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“A fighting tone”: Colorado Republicans are heading into the 2022 legislative session on the offensive

Over the past three years the GOP’s main strategy at the Capitol has been to try to slow down the Democratic machine through delay tactics like long speeches in protest of legislation

House Minority Leader Hugh McKean, R-Loveland, speaks at an introduction of Republican lawmakers’ 2022 session plan, called their “Commitment to Colorado," on Jan. 12, 2022 at the Colorado Capitol. The 44-bill plan will address affordability, education, crime and public safety among other topics. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)
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Republicans in the Colorado legislature have been mostly playing defense over the past three years. But that posture is changing in 2022, an election year that will determine whether conservatives will remain relegated to the sidelines of Colorado politics. 

This year, Republicans are going on the offensive. 

Republicans see the 2022 legislative session that began Wednesday as their best chance before the November election to showcase their vision for the state’s future, which they call their “Commitment to Colorado.” The party is pitching voters on policies aimed at reducing the cost of living, decreasing crime and improving student outcomes that would be accomplished, in large part, by rolling back policies Democrats passed in recent years.

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It’s a shift from the GOP strategy at the Capitol starting in 2019, when Democrats took control of the House, Senate and governor’s office. Republicans’ primary strategy was to try to slow down the Democratic machine through delay tactics, like long speeches in protest of legislation. 

But the potential for a shifting political landscape has emboldened conservatives to try for more in 2022.

“Our optimism is renewed as we look at polling and what voters are saying, what they’re thinking,” said Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, a Douglas County Republican. The political winds in recent years, Holbert said, “were certainly not as favorable as they are right now.”

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In a show of unity, the majority of the GOP House and Senate caucuses attended a news conference at the Capitol on Wednesday to roll out their agenda.

“I think you are going to see more unity in the Republican Party going forward than you have in a long time,” Colorado GOP Chairwoman Kristi Burton Brown said. “We’re not just talking. We have a plan. We have solutions.”

Democrats are “laser focused” on their priorities 

Democrats are pursuing policy goals that they hope will address the same problems Republicans are focusing on, though in different ways.

They want to make major behavioral health investments to cut down on crime rates and recidivism, and boost education funding to increase teacher pay and reduce classroom sizes. And they want to offer fee relief to help Coloradans struggling with rising inflation. 

“My No. 1 priority this session is to bring down the cost of living in Colorado,” House Speaker Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, said in his opening day remarks.

Garnett said the Democratic strategy at the Capitol this year will be to stay “laser focused” on the party’s public safety, affordability and education priorities. Garnett, however, rejected the idea of hitting the brakes on or unraveling Democrats’ policy agenda, especially in the realm of crime.

Colorado House Speaker Alec Garnett makes a point during a news conference on the west steps of the state Capitol about legislative plans for the upcoming session Monday, Jan. 10, 2022, in Denver. AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

“We will not go back to the failed policies of the past of overpopulated prisons, wasted taxpayer dollars that have left us with high recidivism and not nearly enough rehabilitation,” Garnett said. “Instead, it’s time to make Colorado safer and forge a more compassionate and more effective criminal justice system.”

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Senate President Leroy Garcia, a Pueblo Democrat, said in his opening day speech that every Coloradan deserves “a safe, reliable place to lay your head to rest. A stable income that allows you to provide for yourself and your family. A life free from violence and discrimination.”

Among the first bills introduced in the Senate were Democratic ones that will boost funding for police, support children’s literacy and provide sales tax relief to small businesses. 

Democrats also plan this year to: 

  • Delay implementation of a 2 cent per gallon gasoline fee passed during the 2021 lawmaking term 
  • Spend millions to finance the rapid development of affordable housing units
  • Invest more money in wildfire mitigation and resiliency programs

“We’ve heard the concerns that Coloradans and businesses have,” said House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo. “We’re going to meet this moment.”

Republicans have panned the Democratic agenda at the Capitol this year as a copycat version of the “Commitment to Colorado,” which the GOP unveiled over the summer. They also accuse Democrats of trying to solve problems that they themselves caused.

“Colorado is less affordable than it was three years ago when Democrats took control of our state government,” Holbert said, accusing the majority party of really being “laser focused on forcing people to pay more.

“Now suddenly, Democrats claim that they want Coloradans to keep more of their hard earned money in their pocket. Well, then we look forward to their support for this commitment to Colorado.”

Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, R-Douglas Count,y speaks at an introduction of Republican lawmakers’ 2022 session plan. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

But Gov. Jared Polis rejected the Republican argument at a news conference this week. 

“I think there’s great opportunity for bipartisan cooperation on public safety,” he said. “And the fact that both Republican and Democratic elected officials are identifying that as a priority is a simple reflection of the fact that it is a priority for the people of the state of Colorado.”

Also the reality is Republicans can’t pass any of their bills without Democratic support. The GOP has too few votes in the legislature to advance any measure on its own.

The GOP wildcard

One of the big questions for Republicans at the Capitol this year will be whether all of the party’s lawmakers can stay on message. That will be answered in the House, where Minority Leader Hugh McKean, R-Loveland, has been contending with a fractured caucus. 

Noticeably missing from Wednesday’s news conference were a handful of representatives — including Dave Williams of Colorado Springs, Ron Hanks of Fremont County and Patrick Neville of Castle Rock — who have in the past challenged McKean’s leadership and direction. 

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Williams and Hanks have been focused on baseless claims of fraud in the 2020 presidential election, redirecting the GOP conversation away from the “Commitment to Colorado.” And one of the first House bills introduced Wednesday was one sponsored by Neville that would appear to allow abortions only in limited circumstances in Colorado and otherwise make the procedure a felony crime. 

Williams said he agrees with the broad strokes of the plan that Republican leaders outlined Wednesday, but that they didn’t clue him in on the details.

“I don’t feel as though myself or others in the caucus are on the same page as leadership, and especially as it relates to the press conference they had put together today,” Williams said.

Colorado state Rep. Dave Williams, R-Colorado Springs, addresses the House during the first day of Colorado’s 73rd legislative session at the Colorado Capitol in Denver on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

McKean, who said he’s embracing a “fighting tone” at the Capitol this year, said he’s not concerned about Republicans getting sidetracked.

“I’m really not,” he said.

Burton Brown, who leads the Colorado GOP, said the Republican proposals represent an acknowledgement that it’s not enough for her party to “just say the other guy is wrong.”

“That’s not enough for people,” she said.

CORRECTION: This story was updated at 3:11 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 14, 2021, to correct Chris Holbert’s title. He is the Senate minority leader.