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Politics and Government

Colorado lawmakers missed a significant number of votes in the 2019 legislative session

Being a state legislator is a part-time position, and work, family and health often lead to absences, a Sun analysis shows

State lawmakers debate legislation in the Colorado House of Representatives on Feb. 15, 2019 at the Colorado Capitol. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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In the fast-paced legislative environment, missing one day can mean missing dozens of votes. And it can add up through the session. 

Colorado’s 100 lawmakers missed a combined 898 final votes out of 47,302 opportunities during the 120-day legislative session, according to a Colorado Sun analysis of the 2019 term. The General Assembly approved 460 bills to send to Gov. Jared Polis, the vast majority of which were bipartisan. Benchmarked against historical data, the total number of absences is the second most in the last five years behind only the 2018 session.

Democratic House Speaker KC Becker missed 24 votes, most of them on a single Friday in April. She said she took the day off to travel to the East Coast and discuss medical care of a family member.

As the chamber’s leader, Becker said she could have rearranged the schedule but didn’t. “I wasn’t going to hold up the calendar,” the Boulder lawmaker said. “Especially when if there were bills that I knew were going to pass.” 

The rationale speaks to another finding from the analysis: The absences didn’t appear to change the outcome of any major legislation. Democrats hold 41 seats in the House compared to 24 for Republicans. In the Senate, Democrats occupy 19 positions compared to 16 for Republicans. The strong Democratic majorities mean every member’s vote isn’t always crucial, and floor leaders avoid bringing up controversial bills if they fear they don’t have the votes to pass.

Even though this year was higher than normal, absences per lawmaker remain relatively rare. Only three of 35 senators and seven of 65 House members missed 6% or more of the recorded final floor votes for bills, the analysis found.

MORE: GOP blasted Democrats for the 2019 legislative session. But they supported nearly every bill, a Colorado Sun analysis shows.

A part-time legislature juggles work back home

When a bill to increase local control over oil and gas regulation came up for a vote in the state Senate on March 13, Grand Junction Sen. Ray Scott missed it.

Senate Bill 181, which passed on a party-line vote, was one of five bills the GOP Senate minority whip missed voting on that day. All told, Scott missed 51 votes in the most recent session, 11% of 467 floor votes in the Senate, the most of any lawmaker in the chamber.

“As you know, we work for a living,” said Scott, who is a consultant working in transportation after a career in the oil and gas industry.

The job is considered part-time, and some lawmakers are taking time off from running businesses or working other jobs to serve during the session that runs from early January to early May. Lawmakers also attend occasional meetings the rest of the year, depending on committee appointments. Family obligations, medical needs and even a day job can get in the way. 

The majority of states support only part-time legislative bodies, according to the bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures, which is based in Denver. Only 10 states have the equivalent of full-time lawmakers.

The Sun analysis examined only third readings of bills in the House and Senate, excluding reconsideration of amendments by the opposite chamber, using data provided by legislative council staff. When the Senate adopted House amendments to the oil and gas bill in early April, Scott was present and voted against it.

Most lawmakers receive permission to miss votes ahead of time. In 43 votes over 11 days, Scott was listed as excused, which means he received leadership approval to miss legislative action. 

Of those, 17 were on Fridays when he said he flies back to Grand Junction. He also missed five votes on March 13, when a “bomb cyclone” disabled much of Denver. 

The issue of missed votes became a major touchpoint during the legislative session when Senate Republicans complained about a breach of decorum. On March 22, five Republicans were listed as absent for eight votes that took place after 9 p.m. on a  Friday. The Democratic leadership scheduled the votes after accusing Republicans of using stalling tactics to delay action. 

Scott and colleagues Don Coram of Montrose, Larry Crowder of Alamosa, Kevin Priola of Henderson, and Jim Smallwood of Parker, all believed they’d received permission to be excused but were instead marked absent by Senate President Leroy Garcia of Pueblo. Those 40 votes were the only unexcused absences during the session in either House.

Scott called it “the famous night when they did the call of the Senate and all of us were gone.”

The following Monday, senators voted to excuse Priola and Coram, though digital voting records, on which this story is based, have not been updated. Senators rejected efforts to excuse Scott and Smallwood.

State Sen. Larry Crowder, of Alamosa, explains on 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)

Family and health are other reasons for missed votes

Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, a Sterling Republican, missed 38 third-reading votes, mostly on April 27, when the House and Senate met on a Saturday for the first time in years. 

“I was excused for my grandson’s first birthday,” Sonnenberg explained in an email. “It was scheduled on a Saturday, knowing we have never met on Saturday, so I and other family members from out of state could make it.”

Sonnenberg was the only senator who missed the Saturday session. But up to six House members were excused at various times the same day.

Rep. Tony Exum Sr., a Colorado Springs Democrat, missed 65 of 478 possible votes in the House, the most in the chamber, because he was absent five different days. The days he missed included the last two days of the legislative session.

Like others marked as excused, Exum received permission from House leadership to miss those days during the session. “I had previous things going on,” Exum said. “I either had a doctor’s appointment or something going on.”

UPDATE: This story was updated at noon July 19, 2019, to note that Sens. Priola and Coram were eventually excused for their March 22 absences, although legislative data does not reflect that.


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