Colorado lawmakers are sparring over the use of taxpayer money to pay for legal costs in a partisan lawsuit confronting what both sides say is a critical question about the state constitution.
The hangup: Taxpayers are only paying for the Democrats’ representation, to the tune of about $40,000 and counting, more than half of which was appropriated without required legislative approval.
Republicans, meanwhile, say they are scrounging to raise private money to pay for their side of the case.
“The taxpayers are on one side only,” said Rep. Kevin Van Winkle, a Highlands Ranch Republican.
Republicans sued Democrats during the 2019 legislative session after Democrats in the Colorado Senate used multiple computers to simultaneously and unintelligibly speed-read legislation that GOP lawmakers demanded be read at length. Republicans were trying to delay lawmaking for hours at a time in protest of Democratic policies and in a successful effort to force them to the negotiating table.
Legislators are constitutionally given the power to ask for measures to be read in full.
A Denver District Court judge sided with Republicans, ruling that Democrats violated the state constitution by not ensuring the legislation was read in an understandable way. Democrats are now challenging that outcome in the Colorado Court of Appeals, arguing that the case is a separation of powers issue and that the judicial branch should not be getting in the way of the legislative branch.
On Thursday morning, Republicans questioned the ongoing use of taxpayer funds in the case to defend Colorado Senate President Leroy Garcia, a Pueblo Democrat, and Senate Clerk Cindi Markwell, a nonpartisan staffer. Lawmakers in 2019 signed off on allocating taxpayer money to cover their attorneys’ fees for the initial court proceedings, but not the appeal.
Historically, lawmakers have had to ask for continued funding for the appellate process.
Sharon Eubanks, director of the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Legal Services, said the additional appellate spending — which is now about $28,000 — was mistakenly OK’d by her office without lawmakers’ knowledge or approval. “We just forgot,” she told the bipartisan, bicameral Committee on Legal Services during a hearing on Thursday morning. “We should have come here.”
Republicans asked during the hearing that the 10-member panel vote on whether to allow taxpayer money to also fund the GOP side of the case, arguing that it’s no longer fair to only cover Democrats’ costs.
The original decision to allow taxpayer money to be used only for Democrats’ legal representation had to do with the fact that Republicans initiated the lawsuit and, thus, Democrats were unwilling participants. Republicans argue that since Democrats have continued the case by appealing, both sides costs should now be covered by taxpayers.
“This committee should be paying for both sides of the argument,” state Sen. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican, argued during the hearing.
State Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat who chairs the Committee on Legal Services, said she thinks more information is needed for a decision on whether to allow taxpayer money to go toward Republicans’ legal fees. Herod noted that Republicans had not made the request prior to the meeting and the committee didn’t have time to vet it.
Democrats rejected the request during Thursday’s hearing by a 6-4, party-line vote. That decision came after Republicans blocked an attempt by Democrats to discuss the case in private, executive session.
In a 9-1 vote, the committee agreed to continue letting taxpayer money cover Democrats’ legal costs.
Meanwhile, Republicans have made clear that they might again ask for legislation to be read at length during the 2020 lawmaking term to force Democrats to make policy and spending concessions. Garcia has said those are “Washington-style political antics.”
It’s unclear how much the case could end up costing taxpayers. The state is paying $200 an hour for Democrats’ legal representation.