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Politics and Government

A Democrat wants Colorado voters to eliminate a Capitol delay tactic the GOP has used many times

House Resolution 1002 would ask voters to remove a provision in the Colorado constitution requiring bills to be read at length upon request, which the Republican minority has turned to many times in recent years

Colorado state representatives stand for a morning prayer as the 2022 legislative session opened Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2022, in the state Capitol in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Colorado Republicans don’t have enough votes to stop legislation at the state Capitol. They haven’t in almost four years. 

So when the GOP wants to try to prevent the Democratic majority from passing a bill, they really have only one tactic: delay. 

The main way Republicans have tried — sometimes successfully — to slow down the lawmaking process and force Democrats to the negotiating table is by taking advantage of a provision in the Colorado constitution that’s as old as the state. It requires that bills be read at length upon request. And there are some very, very long bills that the legislature considers every year. 

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Now, a Democratic state lawmaker, Rep. Mike Weissman of Aurora, wants to remove the provision. He’s introduced House Resolution 1002, which asks the legislature to put a measure on the 2022 ballot that would amend the constitution, arguing that the read-it-at-length clause, aimed at ensuring people understood what the legislature is debating, is no longer needed because lawmakers and the public can access bills in a multitude of ways.

“The requirement for bills to be read at length dates back to our statehood constitution in 1876,” Weissman said. “Back then we didn’t have the options that we have. We didn’t have the internet, we didn’t have the ability to easily make photocopies of bills on paper, we didn’t have the ability to read bills on desktop computers, laptop computers, phones, tablets, watches and other devices.”

Weissman said the provision now serves little purpose beyond being a mechanism to waste the legislature’s precious time.

“We have a time-limited session,” he said. “The constitution limits us to 120 days. And people of Colorado of any political persuasion have a legitimate expectation that we will use that limited time to the utmost efficiency, to see to the problems that are facing our state, and to try to craft solutions to challenges that people are facing.”

State Rep. Mike Weissman, D-Aurora, speaks in the Colorado House on a police accountability bill on June 12, 2020. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Republicans see Weissman’s resolution as a nonstarter, likely meaning that it won’t have the two-thirds support it needs to pass and send the question to voters in November. Several GOP members of the legislature would have to vote for the resolution in order for it to pass.

House Minority Leader Hugh McKean, R-Loveland, said he thinks the constitutional change would be bad for the legislature.

“Sometimes, when the pace of the legislature moves quickly, we ought to slow down and say: ‘Hold on up. What’s in here? What exactly has been done?’” McKean said.

State Sen. Paul Lundeen, R-Monument, sees parallels between Weissman’s resolution and efforts to change the filibuster rules in the U.S. Senate, where Democrats say they need to change the rules to prevent Republicans from blocking legislation while the GOP argues alterations would represent an overreach.

“They are trying to consolidate and become even more powerful by a move of this nature,” he said. “I think there appears to be a hunger coming from national Democrats, and now with this effort from state Democrats, to be ever more powerful and to tamp down the voices of the minority and alternative thoughts.”

He added: “I don’t see how they are going to get two-thirds (support) of two bodies to get to the ballot.”

And fellow Democrats may not be entirely on board with the resolution, either. Some Democrats at the Capitol weren’t keen Monday to discuss the resolution.

State Rep. Shane Sandridge speaks on the House floor during hour six of debate around House Bill 1106 on Monday, March 8, 2021. (Screenshot)

House Speaker Alec Garnett, D-Denver, said: “Mike cares a lot about this institution and thought it was important.”

Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, said the measure won’t be a focus of Democrats at the Capitol this year.

“It doesn’t seem to me like it’s a priority,” he said.

The read-it-at-length provision was deployed as a delay tactic by Republicans in the 2019, 2020 and 2021 legislative sessions. 

But the tactic caused the most disruption in 2019 when the Colorado Senate GOP demanded that a noncontroversial, 2,000-page bill be read in full, gumming up policymaking for hours.

Democrats responded by having the legislation speed-read by multiple computers simultaneously, which sounded like intergalactic chatter and was impossible to discern.

Senate Republicans sued Democrats over how they handled the situation in a case that went all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court, which ruled 4-3 last year the Democrats violated the constitution, suggesting that bills that are read at length must be read in a comprehensible way. The court, however, did not define what a comprehensible reading of a bill would be. 

The 2019 drama in the Senate came amid high tensions between Democrats and Republicans as the majority party worked to pass Senate Bill 181, a measure rewriting Colorado’s oil and gas regulations. Democrats called it a matter of public and environmental health and safety while the GOP said it would kill jobs and fought hard to prevent its passage. 

The delay tactics, when wielded at the right time, can be a powerful tool. Toward the end of the lawmaking term, when the legislature has a long to-do list but little time, delays can threaten to derail bills.

Lundeen pointed out that erasing the read-it-at-length provision could prove to be dangerous to Democrats, who may not always be in the majority at the Capitol. But Weissman said that’s not really a concern.

“I’m thinking about this in a way that’s more fundamental than party or control,” he said. “I’m thinking about it in terms of the basic function, and even dignity, of the institution. And what people of the state, nearly 6 million of them now, have the right to expect from their government.”

Weissman thinks that if a lawmaker wants to oppose a piece of legislation, they should be forced to talk about their opposition. Both the House and Senate allow for unlimited debate on legislation during the second reading of bills, where they get a preliminary vote.

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“I think if a legislator feels strongly enough that the question under debate is deserving of a negative vote or being amended then, yes, I think a legislator should propose an amendment, should raise a debate, should speak at whatever length he or she wants to speak at to lay out the arguments,” he said.  “That’s what policymaking is supposed to be – laying out the arguments.”

Lundeen rejects that argument. 

“When a freight train is racing through a small town, anything that slows that freight train down gives that town a little bit of peace,” he said. 

Even just a small delay can force the majority party to rethink their policy, he said. 

“The old saw is that, ‘the majority gets its way and the minority gets its say,’” Lundeen said.

Colorado Sun staff writer Daniel Ducassi contributed to this report.


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