A Colorado legislative session unlike any other wrapped on Monday, with lawmakers having passed a slew of major reforms but shelving others due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Sometimes we make history, and sometimes history makes us,” said House Majority Leader Alec Garnett, D-Denver, of the session’s strange circumstances.
The session concludes after just 84 days of lawmaking, well short of the typical 120 days. It also concludes more than a month behind schedule. Both facts are results of the virus’ spread shutting down the Capitol for two and a half months, from mid-March to late May. Three days after returning to the building, lawmakers shut it down once again for two days as protests against police violence swirled outside.
This was the second year of a new era of total Democratic control of Colorado state government. In early January, when the session began, the majority party laid out some of its biggest priorities for the year, including repealing the death penalty, passing at least two new gun reforms, creating a public heath insurance option, creating a statewide paid family and medical leave program, passing new air quality standards and improving monitoring, passing stricter vaccine exemption standards and finding new money for transportation projects.
About half of that work was accomplished. The session ends with the public option, family leave, gun reforms and transportation all unresolved, among other matters. Some of the bills Democrats didn’t have time for; others they could no longer afford due to an expected $3.3 billion budget hole created by the pandemic-induced economic slowdown. Democrats have vowed to continue discussion on a public health insurance option into next year, while family leave may be resolved on the ballot in November.
“This session was nothing any of us could’ve predicted,” said Senate President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo. “Despite our challenges, I’m extremely proud of the work we were able to accomplish together.”
Lawmakers crammed a huge amount of work into the three weeks following Memorial Day, which included killing about 300 bills that were introduced pre-coronavirus, passing a heavily slashed budget and passing two noteworthy ballot measures — one for a new nicotine tax and another to repeal the Gallagher Amendment — and moving Colorado’s most substantial criminal justice reform bill in decades from introduction to passage in less than two weeks.
That bill, SB-217, was a direct response to “the pleas from the streets,” Garnett said. It contained a number of provisions that would have been nonstarters prior to George Floyd’s killing at police hands in Minneapolis.
The 2019 session was marked in large part by Democrats clearing a years-long backlog of priority bills. After seizing control of state government, they passed Colorado’s first major gun reform since 2013, overhauled oil and gas regulations and passed several major immigrant protections and criminal justice reforms. The ambitiousness of their agenda, combined with their sometimes rocky transition into running the Capitol and setting its calendar, led to frequent tensions in both chambers, climaxing with a fight in court over Senate President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, attempting to thwart GOP delay tactics.
Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, R-Parker, was among those who sued Garcia last year. He said that before this session he drove down to meet Garcia for a meal in Pueblo, and that the two of them agreed it’d be in everyone’s best interest to work together more smoothly this year. For the most part, Democrats and Republicans kept to that, though more so in the Senate than in the House.
The past two years at the Capitol have been largely characterized by Democrats’ control. And arguably the most powerful Democratic lawmaker, House Speaker KC Becker of Boulder, is term-limited and exits the legislature this year.
“It is really strange, after almost seven years, to be winding up,” she said. “Anytime a speaker or any member ends their time at the legislature, it always feels very sudden, because you’re going 100 miles an hour,” she said. “It’s been an incredible ride.”
Most expect Garnett to succeed Becker as speaker, though he demurred Monday when asked about that.
All 65 House seats are up for grabs, but the House Democratic edge is so profound — 41 to 24 — that no party leaders expect the majority to flip in November. The Senate, at 19 to 16, is much narrower.
“Our appeal to the people of Colorado is that split chambers work really well,” Holbert said. “We’re confident that a majority of voters in those key swing districts … don’t like one-party control at the state level, and the majority of voters really appreciate a balance in state government.”
Regardless of who holds the Senate and House majorities come January, the fact that Colorado is still very much in the middle of a pandemic and resulting high unemployment means lawmakers in 2021 may be grappling with an unprecedented level of need.
“The big piece of unfinished business, the thing we absolutely need to do more on starting next session, is housing,” said Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder. “I hope I’m wrong, but I do think we are going to see a lot of suffering and unfortunately a lot of pain among working families.”
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