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Colorado’s 2022 legislative session, marked by unprecedented spending fueled by a strong state budget and billions in federal COVID aid, ended at 11:59 p.m. Wednesday. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

It was looking grim for Democrats in the Colorado legislature Monday. 

There were hundreds of bills left on the calendar, and Republicans in the Colorado House had ground lawmaking to a halt.

Priority measures funding schools, changing Colorado’s unemployment system, increasing penalties for fentanyl users and dealers, and spending millions of dollars in federal coronavirus aid were caught in gridlock as headache-inducing as a Saturday morning on Interstate 70 during ski season. Dozens of measures were at risk of dying as the clock ran down.

But after the House worked for about 20 hours straight until 6:30 a.m. Tuesday — and Democrats made some policy concessions — the legislative traffic started moving again. 

“In the end,” said Senate President Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat, “we’ll get done everything that we need to get done.”

Colorado’s 2022 lawmaking term, which was marked by unprecedented spending fueled by a strong state budget and billions in federal COVID aid, ended late Wednesday as most legislative sessions do: with some bills falling short of the passage but most of the big-ticket items being approved, albeit after being pared back.

“There’s always some bills that die at the very end of session,” Fenberg said, “but, overall, we got all of our priorities across the finish line.”

The legislation altering the unemployment system passed. So did the bills spending federal COVID aid dollars, financing schools and addressing the fentanyl crisis.

The fentanyl measure, House Bill 1326, passed after a dramatic, last-minute deal was made. The legislation was teetering over a disagreement about whether prosecutors should have to prove that people who possess the drug for personal use knew that they were in possession of the powerful opioid to be convicted of a felony offense. 

The most notable measure to fall short in the final days was Senate Bill 138, climate change legislation that would have enacted new emissions reductions deadlines and aimed to increase renewable energy and carbon sequestration in Colorado. The bill was sidelined in exchange for Republicans in the House agreeing to back off their filibuster. 

Senate Bill 230, an attempt to extend collective bargaining rights to more than 250,000 public sector workers, was scaled back to allow fewer than 38,000 county employees to collectively bargain but not strike. Counties with populations of less than 7,500 people would now be excluded from the measure under a set of amendments adopted in the final days of the lawmaking term, in part to appease the GOP.

The legislation was one of the last bills to pass.

Jaima Mellor-Lindquist, Senate Services Clerk, helps Ted Abad (not pictured) prepare burgers on May 11, 2022, on the last day of the legislative session at the Colorado Capitol. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

“I think there were some good-faith concessions on the part of the Democrats,” said state Rep. Dave Williams, a Colorado Springs Republican who helped lead the House GOP’s long delay. “We were willing to go ahead and go back to regular order.”

For several hours late Monday it appeared Republicans would try to filibuster through the end of the session Wednesday by asking for bills to be read at length, offering amendments with no chance of passing and speaking in opposition to measures for long stretches. There was even briefly talk of a special legislative session being called to pass any bills that died on the calendar.

But when state representatives emerged Tuesday morning from their marathon overnight work session, the urge to fight had mostly passed. Members of the House returned to their desks ready to move forward.

From left: State Rep. Jennifer Bacon, D-Denver, state Sen. Chris Kolker, D-Centennial, and state Rep. David Ortiz, D-Littleton, chat in the Colorado House on Wednesday, May 11, 2022. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Assistant House Majority Leader Serena Gonzales Gutierrez, D-Denver, said Wednesday that she never got too worried on Monday night or Tuesday morning.

“I just had faith that we would be able to get through it,” she said. “I know that there was quite a bit on the calendar, but everybody was working really hard … to come to some resolution and be able to move things through.

Notable bills that passed on Wednesday include:

  • Senate Bill 180, which allocates $28 million, most of it to RTD, so that Coloradans can get free bus and train rides in the summer of 2022 and the summer of 2023. The aim of the legislation is to encourage people to try out transit in the hopes that they will form a habit. The bill also includes $30 million to help the Colorado Department of Transportation further develop its transit system.
  • Senate Bill 230, which would let county employees in counties with populations of less than 7,500 people (except for Denver and Broomfield) collectively bargain, but not strike.
  • House Bill 1029, which allocates $380 million to the Public Employees’ Retirement Association, including $225 million to cover a payment to PERA that was skipped in 2020 as COVID arrived in Colorado, as well as $155 million to prepay money the legislature owes PERA in future years.
  • House Bill 1244, which aims to reduce toxic air pollutants, including by creating a new program in the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to regulate them.
  • House Bill 1314, which is aimed at making towing companies more accountable, including by requiring that they take photos of a vehicle they are about to tow and document the reason why they are towing it. It would also let the owner of a towed vehicle retrieve the vehicle without payment after the owner signs documents affirming they owe the towing company money.
  • House Bill 1326, which increases penalties for fentanyl users and dealers and allocated tens of millions of dollars to address the fentanyl overdose crisis.
  • House Bill 1355, which would charge manufacturers of packaged goods a fee that would go toward creating a statewide recycling program. It was amended to give the legislature more oversight over the program.

The Senate adjourned sine die at 10:54 p.m. The House adjourned at 11:37 p.m.

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 newsletter and also occasionally fills in on breaking news coverage....

Shannon Najmabadi covered rural affairs and the rural economy for The Colorado Sun from 2021-2023.