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Democrats pursued a no-policy-left-behind mantra for Colorado’s 2021 legislative session

Much of Democrats’ policy agenda was heavily amended, but it passed with very limited exceptions. “I think we’ve hit our stride,” said Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat.

The interior of the Colorado Capitol is seen on Monday, June 7, 2021, during the final days of the 2021 legislative session. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)
  • Credibility:

Colorado Democrats’ massive bill to drive down health care costs suddenly appeared to be in real trouble. 

It was late May in the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, and three of the four Democrats on the panel were raising concerns about the policy in House Bill 1232. “I believe we have a lot more work to do,” said Sen. Janet Buckner, a lawmaker from Aurora. “I’m still not content.” She was visibly uncomfortable.

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Sen. Joann Ginal of Fort Collins voiced concern, too, specifically calling out how provisions in the measure would affect doctors.  

Then Sen. Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat and chair of the committee, spent seven minutes dissecting everything she disliked about the legislation, including “the tone” of the bill.

The room, packed with lobbyists, fell silent. Then the vote was called. Buckner, Ginal and Fields all decided to advance the measure despite their deep worries, sending it on its way to Gov. Jared Polis’ desk. They weren’t willing to let the bill die. 

MORE: Five moments that defined Colorado’s 2021 legislative session

Colorado’s 2021 legislative session will go down as one of the most consequential in recent memory, as Democrats — who are in their third year in the statehouse majority — changed everything from the tax code to the criminal justice system and the state’s transportation-funding mechanism. From the start of the session, the mantra was: Leave no bill behind. 

While at least a handful of big policies are typically gently killed and set aside for more work in any given lawmaking term, Democrats this year pushed hard on their agenda, making changes to policies but mostly refusing to fully abandon anything. 

It was the session of bills too big to fail — 116 days of Democrats getting creative and reworking their legislation to ensure their priorities advanced. A fitting theme given it was the first session with 6-foot-5 Alec Garnett as Speaker of the House.

“I think this is probably one of the more productive sessions we’ve ever had,” said Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat. “I think we’ve hit our stride.”

Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, speaks at a news conference about federal stimulus. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Republicans saw 2021 at the statehouse a bit differently. 

“I think the theme is they did whatever they wanted to,” said Sen. Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican. “We’re going to live with some bad bills for years to come. I would like to see some independent thinking from their side of the aisle.” 

Rep. Perry Will, a New Castle Republican, said he’s proud of bipartisan work to beef up spending on fire mitigation, forest management, behavioral health needs and a “just transition” for communities in his district, like Craig, where coal-fired plants are shutting down under state pressure. 

But the “brazen” bills pushed by Democrats left Republicans with little defense but to filibuster, Will said. “You can sum up the whole session by looking at the party-line votes — those aren’t good bills to pass out of here because they aren’t bipartisan,” he said. 

Democrats’ massive health care bill was amended 21 times, starting out as a public health insurance option measure and ending as a policy requiring private health insurers to offer a state-regulated plan. 

But it was just one example of the legislation that dramatically changed from start to finish to secure votes and assuage concerns of lobbyists. 

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Colorado Democrats’ big health insurance bill was amended 21 times. Here’s how it has changed.

In the waning days of the 2021 legislative session, a number of policies were rewritten, including: 

  • House Bill 1266, which was amended to incorporate most of Senate Bill 200, a greenhouse gas emissions reduction measure that the governor threatened to veto 
  • Senate Bill 88, which would provide historic survivors of child sexual assault a three-year window in which to sue their abusers and the organizations that allowed the wrongdoing to happen 
  • House Bill 1027, which would allow restaurants to continue to-go alcohol sales for at least four more years

Senate Bill 172 started out as a bill to create an empty bank account dedicated to raising the pay of teachers and other school staff. It was intended to serve as a political pressure point for budget writers, who have long blamed local districts for stagnant wages. 

But in the end it passed with an amendment that removed the pressure point. Instead of the account simply forming, it will only be opened if a statewide tax-raising ballot measure passes before 2027, a daunting task given the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.

Members of the Colorado House meet on Monday, June 7, 2021, during the final days of the 2021 legislative session. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

“It shifted,” said bill sponsor Sen. Jessie Danielson, a Wheat Ridge Democrat. But teachers were happy with the end result, and the changes allowed the bill to pass.

Danielson also worked on Senate Bill 88 and said she’s happy where it ended up. While the original version of the bill didn’t include a limited time frame for victims to sue, and there were no damage caps, the final version is supported by victims’ groups.

MORE: Colorado lawmakers approve effort to give past child sex assault victims a chance to sue their abusers, institutions

Two law enforcement accountability bills also saw major changes after heavy pushback from law enforcement and other interest groups. 

House Bill 1250 initially aimed to set new, higher standards for use of force by Colorado law enforcement officers, allowing cops to use deadly force only as a “last resort,” and specifying that the force be “proportional to the threat” they or the public face, and that it never be used against someone who is a threat only to themselves. That language has since been removed entirely following intense opposition.

The measure now largely addresses outstanding issues from last year’s Senate Bill 217, a historic measure passed by Colorado lawmakers after George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police. It adds the Colorado State Patrol to the law enforcement agencies whose officers can be individually sued, clarifies circumstances where body cameras must be used, and requires studies on the impacts of no-knock warrants and best practices for policing.

House Bill 1251 is another police accountability measure that was heavily amended. The bill, spurred by the 2019 death of Elijah McClain after an encounter with Aurora police and paramedics, limits the use of the powerful sedative ketamine outside of hospital settings. 

This news first appeared in The Unaffiliated. Subscribe here to get the twice-weekly political newsletter from The Colorado Sun.

The policy initially would have also applied to haloperidol, an antipsychotic with sedating effects. That part, however, was trimmed during a series of big changes. State Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat who sponsored the legislation, said haloperidol was taken out because proponents found lumping it together in a bill regulating ketamine’s use wasn’t the right approach.

But Democrats said they feel they didn’t give in too much to ensure the passage of their priorities despite the changes, some of which were sweeping. 

“I do believe that the study might lead us in a different direction or might add more to the use-of-force standard, but right now I believe it’s effective,” Herod said of where House Bill 1250 ended up.

House Speaker Alec Garnett prepared to speak at a news conference to roll out a major transportation fee and spending bill at the Colorado Capitol. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Sen. Brittany Petterson, D-Lakewood, had two priority bills that underwent changes. One was a measure to provide more than $100 million to behavioral health initiatives, and another would require tax-cutting ballot measures to include language, in addition to what’s required by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, about how revenue reductions would affect different state programs.

“We only had to give up just a little piece of it. I feel like the heart of the bill is still there,” she said of the TABOR-related bill. “I don’t feel like I had to water down anything.”

There were, however, some examples of measures that didn’t make it across the finish line, including Senate Bill 273, an effort to reduce arrests for low-level offenses. The measure  was borne out of Senate Bill 62, legislation that was further-reaching but that Democrats decided to spike because it lacked enough support.

Senate Bill 273 died in the House Finance Committee on Monday night at the hands of Democrats, shocking progressive lawmakers in both chambers. 

“I grieve for the community that has time and again been impacted by police violence,” Sen. Pete Lee, a Colorado Springs Democrat who led the push for the bill and was fuming at his colleagues, said in a statement. “I grieve for the difference this would have made in vulnerable Coloradans’ lives. And I grieve for the advocates who have given their hearts and and souls to this effort.”

Supporters of Senate Bill 200 at the Colorado Capitol on Monday, June 7, 2021. .The bill was killed but much of the policy within it was folded into another measure. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

The failure of Senate Bill 273 “signifies that none of this is easy, that it’s going to take a lot of work, but there’s also enormous pressure from the other side to keep change from happening,” Herod said. 

The ACLU, which was pushing for the bill, had more choice language for the two Democrats — Reps. Matt Gray of Broomfield and Shannon Bird of Westminster — on the House Finance Committee who blocked the measure. 

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“We had the votes to pass SB273 on the floor,” tweeted Rebecca Wallace, senior policy counsel for the ACLU of Colorado. “Reps. Matt Gray and Shannon Bird knew it. They chose to use their committee position to block a bill urged by their DA, Black and Brown colleagues and constituents and supported by their caucus. That’s their flex.”

Meanwhile, a measure to make it easier for Colorado workers to file workplace harassment and discrimination claims also failed. Senate Bill 176, died in the House Judiciary Committee on Monday after five of the panel’s seven Democrats voted to postpone it indefinitely. 

Lee said he would try again to pass his bill. Senate Bill 176 will return as well, said Sen. Faith Winter, a Westminster Democrat who was leading the push for it.

The one area where there was almost unequivocal bipartisanship at the Capitol this year was around coronavirus stimulus spending. 

Democrats and Republicans found common ground on how to distribute $800 million as part of a state spending initiative, as well on preliminary plans to hand out $3.8 billion in federal aid channeled to Colorado through the American Rescue Plan.

“Big,” is how Sen. Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat and chair of the Joint Budget Committee, put it when asked about the swift spending agreements. 

Will, the New Castle Republican, said “we’ve done some really good things with that money.”

Colorado state Rep. Leslie Herod, D-Denver, s pictured before the start of Colorado’s 73rd legislative session at the Colorado Capitol in Denver on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“There was some really thoughtful spending — look at the money for the Stock Show,” he said, referencing a bill to set aside $3.5 million for that purpose. The measure would also put $25 million toward construction of the Stock Show complex.  

Funding went to a variety of places, from small-business relief and rural-business growth programs to Colorado’s Water Plan and transportation projects. 

“When it comes to the state stimulus bills that we passed, I really don’t think Coloradans care if it was a Democrat or a Republican bill,” said House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar, a Pueblo Democrat. “They just needed relief.”

Esgar said the stimulus legislation stands out among the work Democrats did this year because of its importance.

Despite the bipartisan compromise on the state and federal stimulus packages, the final weeks of the session were dominated by anxieties and frustrations over Republicans efforts to stall lawmaking in the House. 

Did it have an effect? 

“Very, very little,” said Rep. Patrick Neville, a Castle Rock Republican.

In previous years, GOP efforts to delay work in the legislature led to negotiations, amendments and, in some rare cases, the death of Democratic policies. That did not happen often in 2021.

“It seems like when we’ve done it, there hasn’t been a sense of purpose behind it. There’s been no objective,” Neville, the former House minority leader, said of the delay tactics.

First-year Reps. Richard Holtorf of Akron and Ron Hanks of Fremont County were among the Republican representatives who most readily deployed the delay measures. They asked for bills to be read at length and delivered long floor speeches, keeping Democrats, and their fellow Republicans, at the Capitol late into the night.

But even Holtorf admits he didn’t accomplish much. On Friday, Republicans — led by Holtorf, who spoke at great length and detail about cows giving birth — stretched debate over a bill to expand labor rights for agricultural workers until about 11 p.m. The payoff was a few “soft amendments,” Holtorf said.

“We didn’t do enough. We could have done much more,” he said.

House Minority Leader Hugh McKean. R-Loveland. speaks on Monday, June 7, 2021, n the House during the final days of the 2021 legislative session. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

(The House Republican caucus was divided all session and on Tuesday night, shortly after the legislature adjourned, its members took a no-confidence vote on the leadership of House Minority Leader Hugh McKean. The vote was 15 in support of the Loveland Republican and eight in opposition. “We can either continue to fight amongst ourselves, or people can grow up and we can fight together,” Rep. Tim Geitner, a Falcon Republican and McKean’s No. 2, said after the vote.)

Even Rep. Colin Larson, a more moderate Republican from Littleton who is well-regarded by Democrats, jumped in on the delay tactics in late May, slowly reading aloud a legal opinion related to a Democratic bill to cut tax breaks for the wealthy and expand tax credits benefiting working families.

“This was one of the few gambits I had and it didn’t pan out,” said Larson, who called House Bill 1311 and House Bill 1312 “anti-business and anti-recovery.” 

He thought Democrats might take it to heart if a moderate member of the GOP launched a mini filibuster. But instead of winning concessions, Larson lost the respect of some of his Democratic colleagues, they say.

Rep. Julie McCluskie, a Dillon Democrat, said “delay tactics for the sake of delaying, to me, I think, is below us.”

“It’s a tactic that is allowed, but I’d rather we all stayed at the table,” she said. “If a bill is being read at length in the well, how do we engage and find a path forward?”

Over in the Senate, where delay tactics were deployed only a handful of times, things went much differently for Republicans.

Two figurines above the Colorado House entrance on Monday, June 7, 2021 during the final days of the 2021 legislative session. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, a Douglas County Republican, said Democratic leadership in the chamber would ask GOP lawmakers what bills they “really, really don’t like.” Negotiations would go from there.

“I don’t want to be crossways with the House, but we’re trying to work smart, not hard,” Holbert said. “We weren’t here until 10 o’clock Saturday evening.”

In the end, Democrats posed more of a threat to their own agenda than Republicans did. The legislation that failed or was heavily amended — the health insurance bill, the measure to limit arrests and legislation to make it easier to sue for workplace harassment —  came up short or was changed because of intraparty conflict.

This year’s legislative session was the last before a major election cycle in Colorado in which voters will decide who will be governor, treasurer, attorney general and secretary of state. That’s in addition to deciding who should hold a U.S. Senate seat and eight seats in the U.S. House.

And, of course, the partisan balance in the state House and Senate will be decided.

Heading into the 2021 lawmaking term there was an urgency among outside groups to get big policies passed ahead of 2022, when politics would be supercharged, especially given the active, once-in-a-decade process of redrawing Colorado’s congressional and legislative maps. 

The Colorado State Capitol is seen on Monday, June 7, 2021, during the final days of the 2021 legislative session. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

But Democrats are signaling they don’t plan to take their foot off the gas.

“There’s still a lot of work to do in all these areas,” said Fenberg, the Senate majority leader. “We never went into this session saying we would finish the Democratic wish list and never have to come back to it. The point is to make a meaningful impact on people’s lives.”

Sen. Don Coram, a Montrose Republican, has a tongue-in-cheek outlook. 

This news first appeared in The Unaffiliated. Subscribe here to get the twice-weekly political newsletter from The Colorado Sun.

“If they plan on keeping the course that they have been on this year, I think I will enjoy the majority in 2023,” he said.

The 2022 legislative session begins on Jan. 12.

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