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The interior of the Colorado Capitol on March 23, 2023 in Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Each legislative session in Colorado is defined by big moments. 

This year, a lot of them happened in the House, where a Democratic supermajority often clashed with not only their Republican counterparts but also sometimes itself. 

Here are the major events under the gold dome in 2023 that shaped the 120-day lawmaking term, which ended Monday:

Tracey Bernett’s resignation

Rep. Tracey Bernett, D-Boulder County, announced her resignation the night before the lawmaking term began as she faced criminal charges for lying about where she lived to run for reelection last year in a more politically favorable district. 

Bernett’s resignation ended the woman-majority in the Capitol, as a vacancy committee replaced her with Kyle Brown, a Louisville city councilman. Bernett’s resignation and Brown’s appointment left 50 men and 50 women in the legislature. 

Brown’s appointment also meant that about a quarter of the legislature this year had at some point been appointed to a Capitol position by a vacancy committee.

Bernett, meanwhile, eventually pleaded guilty in the case. 

Colorado Springs Republican Rep. Scott Bottoms addresses the Colorado House Monday, Jan. 9, 2023.
Freshman Colorado Springs Republican Rep. Scott Bottoms addresses the Colorado House Monday, Jan. 9, 2023, after his surprise nomination to be speaker. (Colorado Sun file) Hugh Carey

Scott Bottoms nominates himself to be speaker

On the first day of the 2023 session, Jan. 9, first-year Rep. Scott Bottoms, R-Colorado Springs, was nominated by Rep. Ken DeGraaf, also a Colorado Springs Republican, to be speaker of the House. 

“We’re not going to have power this session, we understand that, but we do have principles,” Bottoms said in a speech aimed at securing support for his speaker bid. “God created life … he created male and female, he created them at conception. We also stand for the Second Amendment in all circumstances.”

It was a departure from the norm. Often the chamber unanimously backs a leader from the majority party, in this case Democrats, in a sign of cooperation and a nod to decorum. 

Bottoms’ move, while unsuccessful, set the tone for the entire year at the Capitol, as he and DeGraaf frequently delayed work in the chamber by speaking for long stretches in protest of Democrats’ agenda, sometimes making controversial remarks

Fire alarm interrupts roll out of Democrats’ gun bills

On Feb. 23, a fire alarm interrupted a news conference at the Capitol during which Democrats announced they were pursuing four bills regulating guns. The alarm stopped the event and forced lawmakers, staffers and journalists into the February cold. Rumors and speculation swirled that an alarm had been pulled to throw off the announcement. 

The Colorado State Patrol later said there had been a technical malfunction and that the alarm was not intentionally triggered.

Those four bills passed and were signed into law. The legislation raised the age limit to buy any guns in Colorado to 21, imposed a three-day waiting period for firearm purchases, expanded the state’s red flag law, and made it easier for people to sue the gun industry. 

Colorado State Rep. Brianna Titone makes a point before Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signs legislation that forces manufacturers to provide the necessary manuals, tools, parts and even software to farmers so they can fix their own machines Tuesday, April 25, 2023, during a ceremony outside the State Capitol in downtown Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

“I do exist”

On March 3, Rep. Brianna Titone, an Arvada Democrat and the state’s first transgender lawmaker, made an impassioned speech on the House floor directed at her Republican colleagues.

“Whether you like it or not, I am your colleague. Whether you believe me or people like me should exist, I do exist. And I am your equal in this chamber. I accomplished the same thing you did to be here,” she said.

The speech came a day after GOP members tried to add language Democrats said attacked trans people into a resolution about the still-unratified federal Equal Rights Amendment.  

“If we want to talk about the Equal Rights Act for women, then let’s be careful how we try to redefine what a woman is biologically, genetically and chromosomally,” said Rep. Richard Holtorf, R-Akron.

Bottoms, referencing chromosomes, said: “There is such a thing as XX and XY and no matter how much you lie to yourself and change it — and frame it in any way whatsoever — there is XX and XY.”

Titone said she felt “disrespected and diminished” by their comments.

“My existence is not up for debate,” she said while her Democratic colleagues stood behind her. “It’s not something you can disagree away and I will not let anyone in this chamber or outside this chamber bully or intimidate me out of my existence.”

A Colorado House all-nighter

The House worked overnight from March 9 into March 10 as Republicans filibustered a measure imposing a three-day waiting period on gun purchases in Colorado. While there are typically a few overnight debates in any given legislative session, they traditionally happen at the end of a lawmaking term, not in the first half, as this one did. 

The situation sparked conversations among Democrats about using the legislature’s rules to limit debate, which happened a few weeks later.

House Democrats limit debate

On March 25, a Saturday, Democrats in the House used Rule 14 to limit debate in the chamber for the first time in at least a decade. 

The next day, Bottoms delivered a speech on the House floor in which he called Democrats fascist. “You don’t like what you hear so you shut down the debate and the discussion. All the majority party had to do was sit and listen,” he said. “But you can’t do that, because listening to God, truth, righteousness and freedom actually hurts the souls of those who are not in favor of those mentalities. It doesn’t hurt their ears. It hurts their souls.” 

On March 27, House Speaker Julie McCluskie, D-Dillon, vowed on the House floor to “not allow this to occur again on my watch.” She called Bottoms’ remarks “inappropriate and unbecoming” and said she regretted granting him a “moment of personal privilege” to speak. It was a big test for McCluskie, a first-year speaker.

Rep. Julie McCluskie, a Dillon Democrat, is nominated for House speaker, Jan. 9, 2023, in Denver. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Democrats went on to use Rule 14 more than a dozen times, according to Rep. Anthony Hartsook, R-Parker, citing data tracked by the House GOP caucus. 

McCluskie, speaking to reporters Tuesday at a post-session news conference, defended the decision to limit debate. 

“We began to recognize what was happening in our chamber was no longer respectful and productive,” she said. “Filibustering and delay tactics, by having bills read at length, is not why we were voted into office. We were voted into office to consider and debate policy. At the time we invoked House Rule 14, we wanted to drive more productive conversations.”

McCluskie said invoking Rule 14 led to more meaningful debate.

Bill banning sale of so-called assault weapons fails

In the early morning hours of April 20, on the anniversary of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre, the Democratic-controlled House Judiciary Committee voted down a measure that would have banned the sale of so-called assault weapons in Colorado

Democrats on the panel also blocked amendments that would have limited the measure to a much narrower prohibition on devices that make semi-automatic weapons fire at a rate similar to automatic firearms. 

Three variations of the AR-15 assault rifle are displayed at the California Department of Justice in Sacramento, Calif., on Aug. 15, 2012. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File)

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Elisabeth Epps, a Democrat from Denver, blamed her party’s leadership in the House for the measure’s failure. “It’s just hard to look at the math and know that we have so many more than 33 votes in this House of Representatives and to not be assigned to a committee where we could get to the floor with the bill intact,” she said.

It was unclear, however, whether the bill had enough votes to pass the legislature even if it had advanced out of the Judiciary Committee. 

While the bill’s failure wasn’t the first major loss for progressives at the Capitol — a fair workweek measure killed in early March was — it was the first piece of rejected legislation in a big week of General Assembly disappointments for the more liberal wing of the Democratic party.

Republicans appeared to have a chance to kill TABOR measure

House Bill 1311, a measure making Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights refunds next year a flat-rate amount rather than to tied to income levels, nearly died on the vine Sunday night in the Colorado Senate.

The measure passed at about 11 p.m., after Republicans in the chamber backed off a quickly formed plan to stop the legislation from advancing on second reading before midnight. If the bill hadn’t passed on second reading Sunday, there wouldn’t have been enough time for the measure to clear the legislature before the end of the 120-day lawmaking term Monday. (It takes three calendar days to pass a bill in the legislature. The measure was introduced Saturday.)

The Senate GOP caucus huddled in the corner of the chamber at about 10:30 p.m. and gamed out their options. All they had to do was delay for a little more than an hour to kill the measure. And Democrats could only limit debate to an hour under the rules.

“We’re playing a chess match,” Senate Minority Leader Paul Lundeen, R-Monument, told his 11 Republican Senate colleagues. “It’s a race to the clock.”

A lone person walks the stairs in the rotunda of the State Capitol, Monday, May 8, 2023, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Lundeen had a brief, tense exchange with Senate President Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, shortly thereafter. Fenberg was visibly angry and used profanity. Then the chamber gaveled back in and Senate Majority Leader Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, started to make a motion to limit debate (for the first time in the Senate in years), at which point Lundeen flagged down the chamber’s leadership and the group hurried off the floor for a meeting.

A few minutes later, leadership reemerged from a side room and Fenberg angrily gaveled back in. House Bill 1311 passed in about 20 minutes.

Lundeen and Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, said Tuesday that Republicans determined they couldn’t prevent the bill from passing by midnight.

“You can make everybody’s life very difficult,” Gardner said, “or you can all have a discussion in a civil way.”

If House Bill 1311 had failed, the governor likely would have called lawmakers back for a special session to pass the measure. Additionally, Republicans will be in the Senate minority at least through the 2026 legislative session. Any fracture in the otherwise cordial GOP-Democratic relationship in the chamber could be lasting.

Students from East High School and West High School call for gun control measures to be considered by state lawmakers Thursday, March 23, 2023, during a rally outside the State Capitol in Denver. A shooting left two administrators injured at East High School on Wednesday, one of a series of gun-related events at the school in the past six weeks. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Other big moments at the Capitol this year you should know about

  • In early March, East High School students descended upon the Capitol to demand action on gun violence after 16-year-old Luis Garcia was fatally shot near campus. The students returned to the Capitol after two deans were shot at the school by a student a few weeks later. The teens confronted lawmakers and even spoke with Gov. Jared Polis.
  • The Colorado Senate on March 13 rejected a bill aimed at preventing horses from being slaughtered for human consumption. The measure was voted down after the sponsor, Sen. Sonya Jaquez Lewis, D-Boulder County, tried to reverse a deal on the legislation cut in committee. The moment highlighted fissures among Democrats in the Senate and sowed a level of distrust in the caucus for the rest of the lawmaking term.
  • Senate Bill 213, the major land-use bill heralded by Polis as a way to solve Colorado’s affordable housing crisis, was dramatically pared back in its first committee hearing in the Senate. The bill was then gutted in its next committee, only to be partially resurrected in the House. In the end, the bill died on the calendar in the Senate.
  • House Republicans walked out of the chamber Monday night during final debate on a property-tax relief bill in protest of Democrats pushing through two major tax policies in the final days of the lawmaking term and limiting debate on the measure in the process. McCluskie said she was disappointed in the GOP’s decision. “We are hired to do one specific thing in this General Assembly, and that is to cast a vote,” she told reporters Tuesday. Rep. Matt Soper, a Delta Republican, said Tuesday in a briefing with reporters that “when you’re silenced, you don’t have a voice.”
  • On Monday evening, as the House wrapped up its work, Democrats gathered for an informal caucus meeting to plan out the rest of the night. During the gathering, Epps confronted McCluskie about her leadership. “You asked to do this,” she said. “I’m asking you to do much, much more.” Epps criticized McCluskie for giving Republicans too much leeway and for allowing last-minute bills to be pushed through. McCluskie responded by saying she was overwhelmed at the moment but eager to sit down with her in the future. “We have not had opportunities to communicate, we are not communicating well,” McCluskie said. “There has been too much. We have been working hard around the clock. I will lean in, I will do more.”

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The Colorado Sun — 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...

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...