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Annotated

In Colorado House, Democrats celebrate achievements and promise more. Here’s the agenda, annotated.

House Speaker KC Becker made clear Democrats plan to continue their far-reaching effort to reshape the state that began a year ago

House Speaker KC Becker on the opening day of the legislation session at the Colorado capitol on Jan. 8, 2020. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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In remarks to open the 2020 legislative session, House Speaker KC Becker outlined the Democratic majority’s lengthy agenda — which touched on everything from criminal justice reform to tackling the burgeoning cost of health care.

The Boulder lawmaker made clear Democrats plan to continue their far-reaching effort to reshape the state that began a year ago when the party took control of the entire lawmaking process in Colorado. And House Republican leader Patrick Neville drew a sharp line in the sand where the party would “stand up and fight.”

 


 

Here’s a transcript of Becker’s speech — lightly edited for length — with annotations from The Colorado Sun’s reporters highlighting the big lines and explaining what it all means.

 


 

Good morning everyone. Welcome to your Colorado State Capitol. It is my distinct pleasure to welcome each and every one of you to the first day of our 2020 legislative session. … 

A year ago, as I welcomed you to the start of the 72nd General Assembly, I wasn’t shy about our bold plans to work on behalf of the people of Colorado. 

In my speech, I promised that as speaker, I would work to keep this body focused on investing in our state’s bright future, building an economy that works for all, and protecting the Colorado way of life. 

As I stood at this podium and accepted the Speaker’s gavel, I talked about the obstacles our state faces. I called on all of you to put your ideas, your passion and your determination to work toward lowering the cost of health care, investing in education, building a fair economy, tackling climate change, combating homelessness and the housing crisis, confronting the opioid epidemic, and reforming our criminal justice system.

Your response? One of the most historic, productive sessions in our state’s history.  

The 2019 legislative session definitely made history. Democrats took full control of the lawmaking process and used their power to push through an ambitious agenda that addressed all the issues Becker listed above. It led to much political strife and plenty of contentious debates. This year, Democratic leaders are vowing to go even further — even in an election year.

120 long days flew by as the legislature wrote, discussed and debated 598 bills and 4,500 amendments. We passed laws that are moving our state forward to protect the Colorado way of life for years to come. 

We proved that although inaction and gridlock may have the federal government in a headlock, good government is still alive and well in the Centennial State. While Washington, D.C., gets itself stuck in the mud it’s so busy slinging, our state moves forward.

While some in D.C. are still looking for ways to repeal the Affordable Care Act and strip health care away from millions of Americans, we joined together, Republicans and Democrats, and found innovative ways to save consumers money on health care — like our bipartisan bill to prevent surprise medical bills from costing families thousands. 

As Congress continues its decade-long failure to address the skyrocketing cost of prescription drugs, here at home we passed a first-in-the-nation bipartisan bill to cap the cost of insulin. Although it wasn’t always easy, we took on some of the biggest challenges our state faces.

On Jan. 1, a new law went into effect to cap the price that some people will pay for insulin at $100. This session, lawmakers will continue to work on their plan to import lower-cost prescription drugs from Canada and other countries. And the state’s government-backed health insurance plan — a top campaign promise for Polis — will likely be central in the contentious health care debate during the 2020 session.

While the Trump Administration denies scientific consensus on climate change and actively undermines efforts to address it by rolling back environmental protections left and right, we fought hard to protect the air we breathe, the water we drink, the mountains we hike and the rivers we fish. 

We passed landmark oil and gas reforms to give our communities a say in what goes on in their own backyards and took a measure to the voters and successfully secured new revenue for our water plan. We set our state down a path toward a clean energy future and set bold targets that we intend to meet while keeping our economy, the future of Colorado workers and the next generation in mind.

Gov. Jared Polis signed Senate Bill 181 in April to give more authority to local governments to regulate oil and gas activity. The legislation became the most contentious of the 2019 session and remains an open wound in the mind of the oil and gas industry and their allies in the Republican Party. Adams County became the first to enact stricter regulation following the law’s passage and a handful of others counties are following the lead.

House Republican leader Patrick Neville, in his opening day remarks, cited data showing how the industry is being negatively impacted and lost jobs as a result of the bill. “So what happens when a man or woman loses a good-paying job as a result? Neville asked. “Is the child supposed to be consoled that they helped save the world when mom or dad can’t pay the mortgage? … Bad policies have real world consequences. People get hurt, families get hurt.”

The issue is expected to remain potent this year as critics of the energy industry push an effort to impose even tougher limits on fracking through a potential 2020 ballot initiative.

I don’t know of a single parent in Colorado who doesn’t want their children to have a better life than we do. I know I want Leo and Ryder to grow up in a more just, more compassionate and more conscientious world. 

In this House, that means working to build an economy that works for all. That’s why I’m so proud last year when we delivered on equal pay for equal work and created college savings accounts to help families plan for their children’s future. 

In an attempt to clamp down on the escalating costs of higher education, Gov. Jared Polis and lawmakers advanced a new state initiative that took effect this month. It gives every Colorado newborn or adopted child a $100 jump start for college savings. The measure won’t lower costs, however, and that remains an area of focus this year.

Our effort to build an economy that works for all didn’t end there — we strengthened renters’ rights and the rights of mobile home park residents and made one of the largest investments in affordable housing in our state’s history.

The issue of housing touched plenty a year ago. In addition to adding protections for renters, lawmakers gave mobile home owners more leeway when responding to eviction notices. 

A Colorado Sun investigation, in collaboration with media partners across the state, found mobile homes are the last form of affordable housing for many in Colorado, and gaps remain in the power imbalance between the land owners and residents.

Despite our state’s unique budget constraints, we managed to make significant investments in our future. 

We paid down the negative factor by $100 million, boosting investment in our classrooms. We passed a budget that included $20 million for rural schools and $22 million for special education programs. And just in case you’ve never heard Governor Polis speak, I’ll have you know we also expanded full-day kindergarten to every school district in our state.

The governor’s top legislative priority — state-funded full-day kindergarten — didn’t come easy. The big price tag for the program made Democratic lawmakers uneasy at first, and additional costs may impact how much money there is to spend in the next budget year. But the party is embracing the achievement and it’s expected to be a selling point they use in the 2020 election.

We did great things last year and truly made a difference in the lives of people in every corner of our state, from the Western Slope to the Front Range and from southern Colorado to the Eastern Plains. We worked around the clock — literally — on behalf of our constituents because this House belongs to them. We work for the people, and there is more work to be done. 

The Democratic agenda drew long lines of opponents to the Capitol in 2019, and committee meetings on topics such as oil and gas, vaccine mandates and sex education in schools lasted into the early morning hours. The chambers even met in a rare Saturday session to try to get their work done.

This year, we will strive to create a more just economy and to make our state affordable for all. 

So as long as there are families facing the harrowing prospect or the cruel reality of homelessness, this House moves forward.

As long as there are Coloradans making the impossible choice of paying for prescription drugs or paying for groceries, this House moves forward. 

As long as there are teenagers attempting to take their own lives or fearing a school shooting, this House moves forward. 

As long as our schools are underfunded and our classrooms are overcrowded, this House must move our state forward. 

Nationally, this year may go down as one of the most bitter and divisive in our nation that we’ve ever been through. Obstructionism, corruption, and partisan logjams have driven Washington from bad to worse. And while I remain hopeful that a change will soon come in D.C., I invite you to join me in taking matters into our own hands to prove once again that government can still work for the people.

Becker repeatedly invoked the national political landscape, even name dropping President Donald Trump’s administration in her speech. And so did Neville, the GOP leader from Castle Rock, who credited Trump for creating a period of economic prosperity. 

The references came even as both leaders implored Colorado lawmakers to take a different path and reject gridlock. How much election-year politics infects the statehouse remains a wildcard for this session and may help determine whether lawmakers can reach bipartisan compromises on the major issues.

The interim has flown by, and as we begin to see this new session, I am asking you to do it all once again. Work together with diverse stakeholders on all ends of the political spectrum to find solutions. 

Coloradans need and are demanding a more affordable state and a more just economy. Too many people are not feeling the benefits of our state’s growth. That’s where our focus should be. Every Coloradan should have the opportunity to share in our state’s prosperity. 

Colorado’s economy sat atop the national rankings in recent years, but lawmakers in both parties are concerned about income inequality and disparities between rural and urban parts of the state. 

In eight Colorado counties, the per capita income decreased from 2016 to 2018, according to a recent Stateline analysis. That’s one out of every eight counties in the state. All are rural and favor Republicans. The analysis found another five counties that saw income increase by 2% or less since 2016. The remainder saw larger gains.

To get there, we’ll have to have hard conversations and make difficult decisions together. We’ll need Republicans and Democrats alike to work hard, listen to stakeholders on all sides and come to the table ready to work. My door is always open, and all ideas that will improve the lives of Coloradans are ready to be considered. 

We will need everyone at the table to make housing, health care and higher education more affordable. 

We need everyone at the table working to create a more fair and more rational criminal justice system, one that ends the inhumane practice of capital punishment once and for all.

Democrats made abolishing the death penalty in Colorado a top priority when they took the majority a year ago, but the effort failed in the state Senate, where moderate party members expressed objections. 

The repeal measure will return in 2020, but the question is how Democrats navigate the bill through the process to avoid roadblocks. For Becker, who is in the final year of her term, the end of capital punishment is a primary goal and she’s confident it will pass this year.

We need everyone at the table to promote responsible gun ownership and move forward on gun safety initiatives that have already been adopted on a bipartisan basis in states across the country.

The topic of gun control is a perennial one at the Colorado Capitol. The new red flag law approved in 2019 revived the controversy, and more legislation is expected this year as Democrats plan to bring a bill that would require safe storage of guns, following the lead of other states. Republicans have vowed to fight these measures.

We need everyone at the table working to heed the call on climate change and protect workers and communities impacted by a changing climate and energy economy.

We need everyone at the table to deliver on our school safety initiatives and increase access to mental health support, especially in our schools.

I have no doubt in this body’s ability to work together and find bipartisan ways to get things done. House members have already reached across the aisle to make sure that we tackle the epidemic of teen nicotine use in our state.

The federal law to raise the age to buy tobacco to 21 will lead Colorado to take a more aggressive approach, in part to address teen vaping. House Democrats made a bill to regulate tobacco sales in Colorado the first of the session. It would allow the state to regulate which retailers can sell cigarettes and tobacco products. A related effort to tax nicotine, led in part by the governor, failed in the 2019 session under heavy lobbying pressure from the industry, but it may also return this year.

Last year we promised to deliver on paid family leave. We brought our state closer than it’s ever been to guarantee that every working Coloradan can take the time off they need to care for a loved one or a newborn without fear of financial ruin. 

The time is now. We need stakeholders on every side of the issue to return to the discussion and work out a paid family leave program that is fiscally sustainable, workable for business, and makes a real difference for working families.

The debate on whether to create a state-mandated paid family leave program didn’t make it to the finish line a year ago, but Democrats are reviving the bill this year. The business community strongly objects to a mandate — and the bill was the most lobbied in the 2019 session — so Democrats may need to find middle ground to see it come to fruition. Its future is not certain.

We’ll also need everyone to come back to the table to tackle one of the most pressing issues facing this state — our retirement crisis. Our population is aging and our economy is changing.

Forecasts show that 1 in 5 residents will be over 65 by 2050. Meanwhile, more and more people in Colorado are participating in the gig economy and taking nontraditional jobs that don’t provide retirement plans. 

A modern and flexible economy requires a modern and flexible retirement savings system — and that’s what we aim to achieve this year.

The “retirement crisis” that Becker cites is real in Colorado. Last year, lawmakers ordered a study into a state-run retirement plan for private industry workers in Colorado. The report is due back in March and Democrats plan to introduce a bill this session.

State Rep. Tracy Kraft-Tharp, D-Arvada, said all employees would get enrolled in the 401k-like retirement plan unless they opt out.

As we move forward this session, we must keep in mind the unique challenges our state’s fiscal policies present. Colorado is handcuffed by a restrictive and antiquated law that doesn’t allow the state to benefit from our booming economy and doesn’t let us make the investments we need.

What Becker is referring to here is the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. It’s no secret that there’s no love lost between TABOR and Democrats, who have worked to remove the revenue caps that limit how much tax dollars the state can collect. Becker led the fight for Proposition CC to remove the caps, but it failed in the 2019 election amid opposition from national conservative groups.

Transparency in our budget is critical so that Coloradans can easily learn about where their dollars go. That’s why I’m excited that in the next few months we will have a visual, interactive display of the state’s budget available for the public on the General Assembly website. This is a critical step in providing Coloradans with an accurate and accessible picture of our state’s finances to increase their trust in how we prioritize these dollars because every single dollar counts.  

Given our state’s restrictions, we have to keep in mind that our state’s revenue is precious. Every single dollar must be spent wisely. This means being thoughtful about any permanent decisions we make that could have an impact on our state’s bottom line. 

Permanent tax cuts that only further inequalities, exacerbate the achievement gap, make our higher ed institutions less competitive, and hinder our ability to meet our already dire transportation needs will not put us on the path to becoming a more prosperous and equitable state.   

Becker is not mincing words here. She’s responding directly to an idea proposed by Polis to permanently lower the income tax, which is falling to 4.5% this year because of TABOR surpluses. Polis made an income tax cut a key priority in 2019, but Democrats and other progressives helped to defeat the effort. As Becker’s forceful words suggest, this is one of the biggest rifts between the governor and his party.

How we prioritize within our budget is of vital importance. We need to ensure that all of our dollars are being used in service to key goals. 

While we’ve made substantial investments in K-12 education funding by paying down the budget stabilization factor, we’ll remain focused on ways to bring it down even further and will continue working on longer-term school funding solutions.

Before the session started, lawmakers abandoned an effort to overhaul the state’s formula to fund schools, despite well-known inequalities. It represented a major setback, but one Becker is urging lawmakers to continue to address. How much money the legislature can put into education this year remains an open question given the fiscal constraints on this year’s budget. The state owes school district $572 million a year under Amendment 23 for what’s called the negative factor, or budget stabilization factor.

This session, we will once again face the challenge of finding new money to invest in our state’s transportation system. Over the past few years we’ve made great strides to make multi-year commitments and find creative ways to set aside a significant amount of money for transportation. But there is no secret pot of money hiding in the couch cushions; continuing these investments is challenging.  

Transportation is a big priority for both parties this session, but not surprisingly, there is a lot of disagreement about where the infusion of money will come from. In previous years, funds have come from the General Fund. But Democratic leaders say that’s not sustainable, and a new revenue stream is needed.

So we are going to find actual solutions to invest more in transportation, members on both sides of the aisle will have to bring forward specific solutions that voters haven’t already rejected and that are serious attempts at bipartisan solutions. 

Past proposals like unspecified, across-the-board budget cuts to every department impacting programs like services for the disabled or school funding, is not a realistic approach and is not the answer. Cutting Coloradans off Medicaid isn’t the answer. 

Members need to show where they believe money for transportation should come from and make good-faith efforts to find common ground. I know this is an issue that every single one of us cares about, and if we’re going to make progress, we need to do it together. I know we can do it. 

From criminal justice reform to the great work coming out of the School Safety Interim Committee, we’ve seen incredible bipartisan progress on important issues. 

The interim committee on preventing school violence — which was formed after the STEM school shooting in May — pushed forward five bills that include everything from providing students with excused mental health days to bolstering the state’s Safe2Tell reporting system. None of them touched on guns.

We must continue this progress for the people of this state. 

We will also continue to grapple with a host of difficult health care challenges as we attempt to improve access and affordability across our state.  

We will work to lower the cost of prescription drugs — an issue that affects Coloradans from the newborn nursery room to the hospice wing and every point in between. We will increase transparency in drug pricing and address the root causes that have made the costs of prescription drugs soar. 

Our work is cut out for us. As long as we keep in mind who we are working on behalf of, our path forward should remain clear. So join me, bring your best ideas to the table and let’s get things done.

Becker is making clear that Republican objections and an election year won’t keep Democrats from pushing their agenda. But in his remarks, Neville made clear the GOP minority will fight back. “When bad laws are proposed, when life and liberty and justice are threatened, we’ll stand up and fight,” he said.

In one of the more partisan moments of the day, Neville blasted Democratic interest groups and special interest money behind much of the party’s agenda. He said the party will do everything it can to stop legislation on stringent immunization or sex education requirements, new regulations on guns and the environment and additional taxes on businesses.

The tone drew a quick retort from House Majority Leader Alec Garnett, D-Denver. “I didn’t hear a lot about solving problems,” he said about Neville’s remarks. “I didn’t hear a lot about coming together.”

On behalf of every veteran and every family struggling to afford the cost of housing, come to the table.

On behalf of future generations of Coloradans and their right to enjoy our state’s natural treasures just like we have, come to the table.

On behalf of every young person caught in an unjust criminal justice system, come to the table.

On behalf of every child in an underfunded classroom in Colorado and on behalf of every teacher working to give those kids the best education possible, come to the table. 

On behalf of every person living with a chronic illness who’s rationed their prescription drugs because they couldn’t afford the cost, come to the table.

Come to the table and let’s move Colorado forward together — toward prosperity, toward justice, toward progress! 

This will be my last session serving as your colleague and your speaker. It will be my last session representing the wonderful people of House District 13 under the gold dome. 

MORE: Colorado’s 2020 legislative session begins this week. Here’s a rundown of 10 issues to watch.

And while there’s a great deal left to do and a great deal of new memories to make before I close this chapter, I can already tell you that working here with you all has been the honor of a lifetime. 

It is with immense pride that I declare the House open for business for the second regular session of the 72nd General Assembly of the great state of Colorado.

Becker’s remarks — and those of GOP leader Neville — suggest the 120-day lawmaking session will attract plenty of controversy. This is the second of two years of Democratic control, and the party must get approval from voters in November to remain in power. How the session finishes will help determine the answer.


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