When Democrats regained control of the Colorado legislature in 2019, they started taking action in response to President Donald Trump and a deadlocked Congress.
That included passing legislation around environmental, immigration and criminal justice issues. Recently, state lawmakers have also taken on coronavirus economic relief and are gearing up to debate the creation of a public health insurance option.
But with a pair of surprising Democratic victories earlier this month in Georgia’s U.S. Senate runoff elections, combined with President Joe Biden taking office on Wednesday, the priorities may be shifting. New Democratic control in Washington, D.C., likely means policies will be addressed at the federal level that Colorado Democrats were expecting to have to tackle at the state Capitol.
“It’s a new day. It’s a new administration. It’s a new opportunity,” said state Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat. “I think we’re all going to be watching closely to see what they do.”
Gonzales is a top immigrant advocate in the legislature, fighting for expanded protections for people living in the U.S. illegally. She ran for office in 2018 seeking to limit U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s ability to “overreach into state and local government.” Now, she’s using the time before the legislature reconvenes on Feb. 16 to rethink what’s at the top of her policy to-do list.
With Biden promising to create a pathway to citizenship for people living in the U.S. illegally and immigration enforcement policies that are expected to be far more lenient than those under Trump, the bills she was planning to introduce this year may no longer be relevant.
“There’s a lot of hope and excitement to see what the administration is going to include in their package,” Gonzales said. “And what are they leaving out.’”
House Speaker Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, said the way Congress acts on the environment and coronavirus economic aid will definitely shape policies at the statehouse.
“Even gun safety legislation” in Colorado could be affected, he said.
State Rep. Dylan Roberts, an Avon Democrat who is planning to champion a measure creating a public health insurance option in Colorado this year, said if Democrats in Congress pass a public option first it may be unnecessary for the state to pursue a similar program.
But, he said, “Congress moves a lot slower than we do at the state level.”
And that’s where things get difficult for statehouse Democrats, because it’s not clear how long it will take congressional Democrats to tackle their plans and whether they can pass them at all.
“On the one hand we absolutely need to figure out what the feds are going to do,” said state Sen. Jeff Bridges, a Greenwood Village Democrat. “On the other hand, we can’t wait.”
The U.S. Senate will now be split between 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans, with Vice President Kamala Harris serving as the tiebreaker. With such a narrow majority, more controversial Democratic bills still may lack enough votes to pass. U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet said Republican U.S. Senate leader Mitch McConnell will remain a big hurdle.
“As long as Mitch McConnell is in the Senate,” Bennet said, “it’s never easy. It never will be easy.”
Colorado’s Democratic U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper, who served eight years as governor, said he thinks the parallel Democratic majorities on the state and federal levels, however, will streamline cooperation. That’s especially true for policies around climate change.
“I think having the Biden administration, where you’re not going to have to be pushing back against that kind of wrong-headed thinking, that in itself is going to be an advantage,” Hickenlooper said.
Conversely, Bennet said congressional Democrats will likely look to take pages from the playbook run by the Colorado legislature’s Democrats on issues like the public option and police accountability.
“Colorado’s the first state to pass modern police accountability legislation and it’s very much along the lines of what Cory Booker and Kamala Harris introduced here,” Bennet said of his Democratic U.S. Senate colleagues.
Republicans are in the minority in the Colorado legislature, but they will likely look to find ways to push policies against the dual Democratic majorities in Washington and the statehouse. “You certainly may see some bills go in that direction,” said state Senate Republican leader Chris Holbert.
The Parker lawmaker said, however, that he often is explaining to his conservative constituents that the legislature has little effect on federal power. But he sees benefits for his party on the state level because he thinks voters will be frustrated by the direction of the nation and state.
“Gosh, if people over the next year, year and a half think Democrats need more control in Colorado, I don’t understand that,” Holbert said.
Bennet said he hopes Biden and Democrats don’t spend all their political capital at once and put their majorities at risk.
“We just need to approach it in a way that the American people understand that this isn’t just about creative more government for the sake of more government,” he said.