In 1988, Colorado voters set a 120-day limit on the annual state legislative session. Thirty-five years later, today’s legislators are still scrambling to meet that deadline.
Anyone who has been at the Capitol lately knows the current level of chaos. As of writing this column, hundreds of bills remain stacked up, waiting for their turn at being heard. While some of the issues the bills tackle are minor enough to scoot through the door last minute, many raise concerns far too important to be fast-tracked. Yet with mere days left on the clock, state legislators have no choice but to try to do just that.
Among the issues that will be navigated in the final hours are Senate Bill 213 on housing and land use, Senate Bill 295 on water and drought studies along the Colorado River, House Bill 1171 regarding a ban on lease terminations and evictions without “just cause” and dozens of other vital matters that impact Coloradans heavily on a daily basis. Despite attempts by legislators to manage them all, per usual, many of the bills will simply die.
This isn’t the first time Colorado’s lawmakers have faced tough deadlines. Last year, hundreds of bills were also still left on the table when Republicans began stall tactics at the end of the session in attempts to run out the clock. Democrats pushed on despite the gridlock, ultimately securing several more big wins in the final moments.
In 2020, a similar situation unfolded when the new coronavirus forced an unexpected legislative pause. This again led to Republicans employing stall tactics and even filing a lawsuit claiming Democrats had violated the 120-day rule. The Colorado Supreme Court upheld the pause as constitutional, but not before much additional chaos had already been introduced into an already tough session. Again, Democrats pushed forward.
The seeming uptick of end-of-session pile-ups appears to be pushing some legislators to openly consider alternative options to the bill-cramming frenzy as of late. In the midst of 2020, Democratic Sens. Julie Gonzales and Chris Hansen both expressed frustrations during a hearing that a full-time state legislature would be an asset to solving the problems at hand without having to delay the matter another year. Republican Sen. Paul Lundeen quickly shot the notion down, making clear where the political right is likely to stand.
But Gonzales and Hansen aren’t alone in wondering if a full-time legislature might improve policy conditions, and Colorado wouldn’t be the first state to pursue this route. According to Ballotpedia, 10 states have already created a full-time equivalent, and the population of Colorado is already larger than or as large as three of the states, including more right-leaning states Alaska and Wisconsin.
Digging a little deeper, the definitions of full-time versus part-time legislatures are key to considering legislative models. As defined by the National Conference of State Legislatures, full-time legislatures have members that spend an average of 84% of their time on the job and who earn an average compensation of just over $82,000 annually. Full-time legislative bodies also average more than 1,200 staffers.
In contrast, part-time legislatures, such as in Colorado, were found to hold averages of 74% time on the job for legislators, a number not too far off from their full-time counterparts. The difference, however, was that the average salaries for part-timers hover around almost half at $41,000 annually, and the body at large only holds an average of 469 staffers.
At least in Colorado, many legislators have openly lamented how high demands on time during each session make the modest salary of about $40,000 untenable for most working people — especially when accepting other consistent works feels next to impossible due to year-round committees, campaigns and constituent events.
Add to the mix that many of the 120 days in Colorado run into the wee hours of the morning or into the weekends in part to maximize the constitutional time limit, and it’s easy to see why some legislators are beginning to question if there are alternative models worth considering.
Whether discussions to seriously consider moving the state legislature toward full-time will pick up is unknown, but regardless of how such conversations may take place, they should always be rooted in the reminder that fear of change alone is not a sufficient argument to oppose a full-time legislature. After all, our current 120-day limit was in and of itself a change at one point in time.
In fact, as a state, our legislature has seen multiple changes to convening schedules. When Colorado first gained statehood in 1876, new legislators met only every two years. As the state grew and issues became more complex, this structure was amended to the current annual sessions in 1950. That structure was once again updated in 1982, and again in 1988 when 52.3% of voters limited each annual session to 120 days.
In the 35 years since the 1988 vote, much has changed in Colorado. Our population has almost doubled. The challenges of climate change are threatening most of our existing infrastructure. A global pandemic instantly upended everything. New technologies have advanced the pace of change. In this context, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that conversations to update our government structure once again might be warranted.
Of course, any decision to extend Colorado’s legislative days or go full-time is significant and should not be taken lightly. There would be potential concerns that robust debates with thoughtful minds would help to flesh out. Perhaps there are even other solutions we could consider.
But as the mountain of important bills at the end of multiple recent sessions suggests, constantly kicking the can down the road won’t work indefinitely. Worse, it’s likely slowing down the pace of progress in Colorado.
So in the spirit of keeping an open mind and problem-solving, perhaps discussions to extend our legislative sessions are worth undertaking as Gonzales and Hansen suggested a few years ago. As the saying goes, nothing is constant except for change.
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