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Democrats in the Colorado legislature are facing the prospect that dozens of bills could die on the calendar when the 2022 lawmaking term adjourns Wednesday night as Republicans in the state House deploy stall tactics in an attempt to run out the clock. 

State representatives were still at their desks on the House floor when the sun came up on Tuesday morning after debating legislation for nearly 24-hours straight.

The daunting situation came into view through bleary eyes: Democrats could try to work nonstop until 11:59:59 p.m. on Wednesday and jam in as much work as possible and still end with a long to-do list if the GOP doesn’t back down. 

State Rep. Chris Kennedy, D-Lakewood, said Republicans, who are in the minority in the House and Senate, are “using the only tool they have, which is obstruction.”

Bills stuck in the long queue include many that are bipartisan and uncontroversial, including measures that would change Colorado’s unemployment system, increase penalties for fentanyl users and dealers, and spend millions of dollars in federal coronavirus aid, including as part of efforts to address climate change. The federal money must be spent by a specific deadline, adding pressure to the backlog.

Additionally, House Bill 1390, the School Finance Act, still needs one more vote in the House. The measure, which funds K-12 education in Colorado, is something lawmakers are constitutionally required to pass.

One-hundred ninety nine bills — or roughly 20% of all the bills introduced at the Capitol this year — were still pending in the legislature as of Tuesday morning, according to nonpartisan staff.

Senate Majority Leader Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, said the thought of the School Finance Act languishing gives him a panic attack. “Our fate is with them,” he said of the House.

Some are frustrated that the end of the 2022 legislative session, which is already typically filled with anxiety and tension, is unfolding the way it is. The General Assembly spent the first three months of its 120-day term with a mostly light workload. Then the Democratic majority in the House decided not to work over the weekend despite the chamber’s jam-packed calendar and the ticking clock. 

Kennedy says he now wishes the House worked later in to the night on Friday or came in on Saturday to debate more legislation.

Then, on Monday, House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar, a Pueblo Democrat, was participating remotely. She is typically in charge of managing the calendar and negotiating with Republicans to keep work moving. 

Huddled in a tiny room in the Capitol late Monday trying, House Republicans were debating their next move and how to wield their power. The caucus was split between trying to win concessions from Democrats and continuing their filibuster through Wednesday night to see how much legislation they could snuff out.

Colorado House Republicans hold a caucus meeting on Monday, May 9, 2022, to discuss how to wield their power over the legislature’s calendar. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

“I might suggest that we look at this from the day and the week after,” state Rep. Ron Hanks, R-Fremont County, told his caucus. “How much could we have killed and how much could we tell the entire state ‘We left 50 bills on the table because we fought this’? I just want to say this: If anybody wants to fight, I will make myself available.”

House Minority Leader Hugh McKean, R-Loveland, said he would keep negotiating but that he wanted Democrats to be willing to give up more in exchange for the stall tactics to stop. Small changes to legislation Republicans find objectionable, he signaled, will not be enough.

“We’re just getting to order off the kids’ menu,” he said. “It’d be nice to know that we can actually get into some of the entrées.”

Democrats agreed to make some changes to their bills early Tuesday — including an amendment to a measure aimed at preventing insider threats to election security — but it was unclear if they were enough to break the logjam. 

State Rep. Dave Williams, R-Colorado Springs, said the changes led to “more of a ceasefire” for a period of time.

House Speaker Alec Garnett, D-Denver, said “this should be worked out.”

When the House resumed floor work at about 11 a.m. on Tuesday, Republicans had resumed asking for bills to be read at length to slow down the legislative process.

In a moment of schadenfreude Monday night, the Colorado Senate, where legislation has been moving at a normal pace, couldn’t help but laugh at the situation unfolding in the House.

Colorado Senate President Steve Fenberg jokingly read a fake, one-word message from the lower chamber: “Help!

Despite the jest, Fenberg — who also said that his “thoughts and prayers are with” the House — said he realizes the situation in the House poses a real threat to the Democrats’ agenda. Democrats could push for a special legislative session to be called if enough priority bills die on the calendar, he said.

“If there are a significant amount of big priority bills that don’t get across the finish line, I think that would be a very reasonable thing to start discussing,” he said. “I just don’t think we’re there yet.”

Fenberg added: “We’re not going to allow the ‘Lord of the Flies’ caucus (House Republicans) to keep us from passing a couple of incredibly important bills for Coloradans.”

This is a developing story that will be updated.

The Colorado Sun — Desk: 720-432-2229 Jesse Paul is a Denver-based political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is the author of The Unaffiliated...

Shannon Najmabadi covered rural affairs and the rural economy for The Colorado Sun from 2021-2023. Email: Twitter: @ShannonNajma