But the rancor belies the fact that at least one Republican lawmaker supported all but 19 of the 460 bills approved, meaning 96% won bipartisan support.
The broad agreement is not unusual given the large volume of minor legislation, but the degree to which Republicans sided with Democrats is noteworthy.
Half of the 40 Republicans in the legislature voted for 66% of the bills that passed this year.
The findings are part of a new analysis from The Colorado Sun that looked at the votes cast in the 2019 legislative session by all 100 state lawmakers. The numbers show the Democratic-led statehouse — the first after four years of divided rule — found plenty of middle ground despite partisan divides on big issues, such as oil and gas regulation, a red flag gun law, sex education, paid family leave and more.
Democrats voted in lockstep on most issues. And much of the bipartisanship is owed to one Republican: Sen. Kevin Priola, an Adams County lawmaker eyeing a tough reelection in 2020 in a swing district. Priola voted for 90% of the bills that the Demcoratic majority advanced in the session.
“Obviously, if you take Kevin Priola out of the equation, the (bipartisan) number goes down quite a bit,” said Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder. “He is very much a member of their caucus. But he also partnered with us on several bills.”
Of the 441 bipartisan bills, 14 passed with only one Republican vote. Priola was the lone GOP vote in favor of seven of those, including a measure to tighten up reporting on campaign donations and another he co-sponsored to ask voters this fall to retain tax money collected above TABOR limits.
“I vote my district, and a lot of that comes from the tens of thousands of calls, conversations I’ve had with voters over the years,” Priola said, explaining his votes in an interview.
When weighing bills, he said he asks himself: “Would the average person at the door think this is reasonable and fair and thought-out and will work, or will the average person think this isn’t going to work?”
In all, nine Republicans in the House and Senate voted with the Democratic majority nearly 70% of the time or more, according to the analysis of voting records. The most bipartisan Republican in the House was Salida Rep. Jim Wilson, who voted in favor of nearly 72% of the bills that passed.
Gov. Jared Polis and Democratic legislative leaders made significant policy shifts in the 120-day lawmaking term, and emphasized their efforts to win GOP votes on legislation. Once he finished signing bills earlier this month, Polis celebrated the “really historic success” of the 2019 session and pointed out that “95% of bills that reached my desk were bipartisan.”
GOP support for Democratic agenda raises questions
Republicans complained loudly throughout the session that Democrats were making too many changes and pushing too many liberal policies. They used a variety of tactics to slow debate, resulting in plenty of late nights and even a rare Saturday work session.
But when it came time to vote, the party’s members often broke ranks, voting against each other and muddling the message to voters about where the GOP stood on major issues. The broad tally may undercut Republican criticism about overreach given that only 4% of the bills that passed received no GOP votes.
Republican leadership can exert influence on members when it comes to legislation, but Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, R-Parker, said the state constitution prohibits party caucuses from dictating a vote.
“Having members vote for what they believe is right and what they believe is best for their district is the way it’s supposed to work,” Holbert said. “I represent the district that I’m elected to represent. And so did the other 34 senators.”
Even Holbert voted yes nearly 64% of the time. Still, he characterized the 2019 session as more partisan than in the past. “Six of … (former Gov. John Hickenlooper’s) eight years, we had a split legislature and nothing too far left or right,” Holbert said. “That is not true this year.”
Only three of the 40 Republicans combined in the two chambers voted “yes” on legislation less than 50% of the time: Reps. Stephen Humphrey, of Severance; Shane Sandridge, of Colorado Springs; and Kimmi Lewis, of Kim. Senate Republicans sided with Democrats more than their House counterparts, according to the analysis. In total, the 24 House Republican lawmakers cast 40% of their votes against legislation, compared to 29% from the 16 Senate Republicans.
“There’s a lot of political theater that goes on, and I think the reality is that we actually do have some pretty meaningful conversations and we come to agreement on the vast majority of bills,” Fenberg said.
The broad agreement is partly explained by the large volume of legislation put to a vote. Each year, lawmakers propose hundreds of bills that make minor changes to law, renew existing programs or establish studies, and most of it draws little debate or opposition. So it isn’t surprising that 27% of the bills this session passed the House and Senate unanimously.
But Colorado’s legislature ranked among the most polarized in the nation in 2016, based on research by University of Houston political scientist Boris Shor. His analysis came at a time when Republicans controlled the Senate and Democrats controlled the House, but Shor said it reflects broader historical trends that show partisanship increasing in the past few decades.
Other analysts have found that the General Assembly also successfully approves more legislation than most other states.
On major issues, the divide becomes more clear
To separate the mundane measures from the major bills, The Sun compiled a list of the 100 bills that received the most attention or could have the most impact. A breakdown of the votes on these measures shows more clear partisanship.
Only 29 of the top 100 bills had support from at least half of the Republicans in each chamber. Just nine of them passed unanimously in the House and Senate. But 88 did have at least one or more Republican votes.
Some of the more controversial votes are being cited by Republicans as the basis for potential recall elections against Democratic lawmakers. That echoes 2013 efforts in response to stiffer gun laws that resulted in the successful recall of two Democratic senators and the resignation of a third.
So far, Republicans initiated two recall petitions but both were short-lived. The one targeting former Rep. Rochelle Galindo, of Greeley, ended when she resigned in May, and the one for Rep. Tom Sullivan, of Centennial, was later withdrawn.
When it comes to the issues, Democrats and Republicans were unanimous in supporting a new policy on workplace conduct a year after sexual harassment allegations rocked the General Assembly. They also voted in favor of the annual bill funding K-12 education.
But often, the GOP opposition emerged on bills that spend money. For instance, six Senate Republicans and 22 GOP House members opposed the $30.5 billion state budget bill.
Priola voted for 71 of the top 100 bills, exhibiting less bipartisanship when compared to his votes on all 460 bills. Wilson voted for 40 of them, also a smaller number compared to his broader record.
The two joined the rest of their GOP colleagues – and some Democrats – in voting against controversial measures such as oil and gas regulation, a red flag gun law, the national popular vote compact and other bills.
Still, they had reasons for voting with Democrats more often than other Republicans.
For Priola, who won by about 2,400 votes in the 2016 election, he voted no on only 45 bills — far less than his colleauges. All of Priola’s Senate bills were co-sponsored with Democrats, and eight of those became law.
“I try to do what’s best for the state of Colorado, in the long-term, not just the short-term,” said Priola, of Henderson.
And he defended his support to end the spending caps in the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights — an electric political issue — by pointing out that extra money collected will go toward transportation. “At this point, I’m more concerned about myself and others sitting in traffic for the next 20 years than I am about having or keeping a title.”
Wilson acknowledged that his voting pattern looks different than those of other Republicans. “I’m one who votes my conscience first, my constituents second and my caucus third,” Wilson said. “That’s not necessarily the case with some people at the Capitol.”
Wilson co-sponsored his 10 successful bills with Democrats, including full-day kindergarten — helping to deliver a top campaign promise and legislative priority for Polis.
The Senate unanimously approved a measure to provide state funding for kindergarten, with Republicans praising how it would help save money for some parents who currently pay for it. But 11 House Republicans originally voted against the bill, including three who voted for it in a committee hearing.
“As I told people on both sides of the aisle, be careful how you voted on kindergarten because it’s a huge issue in your district,” Wilson said. “It put that money back in (constituents’) pockets.”
Even GOP Sen. Vicki Marble, of Fort Collins, who voted no nearly 41% of the time, showed a bipartisan streak. She co-sponsored seven Senate bills with Democrats that became law this year, all adopted on a bipartisan basis. Many dealt with marijuana or hemp.
Fenberg was among her co-sponsors. “She’s a pretty true conservative and sometimes I hate that about her, but sometimes I really respect it,” Fenberg said. “She basically is a libertarian when it comes to drugs, for instance.”
Democrats voice objections, but mostly fall in line with leaders
In 10 instances where Republicans unanimously opposed bills, they were joined by Democrats.
Six House Democrats voted against the controversial bill that would bind Colorado to the national popular vote compact, which would award electoral votes to the presidential candidate with the most votes nationwide, rather than through the Electoral College.
And four Democratic House members voted against bills that increased regulation of the oil and gas industry, asked voters to allow sports gambling, and prohibited law enforcement from detaining people solely on immigration status.
Senate President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, voted against the red flag bill along with three other bills passed on a bipartisan basis. He was one of three Democrats to vote against the red flag bill, which was a major priority for the party, but he was still mentioned as a possible recall target.
But for the most part, Democrats voted in unison. Seven Democrats in the House and two in the Senate voted for every bill approved this session. The biggest naysayer in the party was Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, who still cast only 26 “no” votes, or 6% of the time.
Benavidez, D-Adams County, said two of those votes were mistakes on her part, but even without them she would still have the most votes against legislation among Democrats. Tax credits and creating new license plates are typically on her list to oppose. “I am somewhat fiscally conservative, and if it doesn’t make sense, like some of the credits or deductions, I won’t support those,” she said.
The Democratic alliance is most stark in the Senate, where no lawmaker voted “no” more than five times. The pattern could open Democrats to criticism.
“I think that, overall, the Democrats in the Senate did a good job of voting for their district,” said Sen. Kerry Donovan, a Vail Democrat and her party’s whip who topped the Senate list with five “no” votes. “I don’t think it was a statement of us all deciding to stand together. I think you saw a bunch of different individuals voting to reflect the policies and principles of the state.”
Fenberg said the votes reflect the fact that Democrats controlled the agenda. “If a bill doesn’t have the votes to pass, as majority leader, I’m not going to bring it up for a vote,” he said. “It’s not a great use of time if you’re going to debate something for hours and then it just dies.”
Fenberg and House Speaker KC Becker, also a Democrat from Boulder, voted “yes” on all 460 bills.
“If the bill makes it to the floor and has gone through committee, one of my members is pushing it, I’m generally going to support them,” Becker said. “I guess I try to do work on the bills before that point, before it comes to a recorded vote.”
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How we conducted this analysis
The Colorado Sun obtained data from the Colorado Legislative Council for every third-reading vote taken in the House and Senate on all 460 bills that eventually won approval in both chambers. The third-reading vote is the final recorded tally before the measure leaves its respective chamber. The data do not include votes for repassage after a bill was amended. The Sun tallied votes by individual lawmakers, as well as votes by lawmakers in both parties in each chamber.