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Politics and Government

Republicans stopped Colorado’s vaccine bill last year with delay tactics. Will they work again?

GOP lawmakers in the Colorado House launched an effort Friday to protest, and potentially even prevent, the measure’s passage. Democrats are signaling they will hold fast on a rule designed to boost vaccination rates.

Lawmaking in the Colorado House ground to a halt on Friday, June 5, 2020, as Republicans used delay tactics in protest of Democrats' handling of policy. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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They asked for bills to be read at length. They gave a history of the man-made chemicals perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl. There was even a request for an amendment to dedicate a bill to the 1980s TV show “Magnum, P.I.”

Republicans in the Colorado legislature deployed filibuster tactics Friday in an attempt — for the second year in a row — to protest a Democratic bill aimed at boosting vaccination rates. And it couldn’t come at a more harried time. 

Democrats are trying to end the abbreviated legislative session next week, hoping to limit the amount of time lawmakers are potentially exposed to the coronavirus. They returned May 26 for three weeks of lawmaking after taking a two-month pause because of the pandemic and with a major list of legislation to tackle. 

Still on the agenda: passing a budget, a bill on school finance, a slate of legislation to help Coloradans weather the coronavirus crisis and a sweeping police accountability measure introduced Wednesday. Democrats were hoping to wrap things up next week.

Republicans have worked well with Democrats thus far, agreeing to sideline legislation that wasn’t necessary and to work quickly to pass the state’s depleted budget. But on Friday, the niceties ceased.

“We were told that everything is going to be ‘fast, friendly and free,’” said House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, R-Castle Rock, quoting remarks from House Speaker KC Becker about what policies Democrats would push through during the abbreviated legislative term. “They basically have gotten rid of the ‘friendly and free’ concept. We’re going to finish that up and get rid of the ‘fast’ concept.”

House Republican leader Patrick Neville of Castle Rock in the Colorado House. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The efforts to hold up legislating came after Democrats announced that the vaccine measure, Senate Bill 163, would receive a hearing Sunday in a House committee. 

“The way they scheduled that in a pandemic during these major riots and then on a Sunday … they are trying to ram this thing through without proper public input. We don’t think that’s appropriate,” Neville said.

At least one Republican said they thought the bill was scheduled for a vote on Sunday because many opponents will be at church. 

“This is the time that became available,” said Rep. Kyle Mullica, a Northglenn Democrat who is a prime sponsor of the bill, said of the scheduling. “The Capitol will be at its emptiest for exposure. It will still be open for the public to come in.” 

Mullica said that while Democrats have sidelined other major policy goals to allow for the resumed legislative session to move quickly. 

Colorado’s vaccination rates are among the lowest in the nation, with 87.4% of kindergarteners vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella. Across the nation, health officials say vaccinations are dropping fast during the coronavirus pandemic, presumably because families are putting off going to the doctor. 

MORE: Colorado’s already low childhood vaccination rates plummet as parents put off doctor visits

Republicans have reason to believe their tactics will work. A similar vaccine bill was set aside last year in the Colorado Senate after the GOP threatened to hold up legislation by delaying lawmaking in the final weeks of the 2019 legislative term. Democrats agreed to spike the bill in exchange for keeping lawmaking moving.

This year’s bill was passed by the Senate in February, before lawmakers took a two-month break due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Under current law, parents who want to exempt their children from immunizations can write on a sticky note or even a napkin and hand it to their school office. This bill calls for a standardized form — the same form for medical, religious or personal exemptions — that parents would have to get signed by a doctor, nurse or pharmacist. As an alternative to the signed document, parents could watch a state-issued online educational video about vaccines. 

Under the proposal, information from the exemption forms would go into a confidential database that public health officials could use in case of an outbreak. Parents could opt their children out of the database. Still, opponents of the bill say it amounts to a “government tracking system” and that it could result in parents pulling kids from public school in favor of home schooling.  

Mullica is hopeful that Democrats won’t cave this year.

“I know that the leadership here in the House and the caucus here in the House, they recognize, they believe in the science and know that our rates are at a dangerously low level,” he said. “We’re not just making that up. Were hearing that from the experts.”

House Majority Leader Alec Garnett was critical of the delay. 

“We have a lot of important work to do on behalf of the people of Colorado,” he said, citing legislation to help Coloradans recover from the pandemic. “The Republicans are standing in the way of that important work because they don’t want us to do a bill that (the majority) of Coloradans support.”

Garnett, a Denver Democrat, said he is also worried about lawmakers’ health being compromised if they have to extend the session. On Friday, legislators were getting their blood drawn in the Capitol basement for COVID-19 antibody testing.

Senate President Leroy Garcia has his blood drawn for a coronavirus antibody test on Friday, June 5, 2020, in the Colorado Capitol’s basement. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

“I do worry that instead of just expressing their frustration or talking to us offline that they are keeping the entire chamber here instead of just opening up a dialogue,” Garnett said. Asked if he is committed to seeing the vaccine bill passed, Garnett said “it’s not that big of a change in Colorado statute.”

“What I’m hearing from medical professionals is we can’t risk an outbreak of measles and mumps taking up critical hospital space when we’re worried about a second wave of COVID-19 in the fall,” he said.

Neville said he is frustrated by legislation Democrats introduced on Thursday around spending federal coronavirus aid dollars. Republicans say they weren’t consulted on how to distribute $70 million set aside for lawmakers to dole out.

MORE: Colorado Democrats unveil plan for $70 million in federal coronavirus aid, including small business loans and renter help

Neville brushed off the health concerns of remaining in the Capitol. “They are using the public safety scare to jam through legislation without proper public input. I think that’s inappropriate,” he said.

The friction appeared to be limited to the House on Friday. The Senate was moving legislation along smoothly as lawmakers debated the budget.

By midday, the delay tactics in the House were beginning to weigh on Democrats’ nerves. Republicans at the podium were given multiple time-limit warnings, and then Democrats — who control the chamber — put a Republican, Rep. Kevin Van Winkle from Highlands Ranch, in the speaker of the House’s lectern to deal with the tedious proceedings. 


Watch House Republicans delay tactics below.


Rep. Larry Liston, taking up every last second allowed to speak about a water quality bill, told war stories about the times he rode in a B-24 bomber. “Another story I’d like to recount to you is my brother-in-law was a fighter pilot in Vietnam,” the Colorado Springs Republican began one tale that included a fiery crash. 

The bill, House Bill 1119, regards the firefighting foam chemicals perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl, and government regulation to keep them out of drinking water. It has bipartisan support.

MORE: Colorado lawmakers wanted to tackle the state’s PFAS problem. They are taking more of a baby step.

On a bill regarding the Colorado Seed Act, Rep. Richard Holtorf, a Republican from Akron, listed types of seeds and discussed crop rotation in vast detail, going back even “thousands of years ago in ancient Egypt” to wheat farming. 

Neville said the plan is to continue the delay tactics for days.

Rising Sun