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Politics and Government

Five moments that defined Colorado’s 2021 legislative session

This year’s 120-day lawmaking session was delayed by coronavirus, boosted by billions in federal stimulus dollars and drew outrage over racist remarks.

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)
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Every legislative session in Colorado has its defining moments, but not every legislative session happens with a global pandemic as the backdrop. 

And an economic downturn. And a contentious national election. And two mass shootings. And a national reckoning about race.

So when a tornado even ripped through Weld County in the final hours of the 2021 lawmaking term, it seemed an appropriate accent of chaos in a session marked by big policy changes, racist comments in the House and debate over how to spend billions in coronavirus relief money.

Here are five big moments that defined the 2021 lawmaking term:

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

Public option ceases to be a public option

Democrats’ bill to reduce health care costs was always sure to be one of the most fought-over items of the 2021 session. But opposition to the measure after it was unveiled was perhaps even more overwhelming than expected. 

“I think this will go down as the most lobbied-against bill in Colorado history,” said Rep. Dylan Roberts, an Avon Democrat and prime sponsor of the measure. “It reaffirms my belief that the for-profit healthcare industry will fight tooth-and-nail to protect the status quo at all costs.”

State Rep. Dylan Roberts, D-Avon, speaks at a news conference about the introduction of a public health insurance option in Colorado at the state Capitol on Thursday, March 5, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The original version of House Bill 1232 sought to force the health insurance industry to reduce costs for consumers by 20% or else the state would begin offering a public health insurance option. And it seemed like just about everyone hated it, including unions, traditionally a core Democratic constituency. 

The bill’s first hearing, in mid-April, lasted 10 hours, but there was no resolution. The measure was laid over for more behind-the-scenes negotiations. And it stayed in that state of purgatory for more than two weeks, with only a few glimpses at what was going on reaching the public. 

Two paths emerged. Proponents could continue with the bill as it was if negotiations with the health care industry broke down. Or they come to a compromise with hospitals and doctors to completely rewrite the legislation to ditch the public option in pursuit of a state-regulated plan to be offered by private insurers. 

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The bill’s sponsors chose the compromise path — to the dismay of some progressive critics. But the Colorado Hospital Association, an influential organization, dropped its opposition as a result and the measure cruised forward. Questions about whether the legislation would be successful, which were seemingly sucking the air out of the Capitol, soon ceased.

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

“The goal was always to lower premiums and provide options for Coloradans,” said Roberts. “And we did that.”

House Bill 1232 was sent to the governor without a single Republican “yes” vote, as GOP lawmakers complained that the policy was half-baked and may even drive up costs. 

Masks come off and the lobbyists come back 

Rep. Dominique Jackson spent most of Colorado’s 2021 legislative session participating in Capitol lawmaking from her home through a video feed. 

The Aurora Democrat has an autoimmune disease, which made it unsafe for her to be in the statehouse in person before vaccinations were widespread and public health restrictions began to lift.

“It’s been lonely,” she said. “Presenting a bill in committee remotely has been a really weird thing.”

Just like people across Colorado and the U.S. state lawmakers had to adapt to COVID-19. They were given early access to coronavirus vaccines by Gov. Jared Polis, but the disease was still raging when they returned to the Capitol in January for a few days and when they began their lawmaking term in earnest a month later on Feb. 16. 

State Rep. Julie McCluskie, left, D-Summit County, talks with Rep. Hugh McKean, R-Loveland, in the House during the first day of Colorado’s special legislative session at the Colorado State Capitol on Monday, Nov. 30, 2020. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Rep. Perry Will, a New Castle Republican, called the experience “funky.” The normally bustling statehouse hallways were quieter, absent of most lobbyists and the noisy tour groups that typically fill the Capitol. Most people had their faces covered and kept their distance from one another.  “With COVID and all that, varying attitudes on mask-wearing, and judgment and stuff,” Will said,  “… people were really on edge.” 

EARLIER: The Colorado Capitol’s hallways are where dealmaking happens. Coronavirus has emptied them.

But the tremendous need sparked by the pandemic statewide — from widespread unemployment and shuttered businesses to mental health issues and coronavirus rates disproportionately affecting communities of color — also focused lawmakers, said Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat. 

“I do think in some ways because of COVID, the suffering and the challenges, it allowed us to put some of the partisan bickering aside,” Fenberg said. 

Lobbyists, lawmakers and legislative staff fill the hallways of the second floor of the Colorado state capitol on June 3, 2021. (Thy Vo, Colorado Sun).

The mood really shifted on May 14, when the CDC announced that vaccinated people could stop wearing masks in most indoor settings. Plastic barriers between lawmakers’ desks in the chambers came down. Lobbyists started to fill the halls again.

“Getting here and being able to do the work in person has definitely been an advantage,” said Danny McCarthy, a lobbyist with Mendez, Barkis and Associates who stayed away from the Capitol at the start of the session. “It took a little while to feel comfortable.”

Jackson, the Aurora Democrat, was back at the Capitol, too — and happy to be there. It’s easier to work on bills in person, and she missed getting to know some of the new lawmakers. 

“There is more camaraderie in this building than some people might imagine,” she said.

Richard Holtorf triggers a conversation on House decorum

By early May, lawmakers had started debate on some of the most controversial measures of the session. Work on the House and Senate floors began to drag on longer. Tensions rose as they always do during the dog days of session.

That’s when Rep. Richard Holtorf, an Akron Republican, used a racist term to refer to his colleague, Rep. David Ortiz, a Democrat from Centennial who is Latino, while delivering remarks on the House floor.

According to Holtorf, some Democrats began making comments for him to speed up his comments. At one point, Holtorf referenced “a colleague from Jefferson County who served in the military.” Ortiz, a U.S. Army veteran, said he shouted back, “Arapahoe,” to correct Holtorf on his home county. 

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“I’m getting there, don’t worry, Buckwheat. I’m getting there,” Holtorf said in response. “That’s an endearing term, by the way.”

The room unraveled. Rep. Adrienne Benevidez, acting as the chamber’s chair, cut off Holtorf from the main dais. Rep. Tom Sullivan, an Aurora Democrat, rose from his seat and began shouting across the floor. State Rep. Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat who had been engaged in a separate conversation, walked down to the lectern to intervene. 

The House then took a recess.  

With a few words Holtorf had changed the the mood in the House. He also made national news.

State Rep. Richard Holtorf, an Akron Republican, listens to debate in the Colorado House on June 2, 2021. (Thy Vo, Colorado Sun)

“It definitely changed the undertone in the chamber for good,” said Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat. “It was so far out of decorum that every time he went to the mic we were uncomfortable and on alert.” 

Holtorf, a cattle rancher in eastern Colorado, explained to The Sun that buckwheat is a “good grain” in his “country vernacular,” and that he wasn’t aware of any other connotation. But the word is widely used in referencing Buckwheat — the name of a Black child character in the short film series “Our Gang” — and is considered a demeaning stereotype of Black people. 

The films, produced from the 1920s to the 1940s and then were shown on TV for about 30 years, featured a group of children known as the Little Rascals.

But to House Democrats, it was just another example of racist and offensive comments from the lectern. And it prompted a rare floor address from the Speaker of the House, Denver Democrat Alec Garnett, calling on lawmakers to rein in their behavior and “reset” their tone. 

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“Using the privileges of our office to act recklessly or aggressively, shout out of turn, yell at one another or another member inside this chamber, or speak in a way that is anything other than respectful, mindful and precise is a violation of that sacred trust,” Garnett said.

Several Republicans went on to invoke Garnett’s call for a “reset” during debates about bills to address racial inequalities, saying Democrats were violating the request by insinuating that voting against their bills would perpetuate systemic racism. 

But Democrats rejected that argument. “It’s not a personal thing, it’s what’s happening in our world and society,” said Rep. Tony Exum Sr., a Colorado Springs Democrat. “And we’re trying to address it in our lane as legislators and they take it personally.” 

The Boulder King Soopers shooting

People visit and add to the shrine near the Table Mesa King Soopers memorializing the 10 victims of a mass shooting there on March 22, 2021. (Jeremy Sparig, Special to the Colorado Sun)

Fenberg, the Senate majority leader, was sitting in his Capitol office when a heavily armed gunman walked into a King Soopers grocery store in Boulder — in Fenberg’s district — and began killing people. The Democrat listened to the police scanner in real time as officers rushed to the scene.

“I think it changed me personally,” Fenberg said. “All of the sudden, after thinking this session couldn’t have anything more big and profound added to the agenda, we clearly had something added for us.”

MORE: Here’s the gun legislation Colorado Democrats are pursuing in response to the Boulder King Soopers shooting

Fenberg and other Democrats began working on a package of gun legislation in response to the attack, in addition to a set of firearm bills that were already on the agenda. Boulder residents were demanding immediate action after the shooting, said Rep. Judy Amabile, a Boulder Democrat in her first year as a state lawmaker. 

“People really wanted us to do everything and anything,” she said.

The measures that came out of those efforts were: 

  • House Bill 1298, which would close the so-called Charleston loophole by requiring gun dealers to complete a background check on a gun buyer before transferring a weapon to them. The measure would also bar people convicted of certain misdemeanors from purchasing a gun for five years.
  • House Bill 1299, which would create the Office of Gun Violence Prevention within the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment
  • Senate Bill 256, which would allow local governments, public higher education institutions and special districts to enact gun control policies that are stronger than what’s written in state law 

Republicans fought the measures — “I think the gun control bills are just reaction, don’t really make a difference,” said Sen. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale  — but all of them passed and are awaiting the governor’s signature.

“I think they were the right policies,” Fenberg said. “It was difficult because a lot of times people in that situation are begging for something that might not actually be the right answer. I’m glad we took a minute to really evaluate that before jumping in a little too fast.”

Some, including Fenberg, wanted Democrats to pursue an assault-weapons ban, but such a bill was never introduced. 

Federal stimulus passes in a breeze

The negotiations began on a morning in late May. And they started out poorly. 

Republicans and Democrats were “certainly not on the same page” about how to start disbursing $3.8 billion in federal coronavirus aid from the American Rescue Plan, said Sen. Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat. 

“What we heard back from Republicans is ‘you’re not doing enough for transportation’” said Moreno, chair of the Joint Budget Committee. “Acknowledging the limitations on the federal guidance on what you can do with that (money), we weren’t quite sure how we were going to get around (the complaints).”

Rankin, who also sits on the JBC, said Democrats’ spending plan caught Republicans by surprise. The GOP had been left out of the distribution-plan rollout. 

“I have to admit, it gave me quite a bit of anxiety when it was first introduced,” he said. 

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

For a brief period it looked as if the money was set to become another topic of ugly partisan debate at the Capitol. 

But within a matter of hours the two sides were on the same page, ready to send tens of millions of dollars to business assistance programs, behavioral health care initiatives and the expansion of existing senior citizen assistance mechanisms. Much of the money to be distributed next year.

“It took us a day to work through our suggestions,” Rankin said. “They took them. Sen. Moreno and I sat down and worked through it and it came out fine. It came out something we all can live with over the next four years.” 

Both lawmakers agree a major battle was quietly avoided, allowing the session to proceed smoothly toward adjournment.

“Ultimately, what we agreed to was really around process,” Moreno said. “They want to make sure that the minority party has a voice in how these dollars are allocated. Obviously, we support that as well.”

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