Credibility:

  • Original Reporting
  • Sources Cited
  • Subject Specialist
Original Reporting This article contains new, firsthand information uncovered by its reporter(s). This includes directly interviewing sources and research / analysis of primary source documents.
Sources Cited As a news piece, this article cites verifiable, third-party sources which have all been thoroughly fact-checked and deemed credible by the Newsroom in accordance with the Civil Constitution.
Subject Specialist This Newsmaker has been deemed by this Newsroom as having a specialized knowledge of the subject covered in this article.
Lawmakers meet in the Colorado House of Representatives on May 1, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

The 2023 legislative session in Colorado begins Monday with Democrats firmly in control of both the House and Senate. 

While state lawmakers are still working on the fine print of their policy proposals, there are new dynamics at play at the Capitol that will define how the session unfolds. Here’s what they are:


120 days

The Colorado legislature’s lawmaking term is constitutionally limited to 120 days. So when the Colorado General Assembly convenes Monday, they will be working under a deadline of Monday, May 8. 

A former state lawmaker used to say that once the 120 days are up, the carriage that is the legislature turns back into a pumpkin, a la the Cinderella story. 

Much of the action will take place in the latter half of the session after lawmakers spend the first several weeks of the term finalizing their policy plans. That will be especially true given the large number of legislators new to the Capitol.

The Unaffiliated is our twice-weekly newsletter on Colorado politics and policy.

Each edition is filled with exclusive news, analysis and other behind-the-scenes information you won’t find anywhere else. Subscribe today to see what all the buzz is about.

“Session always has a little bit of a slow start,” said Senate President Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat.

Here are some key dates to watch:

  • March 9: The 60th day of the 2023 lawmaking term, the halfway point in the session.
  • March 27: Introduction of the fiscal year 2023-24 state budget in the Senate. The budget will start affecting the state July 1.
  • April 14: Final passage of the budget.
  • April 19: Final passage of the school finance act, which funds K-12 education.

And here are some important links to bookmark:

32 (at least) brand new lawmakers

Of the 100 lawmakers who make up the Colorado General Assembly, 42 will be new to their chamber when they are sworn in Monday, including 32 who have never served in the legislature.

The 65-member House is where the majority of the Capitol newcomers will be. Nearly half of the chamber, or 30 representatives, are new to the legislature. 

Only one newcomer to the House, state Sen. Tammy Story, a Conifer Democrat who was elected to a House seat in November, has experience in the legislature. Story ran for the House after her Senate district became heavily Republican last year during the once-in-a-decade redistricting process

Here’s a closer look at the numbers:

  • Of the new 31 House members, 19 are Democrats, joining the 27 Democrats returning to the chamber. Twelve of the new state representatives are Republicans, joining seven returning GOP House members.
  • There will be 11 new senators out of the chamber’s 35 total members, six Democrats and five Republicans. Nine of the new senators served previously in the House, so they have an idea of what they’re getting into. Democratic Sen.-elect Janice Marchman, of Loveland, who defeated incumbent Republican Rob Woodward, and Sen.-elect Byron Pelton, a Sterling Republican, are the only new senators who haven’t served in the legislature before.

One of the new House members who will also be new to the legislature is Democrat Lorena Garcia, a community organizer, who was selected Tuesday by a vacancy committee to fill the seat of state Rep. Adrienne Benavidez, an Adams County Democrat who announced last month that she was resigning from the legislature. 

When she is sworn in Monday, Garcia will be the 42nd lawmaker new to their chamber and the 32nd who hasn’t served in the legislature before. 

Additionally, a vacancy replacement for Sen. Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican who also announced his resignation last month, will be selected Saturday. His seat is likely to be filled by state Rep. Perry Will, a New Castle Republican who lost his House reelection bid in November. He would be the 43rd lawmaker new to their chamber, though he has served in the legislature before.

Leadership at the Capitol warned that with so many new lawmakers it may take a few months before their policy ideas are ready to be put to paper and introduced as bills.

“There’s a learning curve,” said Fenberg, the Senate president.

Colorado Senate President Steve Fenberg, gives a speech, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022, at the Art Hotel in Denver. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Incoming House Majority Leader Monica Duran, a Wheat Ridge Democrat, said she has been encouraging new members in her caucus to work with interest groups on their legislation. Each lawmaker is supposed to be limited to five bills. 

“It’s better to get it right,” she said, “and if that takes more time, if that takes (more time) in order to get it done right, that’s what you do.”

Some other key stats on the legislature in 2023:

  • Women will make up a majority of Colorado’s state lawmakers, at 51 of 100. There will be 39 House members who are women and a dozen senators who are women. Colorado trails only Nevada in the number of women in its legislature.
  • Republicans doubled the number of GOP women in the state Senate — to two — with the election of state Rep. Janice Rich, of Grand Junction.
  • The number of Republican women in the House remains at six, although only two of them — Reps. Stephanie Luck of Penrose and Mary Bradfield of Colorado Springs — are returning members.

46-19 and 23-12

Those aren’t college bowl game scores. They’re what the Democratic margins in the state House and Senate will be when the 2023 lawmaking term begins. 

That 46-19 Democratic majority in the state House is five seats larger than the 41-24 majority Democrats have had over the past two years. The margin is so big Democrats will have a supermajority in the chamber, meaning they can override Gov. Jared Polis’ vetoes, refer constitutional changes to voters and call a special legislative session, all three of which require the support of two-thirds of the chamber. 

The Senate Democrats’ majority, at 23-12, is one vote short of a supermajority. However, it is two votes larger than the 21-14 edge Democrats have had over the past two years. The majority was padded by the August decision of Sen. Kevin Priola, of Henderson, to switch his party affiliation to Democrat from Republican.

Democrats were bracing for a 2022 election cycle in which they would lose ground in the legislature. Instead, the party picked up more sustained power in Colorado than they’ve ever had, winning in Republican-leaning districts and defending their hold on competitive seats.

While there are obvious benefits to having larger majorities, there are also challenges for Democrats. The Senate and House Democratic caucus include members with a wide variety of beliefs, including moderates and some who describe themselves as Democratic socialists. There could be intraparty conflicts at times.

The political split also leaves the GOP with few options to try to influence the legislative process. 

Door to the Colorado Senate with lawmakers standing by it
The entrance to the Colorado Senate chamber is pictured in the Colorado State Capitol during the first day of Colorado’s special legislative session on Monday, Nov. 30, 2020. (Photo by Andy Colwell, special to The Colorado Sun)

Republicans can either work with Democrats to have their voices heard, or they can use their bully pulpit to try to convince Coloradans that what the majority party is doing is bad. 

GOP members in the House have already signaled that they plan to go the bully pulpit route by using stall tactics to try to slow down the Democratic agenda. If legislation hasn’t been passed by May 8, it dies on the calendar. In recent years, Republicans have been successful at shaping some legislation by filibustering

House Minority Whip Richard Holtorf, an Akron Republican, said just after the November election that he feels like he’s a member of the 300 Spartans who had to fend off a much larger contingent of the Persian army in the Battle of Thermopylae fought in 480 BC.

“I’m a filibuster champion,” Holtorf said, “and I will bring those tools to this mighty small team. And you will watch something that you’ve never seen before in this gold dome. And the Democrats will grow weary and tired of what I bring to bear. But that’s OK. Let them be tired and let the bad bills die on the calendar.”

2027

It will be four years before Republicans realistically have a chance to wrest control of government from Democrats given how large Democrats’ majorities are in the House and Senate. 

Yes, there is an election in 2024 in which all House members will have to run for another term and half of the Senate will be up for grabs, but Republican and Democratic leaders acknowledge the math means Republicans are likely to remain in the minority through at least another election cycle.

☀ READ MORE

Additionally, all four state-level statewide offices — governor, attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer — will be held by Democrats until 2027. 

Democrats know they have four years to get their agenda done, and they say they intend to take their time in crafting bills.

“We do, in some ways, have the luxury of making sure we get it right,” Fenberg said. “We have large majorities. We have 120 days (each legislative session). Some of this stuff is going to be much better off if we give it time to marinate and to work with everybody that is going to be impacted rather than getting it ready for day one just so it can be ready for a speech.”

Republicans, meanwhile, say the political realities at the Capitol mean they, too, have a role. 

“Republicans have a responsibility to be that loyal opposition,” said Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, a Brighton Republican and state budget writer. “It’s not that we are going to oppose everything the governor wants to have done.”

Kirkmeyer said the GOP must push over the next four years for transparency and accountability. 

“(Democrats) shouldn’t be able to just slide things through,” she said. “Obviously they have the numbers, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have to be accountable and don’t have to explain what they are doing to the people of the state of Colorado.”

$1.3 billion

Last but not least, this is probably the most important number that will define the 2023 lawmaking term in Colorado. 

The legislature is expected to have about $1.3 billion more in discretionary money to spend this year compared to last, according to nonpartisan legislative staff, but almost all of that is going to be eaten up by preexisting spending plans, inflation affecting the cost of governing and the governor’s budget requests, assuming the legislature honors those. 

When all is said and done, there may be limited — if any — money left for the legislature to spend on its bills.

The Unaffiliated is our twice-weekly newsletter on Colorado politics and policy.

Each edition is filled with exclusive news, analysis and other behind-the-scenes information you won’t find anywhere else. Subscribe today to see what all the buzz is about.

The state is actually projected to collect much more than an additional $1.3 billion in tax revenues over last year, but the legislature is limited in how much it can spend because of the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. TABOR constrains government growth and spending to the rate of increase each year of inflation and population growth, and the state must refund any money it collects over that cap. 

There’s also another factor limiting how much money the legislature has to spend this year: The inflation rate used to determine the TABOR cap comes from the previous calendar year, or six months before the start of each fiscal year. 

So for the 2022-23 fiscal year that began July 1 and ends June 30, the federal consumer price index inflation rate in the Denver-Aurora-Lakewood area used to calculate the TABOR cap was the 2021 rate of 3.5% and a 0.9% rate of population growth. By the end of May 2022, when last year’s legislative session ended, however, the inflation rate in the Denver metro area had shot up to 8.3%, sharply increasing the cost of governing and of state construction projects.

But the TABOR cap set using the 3.5% 2021 inflation rate didn’t budge.

For the 2023-24 fiscal year, which the legislature is budgeting for now and starts July 1, the inflation rate used to calculate the TABOR cap is expected to be the 2022 inflation rate of about 8%. But since the 2022-23 fiscal year cap didn’t account for actual 2022 inflation rates, the legislature is still facing a compounded financial pinch

Simply put: The cost of governing has risen but the TABOR cap doesn’t necessarily reflect that. And the legislature doesn’t have billions in federal COVID-19 stimulus to spend this year, either, as it had during the past two sessions.

The Colorado State Capitol through the Ralph L. Carr Colorado Judicial Center on Tuesday, July 20, 2021, in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

“The money is there, we just can’t keep it,” said Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat and chair of the legislature’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, which drafts the budget. “We don’t have a lot of extra money this year and no federal dollars to be able to put toward priorities. We really just need to take care of the basics and figure out: What are the pain points in Colorado?”

Although Colorado’s economy is at the moment faring well, the state legislature is preparing for the possibility of a recession. If an economic downturn happens, all budget bets are off.

“We aren’t feeling it yet,” she said. “We all know it’s coming.”

Zenzinger said she is inclined to make sure the state’s reserves are in good shape to prepare for a possible recession. 

“We need to be diligent about maintaining that reserve and not doing any massive increases in spending,” she said.

Sen. Rachel Zenzinger speaks on June 11, 2021 before Gov. Jared Polis signs Senate Bill 268 at the Boettcher Mansion in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

The governor’s budget request calls for reserving 15% of the state’s general fund for a rainy day fund. 

Kirkmeyer, who also sits on the JBC, worried “that we’ll be overextended and overcommit.”

But even with a limited pool of money, Democrats have ambitious — and likely expensive — policy plans for 2023, including boosting clean energy, driving down the cost of living, offering more affordable housing options, improving the state’s education system and training more people to fill gaps in the workforce.

Duran, the majority leader, said lawmakers will have to be keenly aware this year of what their policy proposals cost.

“There’s a lot of policies I think that will be coming that don’t have a large fiscal (impact) on them,” Duran said. 

Sandra Fish

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @fishnette

Elliott Wenzler

Elliott Wenzler is a reporter for the Colorado Sun, covering local politics, the state legislature and other topics. She also assists with The Unaffiliated newsletter. Previously, she was a community reporter in Douglas County for Colorado Community Media. She has won awards for her...

Jesse Paul

The Colorado Sun — jesse@coloradosun.com Desk: 720-432-2229 Jesse Paul is a political reporter and editor at The Colorado Sun, covering the state legislature, Congress and local politics. He is...