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State Rep. Richard Holtorf was still talking when the sun came up. 

It was Friday morning and nearing the end of a 14-hour filibuster in the Colorado House led by the Akron Republican. He and others in the House GOP caucus were protesting two bills sponsored by Democrats — one imposing a three-day waiting period on gun purchases and another letting cities allow overdose prevention centers, also known as safe-use or safe-injection sites.

The measures were always going to pass in the Democratic-majority chamber — and did so about an hour later — but Holtorf and other Republicans droned on anyway, inflicting sleeplessness and monotony on their colleagues.

It’s a scene that may play out repeatedly at the Colorado Capitol during the second half of the legislature’s lawmaking term, threatening to upend Democrats’ policy agenda, much of which has yet to be introduced. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

In the Colorado General Assembly, the legislature’s rules allow the majority party — in this case Democrats — to limit discussion whenever they wish, making every long debate with a predetermined outcome little more than a performance. 

That’s different from Congress, where it’s more difficult to stop a U.S. senator or senators from filibustering the passage of a bill by trying to talk it to death. The Senate has what’s called a cloture rule, which requires 60 votes to end debate on a bill and move to a vote. (The cloture rule doesn’t exist in the Colorado legislature.)

Each legislative session in Colorado is only 120 days, so the delays threaten to eat up the limited calendar — but that’s only if the majority lets it. Democrats have been reluctant to limit debate over the past five years they’ve been in charge at the Capitol out of decorum and to evade GOP criticism.

While Moreno said the Senate Democratic caucus has no plans of limiting debate, House Speaker Julie McCluskie, D-Dillon, declined a Colorado Sun interview request this week regarding whether she is exploring capping how long Republicans can stall lawmaking.

McCluskie sent The Sun a written statement that said “debate is an important part of the democratic process, and we are committed to providing ample time for minority party members to share their perspectives and offer amendments.”

“The rules of the House have long offered the majority tools to ensure respectful debate on legislation,” McCluskie wrote. “We are having conversations with the minority about how to balance robust debate on policy with the very real health and safety impacts of 18-hour overnight floor debates, which, until very recently, were unheard of in this institution.”

Republicans are bracing for debate to be limited.

“They’re getting really close to saying ‘we’re going to use that,’” said House Minority Leader Mike Lynch, a Wellington Republican. 

Lynch said he is in “ongoing conversations” with Democrats about how to prevent them from limiting debate, while still attempting to temper the majority’s policies. The GOP has little recourse to stop Democrats’ agenda other than by debating at length to run out the 120-day clock.

“At the end of the day, what I want is there to be some pull back on this ridiculously progressive agenda,” he said.

House Speaker Julie McCluskie, D-Dillon, on the first day of the 2023 legislative session, Jan. 9, 2023, in Denver. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Lynch said his caucus would “fight that with all we’ve got” if Democrats were to limit debate.“I think that’s an issue that deserves national coverage,” he said. “For a state legislature to be a bully and shut down what tools we’ve got, I think that’s a big deal.”

In the House and Senate, the chamber could limit second-reading debate to as little as an hour through a simple majority vote. 

Moreno said the last time he can remember that happening in the Senate was in 2019, just after Democrats reclaimed a majority in the legislature, and it was used just once during a debate that stretched into the predawn hours on a bill to set greenhouse gas reduction goals in state law. It appears second-reading debate in the House hasn’t been limited in at least more than a decade. 

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a nonpartisan group that tracks policy and procedures at capitols across the country, many states have rules limiting debate. In some states, including Arizona, there are time limits. In other places, such as Indiana, lawmakers may only speak on a set number of occasions. The Alabama Senate has a combination of time and occasion limits. 

Sometimes long statehouse debates in Colorado are used by both parties for political purposes to fire up their voters and show how hard they are willing to fight for an issue. After the Colorado House debated for 24 hours straight last year a measure enshrining abortion access in state law in what was likely among the longest discussions in the General Assembly’s history, both Democrats and Republicans sent out fundraising emails touting the long verbal battle.

But the 24-hour Capitol talk-a-thon happened just once in 2022. House Republicans have threatened to make overnight debate a regular occurrence this year. 

House Majority Leader Monica Duran, the No. 2 Democrat in the House who is responsible for managing the chamber’s calendar, also declined a Colorado Sun interview request. In a written statement she said Democrats are “committed to passing legislation that reduces gun violence in our communities and improves public safety.”

“We continue to have conversations with Republican leadership on how we can have a productive, respectful debate on these measures,” she wrote. 

The House is slated to debate a bill banning the sale and transfer of so-called assault weapons in the coming weeks. It also is scheduled to debate three other gun control measures, as well as bills further guaranteeing abortion access in Colorado. Each piece of legislation could prompt Republicans to delay lawmaking for a day or more. 

Some Democrats in the House see benefit to limiting debate. Rep. Brianna Titone, D-Arvada, said capping second-reading discussion would make debate more substantive. 

“I think that it would be interesting to know what the people outside the building think about all the time we waste on bills,” she said. “If you look at any other state in the country, nobody does what we do here. We just let this stuff go on and on.”

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis delivers his State of the State address to lawmakers assembled in the House of Representatives chamber in the State Capitol Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Rep. Stephanie Vigil, D-Colorado Springs, said she’s concerned filibusters threaten the  legislature’s reputation as an effective form of government.

“If you just pay attention even a little bit to your state legislature, you’ll realize pretty quickly we actually get things done,” she said. “But we’re going to lose that if what’s been happening becomes normal.”

Republicans defend the tactic, saying at times it has forced Democrats to the negotiating table and to make concessions. In 2019, for instance, GOP lawmakers delayed so much that they were able to kill a bill aimed at boosting child immunization rates.

“We are dealing with issues that are critical to the future of the state of Colorado and the people of Colorado,” said Senate Minority Leader Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican. “To discuss them in appropriate style, in appropriate depth, in appropriate breadth takes time. There is a legitimate reason to discuss at length, to ask questions, to seek answers.”

Lundeen says restricting debate would fly in the face of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. 

Holtorf, who would hold the title of chief filibuster officer if there were such a thing, said limiting debate “would be a grave mistake.”

House Minority Leader Mike Lynch listens as the legislative session opens in the Colorado House of Representatives Monday, Jan. 9, 2023, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

“They’re suppressing the rights of the representative government and they’re suppressing the rights of Colorado citizens,” he said.

When a Republican colleague would get tired, Holtorf took over speaking from the lectern on the House floor. 

“I’m going to stop here,” Holtorf abruptly said at about 6 a.m. Friday after getting a signal to cease from Lynch, the chamber’s top Republican.

A voice vote was taken and the bill being debated quickly passed.

The Colorado Sun —

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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.

A Colorado College graduate, Jesse worked at The Denver Post from June 2014 until July 2018, when he joined The Sun. He was also an intern at The Gazette in Colorado Springs and The News Journal in Wilmington, Delaware, his hometown.

Jesse has won awards for long form feature writing, public service reporting, sustained coverage and deadline news reporting.

Email: Twitter: @jesseapaul

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 reporting and photography. Elliott graduated from the University of Arkansas with a degree in editorial journalism and minors in both business and Spanish. She is also an avid rock climber, snowboarder and hiker. Twitter: @ElliottWenzler