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Politics and Government

For Colorado’s Senate Democrats, life is threatening to get in the way of their majority

With Sen. Lois Court gone because of an illness and Sen. Brittany Pettersen soon leaving to have a baby, Democrats could briefly lose their majority in the chamber

State Sen. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood, center, sits with House KC Becker, left, and Senate President Leroy Garcia as Gov. Jared Polis delivers his second State of the State address in the House chambers at the Colorado Capitol on Jan. 9, 2020. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Democrats fought hard in 2018 to win back a majority in the Colorado Senate. Now, life is threatening to temporarily undo all of their work.

The party holds a 19-16 advantage in the chamber, but with the possibility of two Democratic senators being simultaneously gone from the Capitol later this month — one is ill and the other is expecting to have a child in the coming days — their edge over Republicans would be erased. 

That’s because it takes 18 votes to pass any bill out of the Senate, regardless of how many lawmakers are present the day of any given vote. A simple majority won’t do. 

Thus, if both Democrats are gone at the same time, it would take all of the remaining Democratic caucus and one Republican joining them to pass any bill during that span. 

“Yes,” Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat whose wife just delivered their first child, “life gets in the way.”

Sen. Lois Court, D-Denver, is absent from the Capitol after being diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disorder called Guillain-Barré syndrome and not expected to return. She will officially resign from the legislature on Jan. 16, and her replacement is slated to be chosen by a vacancy committee before the end of the month. 

Meanwhile, Sen. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood, is pregnant and will give birth to her son any day now. Her due date is Jan. 30. 

“I told him he can’t come out until Lois Court has a replacement,” she joked. 

The desk of state Sen. Lois Court, D-Denver, sits empty in the Senate chambers on Thursday Jan. 9, 2020. Court announced that she will be resigning from the legislature on Jan. 16 after being diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

All kidding aside, the absences could present a real problem for Democrats down the road. They plan to wait to debate closely contested bills on the Senate floor, until their majority is restored to full strength. 

Major legislation typically doesn’t reach the chamber’s floor, the lawmaking stage where having a majority is crucial, until later in the legislative term, which ends May 6. But a backlog of bills could begin to build depending on how long they must be held. And Democrats might need every minute of the 2020 session to get their ambitious policies passed.

With Republicans signaling they plan to use delay tactics in protest of Democratic policies, as they did last year, a backlog could mean a very busy final stretch of the 2020 legislative session. 

“I think it’s manageable,” Fenberg said. “Is it going to be a little more complicated than it was when we always had 19 votes? Sure. But it’s not something that, I think, is going to paralyze us. The process might just have to move a little bit slower for a couple of bills. Most of the bills, we don’t need 19 votes to pass. Many of them are actually bipartisan. It’s not like we have to pause everything.”

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Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, a Parker Republican, acknowledged that the absences could present him with an opportunity. But he suspects it will simply lead to more compromise and not change the trajectory of the legislative session. 

“If a Democrat came over and convinced one of my members to vote for something, then they could get to 18,” Holbert said. “I think that kind of compromise and discussion is what makes this legislature different.”

Pettersen’s pregnancy is also bringing to the fore another issue at the Colorado Capitol: The legislature essentially has no policies that pertain to female lawmakers who give birth during the lawmaking term. 

In part, that’s because it’s never happened before.

There isn’t a maternity or paternity leave plan. Lawmakers must vote in person. And children aren’t supposed to be on the Senate floor. 

In fact, Pettersen will lose wages — state senators make between $30,000 and $40,000 a year — for the month she expects to be out on maternity leave. Lawmakers on leave can continue to collect a paycheck only if their absence is due to a chronic illness, she said.

“This is my first time ever having a baby and going through labor so there are going to be some physical limitations,” she said. “I’m trying to set a month to take care of myself and my baby. But if I end up feeling OK in a few weeks then I can start coming back for floor work and I’ll bring the baby with me — as long as I get that approved, because we have been told on the Senate floor we can’t bring our kids.”

State Sen. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood meets with other lawmakers in the Colorado Senate chambers. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Pettersen said she’d like to see changes made to better accommodate women in her position. But those alterations could be very difficult. The mandate that lawmakers vote in person, for instance, is a constitutional one.

Since Pettersen will be one of the first lawmaker to give birth during the 120-day legislative session, she jokes that the historic nature of her son’s arrival also makes her the worst planner in Colorado history.

“Life happens in all workplaces and you have to adjust,” she said. “Ours is unique in its own way.”

Updated on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020, at 11 a.m.: This story has been updated to clarify that Colorado state senators make between $30,000 and $40,000 a year depending on when they were elected.

Updated on Friday, Jan. 24, 2020, at 7:50 a.m.: This story has been updated to correct that Sen. Brittany Pettersen is one of the first women to give during during a legislative session in Colorado. Colorado Public Radio reports that then-Denver Sen. Barbara S. Holme delivered her son just two days before the legislative session ended in 1981. 


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