reason: The formula used to dole out money to the state’s school districts is so complicated that lawmakers have struggled to find answers with enough political support to win approval. And Amendment 73, an unsuccessful measure in 2018 to revamp school funding, stalled discussions for a time.
The first two years “built the foundation for the background on how we got to where we are now,” said Garnett, who served on the panel. In addition to studying other states’ models, he said, “this committee should be in a position to start discussing substantive changes to the formula.”
The 10-member committee is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. It will meet up to five times in the interim and may sponsor as many as five bills.
Colorado lawmakers gave the state’s colleges and universities $121 million in new money in the next budget year to hold tuition flat at every campus except Metropolitan State University. But the extra dollars came with a caveat: This is a one-time infusion, more must be done to address college affordability.
The Making Higher Education Attainable committee is tasked with figuring out those next steps. The members are expected to look at how college tuition rates are set as part of a broader review about the “risk and rewards of postsecondary education.” The question about what obstacles exist for obtaining a college degree is another area of focus.
“It’s definitely something we need to do something about,” said Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat and legislative budget writer.
The effort comes as the state’s higher education commission undertakes a review of the formula by which Colorado sends money to campuses under a bill lawmakers approved earlier this year.
The members of the legislative committee will include four Democrats and two Republicans, who will meet as many as five times and propose up to three bills.
The rising prison inmate population in Colorado — and the cost to house them — is a long-simmering issue at the Capitol that is getting a new look.
This year, state lawmakers even approved reopening part of a long-shuttered state prison in Cañon City despite adamant opposition to the idea just a year earlier. To get a better handle on the trend and the options to address it, lawmakers approved the Prison Population Management committee.
“If the trend doesn’t reverse, we are going to have to make some quick recommendations to the legislature at the beginning of next session,” explained Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat who requested the committee.
The committee also will tackle an issue that Democrats sidestepped this session: private prisons. Herod said the committee will look at whether the state can terminate its contracts to house inmates at private prisons and what would need to happen to make it possible.
Four Democrats and two Republicans will serve on the committee, which is expected to meet as many as five times and recommend up to three bills.
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The effectiveness of tax breaks
Under a bill approved in the 2016 legislative session, the state auditor’s office is reviewing more than 200 different tax breaks offered in Colorado to determine their impact and effectiveness.
A report issued in September 2018 looked at 15 of the tax expenditures, as they are known, and so far in 2019, the office has analyzed 13 more. Now it’s lawmaker’s turn to determine whether to keep them in law.
The Tax Expenditure Evaluation committee will consider the policy recommendations made by the auditor’s office and determine whether to retain, restructure or eliminate certain tax credits.
Meanwhile, Gov. Jared Polis has made repealing special interest tax breaks a hallmark of his agenda, promising to use any new revenue to lower the state’s income tax.
The committee will include four Democrats and two Republicans, meeting as many as four times and sponsoring up to five bills.
Waste and recycling
Colorado is not as green as you would think. In 2017, Colorado residents produced a record 9.3 million tons of trash and only 12 percent went to recycling — well below the national average.
The issue is complicated in Colorado, where waste disposal is handled at the local government level, rather than on a statewide basis, leading to disparate rules. In 2019, lawmakers approved a fee increase for Front Range counties to boost waste diversion from landfills, but broader measures didn’t make it.
State. Rep. Lisa Cutter, a Jefferson County Democrat who requested the interim committee, wants to set bigger zero waste goals, but her legislation didn’t make progress this year. Her interim committee will study waste and recycling infrastructure in the state, as well as composting, all in an effort to reduce the amount of waste the state produces.
The committee will have six Democrats and four Republicans. It can meet up to four times and sponsor as many as two bills.