A year after engineering a major policy shift in Colorado, the Democratic-led General Assembly returns to the state Capitol this week with much left on its to-do list.
Like the 2019 session, the question this year is how far the party will go in the 120-day lawmaking term to reshape how Colorado provides health care, education and transportation — and whether voters will approve of what they’ve done when the Democrats face a test in the November election.
“We did a lot last year. … I don’t think we are aiming to top that,” said House Speaker KC Becker, D-Boulder, in an interview ahead of the lawmaking term that begins Wednesday. “We are really focusing on a lot of new ideas.”
The topics expected to create debate cover a range of contentious issues, from new taxes and paid family leave to private prisons and vaccine requirements, and more in between.
Here’s a look at the 10 top issues and how they will play out in the 2020 session:
Paid family leave will return, but will it have the momentum to pass?
One of the most significant items leftover from the 2019 session is an effort to require businesses to provide paid family and parental leave to employees.
Last year, the Democratic authors of the bill had to settle for a study after failing to build enough support within their own party amid a barrage of opposition from 200-some lobbyists who worked against the bill.
The opposition from the business community remains fierce, and heading into the 2020 session, its prospects remain unclear. An actuarial study completed ahead of the session shows that creating a paid family and parental leave program with the most generous, 28-week proposal could cost the state up to $2.2 billion, potentially taking money from employers and out of every Coloradans paycheck.
It’s still not clear if bill proponents will seek to have the state or a third party run the program, and whether small businesses and local governments would be exempt.
“I feel optimistic about its chances for passage,” said Sen. Faith Winter, a Westminster Democrat who is one of the legislation’s prime champions. But, at the same time, Winter said proponents have not yet started drafting a bill. A task force that studied the issue plans to issue a report Wednesday.
Tony Gagliardi, executive director of the National Federation for Independent Business in Colorado, said he is still worried about the impact paid family and parental leave will have on small businesses. “The bottom line is this is still a mandate,” he said.
Democrats may struggle to find money to fund their agenda
The big agenda that Gov. Jared Polis and Democratic lawmakers promised in 2018, when voters gave them complete control of the lawmaking process, is an expensive one. And the money spigot is running dry.
Democratic budget writers are sounding the alarm about how to cover the ongoing costs of the new programs added in last year’s session and the new ones they want to pass in 2020. And the latest economic forecasts show the money isn’t as plentiful this year. A year ago, lawmakers set aside about $40 million for legislative priorities; this year, that number will fall closer to $5 million.
“It’s going to be a tougher year for budget allocations and new appropriations and maybe new spending initiatives,” said Senate President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, in an interview.
Short on options, lawmakers look to new fees to improve roads
The tight budget picture is expected to impact the money available for a big ticket item on the agenda for Democrats and Republicans this session: transportation.
Democratic legislative leaders believe a new revenue source — whether taxes or fees — are needed to address the issue, but Republicans insist on using existing tax dollars. And Colorado voters have twice in two years rejected statewide efforts to increase taxes or forgo tax rebates to pay for roads.
The new ideas being considered this year include the formation of regional transportation districts that can put tax questions on the ballot to allow communities that want to pony up to pay for improvements to do so. But Republicans say that will leave rural communities out of the mix.
The other idea from Democrats is new fees for road users to compensate for the growing number of electric vehicles in the state, as well as potential surcharges for delivery services. Right now, the state’s main road-funding mechanism is the gas tax, which has been unchanged since 1992.
One pressing decision Democrats must make is whether to keep on track a 2020 ballot question for a $2.56 billion transportation bond.
Becker was noncommittal when asked what would happen with the measure. “There will certainly be discussions around it,” she said. “We haven’t made any decisions.”
Colorado in national spotlight of battle for public option insurance
Colorado’s push for a government-backed health insurance plan will put it at the forefront of the national debate on a public option. And the political stakes are high.
The concept is a top campaign promise for Polis and may emerge as the most contentious debate in the 2020 session. An opposition group with ties to hospitals and insurance companies fired a warning shot in December with more than $100,000 advertising campaign.
“Judging by the amount of out-of-state money we are already seeing trying to defeat this policy, I expect this to be one of the bigger battles of my legislative career,” said Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, a leading advocate. “But health care needs to be disrupted for us to lower costs and make it affordable for people in Colorado and across my district. This is a significant step in that direction.”
The legislation this session will include mandates on insurers and hospitals and set rates to a level that will lower costs for those on the individual market in the first year. The state would oversee the plan, which would be managed by a private insurer. The bill would expand access to the program to others in future years.
The idea is to create more options for consumers, but Republicans think it will hurt the broader market. “I’m not convinced that a public option or single payer is a good way to deal with health care,” said Sen. Paul Lundeen, a Republican from Monument. “It’s not sustainable.”
Higher education is facing a big squeeze as lawmakers address student debt
The Polis administration is making it a priority to lower the cost of a college education in Colorado, but the higher education institutions say they need the tuition money.
The conflict is expected to escalate this session, and it comes months after the failure of Proposition CC, which would have provided colleges with a lifeline to more money.
The governor wants to limit tuition hikes next budget year to 3%, while others are looking at how to keep tuition flat. Other lawmakers plan to put forward bills to address loan interest as a way to lower costs.
First, big moves on climate change. Now, it’s “the next level”
Much of the environmental agenda for the Democrats came to fruition in 2019, as the party led a push for tougher regulations on oil and gas operations and more stringent mandates on carbon emissions.
But now Becker, the House speaker, says it’s time to take it “to the next level.”
“We’ve run climate change legislation for years, we’ve finally passed it. So what are the next things we need to do to just have a cleaner, greener energy future?” she asked.
Right now there aren’t many specific policy proposals being discussed. A few ideas on the table, however, include making it easier for local governments to ban single-use plastics, a moratorium on styrofoam and an effort to increase Colorado’s ability to monitor air quality and enforce violations.
The latter policy is likely to be the most contentious, with the possibility of drawing drilling interests back to the Capitol in protest. Republicans say they are already looking out for such ideas and the potential damage they could have on Colorado’s sprawling energy industry.
“I wonder what else they have to kill off the largest industry in the state,” said state Sen. John Cooke, a Greeley Republican.
More overhaul for criminal justice and another attempt to ban the death penalty
Criminal justice is poised to be front and center once again in the 2020 lawmaking session.
One of the debates expected to consume the Capitol is whether to alter Colorado’s felony murder law, which allows people to be charged with first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without actually killing anyone. In addition, advocates will push again to repeal the death penalty.
The felony murder reform effort is being led by Sen. Pete Lee, a Colorado Springs Democrat and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who wants to change felony murder to a second-degree murder, Class 2 felony offense. That alteration would take life in prison off the table as a penalty. “I think people ought to be convicted of what they did,” Lee said.
Prosecutors are already pushing back against the change. “I think felony murder should stay right where it is,” said 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler. “I think that there’s a misconception that felony murder (is used against people) who had no clue what was going on and had no idea that there was risk of death to another innocent person.”
The question of whether to abolish the death penalty makes a return from a year ago. The effort to get rid of capital punishment in Colorado last year was yanked because of Democratic friction in the Senate. Sen. Julie Gonanzles, D-Denver, will take the helm of the repeal effort this year, she says. Still in her way is a pair of Democrats whose loved ones were murdered and who want to keep the death penalty.
Finally, also look for an effort to change Colorado’s laws around investigating law enforcement-involved deaths. Polis has said that’s an issue he wants to tackle in 2020.
Democrats look to eliminate use of private prisons in Colorado
Colorado lawmakers will decide this year whether to shell out millions of dollars to close a privately run prison in Colorado Springs and reopen a shuttered state facility near Cañon City. If the switch happens, it could reduce the state’s use of private prisons and help reach a goal among some Democratic lawmakers to end the practice altogether.
The debate centers around the Cheyenne Mountain Reentry Center, run by the private corrections company GEO Group. The Colorado Department of Corrections says there have been “deficiencies” with GEO’s work at the roughly 700-inmate facility.
But reopening Colorado State Penitentiary II, the state prison near Cañon City, will cost taxpayers $7 million in the first year and $6 million each subsequent year. The Polis administration thinks the cost is worth it, but it could be a tough sell with a tightening state budget.
There are two other private prisons in the state, one each in Bent and Crowly counties, but right now the Polis administration says it can’t do without them. “I don’t know what the future holds. But I can tell you right now, today, we need those prison beds and those other private prisons,” said Dean Williams, the executive director of the state corrections department.
School safety and gun control
In the wake of May’s fatal shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch, state lawmakers worked over the summer to come up with ways to make Colorado K-12 education safer with a focus on mental health care.
Those proposals from a bipartisan interim committee on school safety include everything from providing students with excused mental health days to expanding behavioral health training in schools and bolstering the state’s Safe2Tell reporting system. Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat who led the interim committee, also has a bill of her own that would require health insurance companies to provide a free, annual 60-minute mental health screening for all of their clients.
None of the legislation drafted by the interim committee deals with firearms, a fact that has drawn some criticism. But Democrats are likely to independently bring legislation that would require safe storage of guns, following the lead of other states.
If last session’s battle over the red flag law is any indication, however, any attempt to tighten Colorado’s firearm regulations will likely prompt a fierce partisan battle.
Colorado’s low vaccination rate will get attention, once again
A fiery clash between Democratic lawmakers and the governor marked a debate last year on how to improve the rate of childhood vaccinations in Colorado. And it could materialize again in 2020.
House lawmakers are renewing a push to make it harder to avoid the required immunizations by making the process to opt out more difficult for parents. This year’s measure won’t remove existing exemptions nor will it create a mandate, both options considered a year ago in a far-reaching bill that failed. Colorado’s immunization rate for measles, mumps and rubella was 87.4% in the 2018 school year — well below the 92-94% herd immunity threshold recommended by health authorities to protect against an outbreak.
Polis is taking a different approach, pushing education as the method to improving the rate as part of an executive order he signed. He also asked for $2.5 million in his budget proposal to address the issue. Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers are expected to introduce legislation to protect a parent’s right to opt out their children.