When the Colorado General Assembly convenes on Monday, Jan. 9 for the next 120 days, it will have a very new look, with 31 new members in the House out of 65 total, an insurmountable 46-19 Democratic advantage, and a host of challenges to tackle.
Indeed, this brand new legislature will need to resolve — or at least try — some of the biggest problems facing Colorado, notably an acute housing shortage, high inflation and the same sets of issues that bedeviled the state in the last few years, including high crime.
Crucially, the 2023-24 state budget, which will fund the governor and the Democratic majority's priorities, leaves little room for expensive new programs, based on the December revenue forecast issued by state economists.
On top of the policy battles, the two chambers will need to experiment and figure out their new chemistry in order to govern, given not only the new leaders but also the new faces at the Capitol.
The state Senate will welcome 12 members, including 10 who came over from the House and two who will be first-time lawmakers. They include the Peltons — Byron and Rod, two cousins who represent the entirety of Colorado's Eastern Plains.
Notably, Senate Democrats don't have the two-thirds majority they would need to override a gubernatorial veto or push forward constitutional amendments to the ballot without any help from Republicans — and a somewhat more conservative GOP caucus means little chance of the latter.
A ministerial note: The 2023 session begins on a Monday instead of the usual Wednesday to allow lawmakers to certify the results of the November election. That must be done before Gov. Jared Polis is inaugurated for his second term on Tuesday. The governor is slated to give his State of the State address on Tuesday, Jan. 17 at 11 a.m.
So, what will lawmakers have in front of them for the next four months?
Senate Majority Leader Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, told Colorado Politics that while Democrats are proud of the job they've done, and that voters validated those decisions in their votes in November, many pressing issues remain: affordable housing, health care and child care among them.
"Democrats will be focused on affordability, and trying to make sure at the same time [there is] access to health care, strong public schools, clean drinking water, fresh air, that people can love who they love," Moreno said, adding to that list ensuring abortion access and expanded participation in democracy under free and fair elections.
On the other hand, incoming House Majority Leader Rep. Monica Duran, D-Wheat Ridge, said crime and public safety also will be on the agenda for 2023.
Everything is on the table with land use
Housing affordability promises to be one of the marquee issues in the 2023 session and it appears to hinge on the parameters of local control.
Already, some leaders have hinted no sacred cows exist as they hope to enhance the state's building activities.
Polis on Jan. 3 said he plans to push for a "dynamic approach to land use," with the goal of expediting the building of properties.
That is already raising eyebrows among local government officials under whom zoning, density and other land use issues usually reside.
Polis took the issue head on during a Dec. 14 meeting with members of Colorado Counties, Inc. and in response to a question from Weld County Commissioner Scott James.
James told Colorado Politics that the state Constitution grants land use authority to local governments and that Polis in the past has indicated he supports local control. When asked if the governor still supported local control, according to James, Polis' response was to “tap dance" and to ask whether it matters who has the authority.
While the legislation is still in drafting form, and it's unclear just how many bills will be needed, Polis said on Jan. 3 his idea is to "cut red tape to allow building of housing of all types and for all incomes, while protecting the character of our communities and giving property owners more rights."
That could, for example, include what's known as accessory dwelling units — smaller, independent residential units located on the same lot as a stand-alone home, such as a separate garage converted to housing.
The changes to land use authority could also affect transit, water, greenhouse gases and climate change, as well as "green energy."
Polis wants to make it easier for housing to be built by transit areas, which he said would lessen traffic and pollution and protect water. On the renewable energy front, investing in "green and sustainable housing" would improve air quality, transit opportunities and factor in Colorado's efforts on climate goals, said the governor, who is asking for $15 million to implement his ideas.
The idea of housing adjacent to transit has been in place in Denver for nearly two decades. It was part of the Regional Transportation District's FasTracks plan in 2004, when it added light rail lines throughout central and south Denver and encouraged the building of affordable condos and apartments adjacent to light rail stations. RTD is still chasing affordable housing by allowing apartments, including affordable housing units, to be built on property owned by RTD and next to its light rail stations.
Moreno told Colorado Politics housing is "an issue of statewide concern rather than a local one." It's a persistent problem throughout the state, not just in the Front Range but in rural and mountain communities, as well, he said. The 2023 legislature will work on a consistent approach to housing, instead of it being strictly a local issue, "where you get mixed results," he added.
The idea, he said, is to draw a diverse group to the table, including businesses interested in building their workforces — and the housing those employees will need — and environmental organizations that are interested in transit-oriented development and housing density.
Everything is on the table, Moreno said, including zoning, minimum construction standards, and figuring out a "baseline" the state would set for land use decisions so that local governments cannot reject housing developments out of hand.
The idea will likely encounter some push back, as well as gain some allies.
Weld County Commissioner Lori Saine, a former Republican state representative, hopes for a more regional, rather than statewide, approach.
Centralized control, similar to an approach taken in California, could lead to more expensive housing rather than affordable housing, she said.
Saine has been working with several Weld County communities, most notably Erie, on what she calls "feathered" density — developments that are all-inclusive, with shopping and commercial components, open space, and mixed use housing ranging from affordable apartments and condos to single-family homes. That kind of development, proponents say, is walkable and bikeable, and eventually could link to multimodal transit, such as an expansion of light rail into Weld County.
Saine also raised concerns about building codes, notably codes that require electric vehicle charging stations when most people don't drive electric cars and which, she argued, now drive up housing costs. People should have a choice on energy, she said.
"Why not incentivize the people who are already doing this correctly?" she asked.
James, the county commissioner, pointed out that land use issues draw a lot of community interest and maintained that moving authority from local government to the state will keep the public out of those conversations.
Scott Wasserman, executive director of the Bell Policy Center, said property taxes will also be a major conversation.
Polis has a two-part plan: Put $200 million in general fund dollars into an already existing $700 million pot of money to buy down property taxes in 2023 and 2024. Property taxes would be exempted for the first $15,000 in a home's value, under one scenario Polis painted on Jan. 3. He noted that the December revenue forecast showed residential assessed values will increase by 26.5% in the coming year, with big property tax hikes to go with it.
The second part of the plan is long-term tax relief legislation to reduce commercial property taxes, as well as set up a "mechanism" to protect homeowners from being priced out of their homes. He didn't elaborate on what that legislation would look like.
Wasserman favors a conversation about the relationship between property taxes and state funding. Small businesses or agriculture should get property tax breaks, instead of big companies like Google, he said, advocating for a "targeted smart property tax code."
"And we think a statewide luxury tax on homes over $2 million should absolutely be on the table," he said, adding that luxury tax could create a sustainable funding stream for K-12 education.
The Bell Policy Center estimates there are 17,000 homes valued at $2 million or higher.
The center proposed ballot measures in 2022 that didn't make it to November on the luxury tax idea — a 0.57% tax hike that it says would generate about $400 million per year, according to a Bell publication.
Rep.-elect Javier Mabry, D-Denver, was one of the proponents of that ballot measure last year.
Property tax assessments will happen this year, and some fear that next year's assessed values would actually be a lot higher than 26.5% and that, even if it stays under 30%, that would still translate to billions of dollars that property owners would have to fork out.
The battle over healthcare in 2023 will likely focus on the implementation of previous health care legislation than about new ideas, but, already, many point to efforts to reduce costs on health care and ensure that low-income individuals can retain access to Medicaid or other health plans.
Adam Fox at the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative said his group will be watching the implementation of the Colorado Option, drug importation from Canada and the prescription drug affordability review board, which is expected to begin its work in March.
Other major health care issues need to be addressed, most notably the end of the COVID-19 emergency authorization for Medicaid. Under legislation passed by Congress in 2020, anyone enrolled in Colorado’s Medicaid program was guaranteed to keep their health coverage during the pandemic health emergency. The federal government has extended that coverage several times, but it's likely to expire for good in April. The Department of Health Care Policy and Financing said half a million Coloradans are covered under that extension.
Lawmakers worry about the effect of so many low-income Coloradans losing health care coverage. Moreno said they will be looking for ways to "ease that path" or keep those enrolled in other public health programs.
Surprise billing could get another look in the 2023 session. Fox said this isn't the out-of-network billing problem that lawmakers addressed several years ago. Instead, his organization is seeing cases where consumer get unexpected fees or charges when they seek routine outpatient care and that those fees — tied to facilities, in some cases — shouldn't apply.
Incoming House Majority Leader Rep. Monica Duran, D-Wheat Ridge, told Colorado Politics that crime and public safety will be a major focus in 2023, a priority echoed by Polis.
Many examine this issue through the lens of "equity."
While the legislature has done a good job of funding crime victim services, Duran is taking a personal interest in improving those services in 2023. One bill she plans to carry is to move domestic violence cases from municipal to county courts, which she said have better access to services for those victims.
Polis, who has set a goal of making Colorado one of the nation's Top 10 safest states — one ranking puts Colorado in 39th place — in the next five years, has pledged $42 million toward that goal. That includes $12.6 million over two years to prevent and prosecute auto theft.
Rep. Judy Amabile, D-Boulder, is working on several bills she says would improve public safety and focus on the criminal justice system, including making phone calls in the Department of Corrections free for prisoners, keeping pregnant and postpartum offenders out of prison through alternative sentencing, allowing children greater flexibility in visiting incarcerated parents, and permitting incarcerated parents to be present at dependency and neglect hearings for their children.
“Colorado has one of the highest rates of recidivism of any state,” Amabile said. “There are some commonsense measures that we can take to reduce recidivism. It is a public safety effort because we want people to return to a life worth living after they get out of prison. One of the ways we do that is by keeping families together as best we can.”
Some of Amabile’s other bills would change how prisoners with serious mental illnesses are treated: Moving people awaiting competency hearings to commitment within the civil system; cleaning up and shortening the timeline for juvenile competency hearings; and, limiting the amount of time prisoners can be held in four-point restraints and requiring the restraints to be cloth instead of metal.
Rep. Matt Soper, R-Delta, said he is working on two bills to crack down on car thefts. While the details are still being hammered out, concepts being considered include mandatory jail time for car thieves and making any automobile theft a felony. Another bill Soper is considering would allow people accused of driving without a license to pay a fine and avoid court.
“I'm very excited to be able to work across the aisle to have a good balanced approach to criminal justice reform,” Soper said. “We might have some big fights over bills to further strengthen red flag or to limit Coloradan's ability to purchase firearms ... but we’re going to have a lot of agreement.”
In a Q&A with Colorado Politics, Senate President Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, discussed strengthening the red flag law and implementing additional age restrictions as a way to prevent gun violence. However, specific bills have not yet been announced.
Polis proposes paying down more of the debt to K-12 education, alternately known as the budget stabilization or negative factor.
That debt, which dates back to 2012, reached a high of $1.3 billion during the pandemic-induced recessionary situation in 2020 but has been paid down to $321.2 million. With the $705 million in additional funding for K-12 proposed for 2023-24, the BS factor would drop about $35 million below that current level.
The other big topic on education this year is a redesign of the school finance act, which has been in the works for four years. According to language headed to a bill draft authorized in November by the interim committee on school finance, the new formula will be "driven by a student-centered approach with a focus on equity and opportunity for all learners, including At-Risk, English Language Learners, and Gifted/Talented Learners; recognize and work toward improved funding to address the unique needs of rural, remote, and small or sparse school districts; work toward an improved and targeted approach in supporting high cost of living areas of the state and create a new approach to cost of living adjustments."
Water has never been a major priority for the General Assembly, but the crisis on the Colorado River, as well as clean drinking water issues, is moving it up the agenda.
Moreno said from the Senate perspective, there will be a lot more emphasis on the issue of water than there has been in the past.
"You will see a huge focus on this issue that I haven't seen in my 10 years at the Capitol," he told Colorado Politics.
With help from the federal Inflation Reduction Act and the Infrastructure Act, Colorado could, for the first time, fund the state water plan at the levels called for when the plan was first introduced in 2015.
Polis said he plans to invest $25 million, with half from the general fund and half from sports betting tax revenues, with hopes of leveraging that to $100 million for the state water plan.
That would be a first, as the state water plan has suffered from a lack of sustainable funding from the beginning, although it initially called for a $3 billion investment from the state over 30 years, from 2020 to 2050.
Moreno, in addressing the Colorado River crisis, said he does not want to see the federal government become the enforcer on solutions to the crisis. He advocates for reducing municipal water use and seeing more emphasis on convincing farmers to switch to crops that use less water. That takes incentives, and money, much of which will likely come from the federal government, he noted.
He also spoke in favor of legislation that would ban non-flushable wipes, which affects water infrastructure. That bill is likely to be carried by Sen.-elect Dylan Roberts of Eagle, who will chair the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee in the next session, and Sen. Chris Kolker, D-Littleton.
The push for a constitutional amendment protecting the right to abortion will likely have to come from outside the state Capitol, according to Rep. Meg Froelich, D-Greenwood Village, one of the sponsors of the 2022 Reproductive Health Equity Act.
But that isn't the only issue on lawmakers' minds in 2022.
Froelich said she and lawmakers, such as Sen. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver, will look at legislation to protect patients and providers and to expand access to abortion in any way possible. She noted they are limited by a ban on abortion funding in the state Constitution and hinted that the ban could be on the agenda for 2024.
"We don’t have providers in 87% of the counties," said Froelich, who added added that she hopes medical abortions might be a way around that. "We need more providers willing to enter into this arena."
Lawmakers, including Sen.-elect Tom Sullivan, D-Centennial, are expected to push for changes to the state's red flag law in the wake of the the Club Q shooting in November, which killed five people and injured 17 others.
Froelich said the legislature's gun violence prevention caucus will look at what the state has already done on issues such as safe storage and red flag and the perceived lack of uniform enforcement of those laws. She said gun control laws could be part of a multi-year plan, an effort to avoid the kind of backlash that led to the recall of two state Democratic senators in 2013, including the then-Senate President John Morse.
Democrats also plan to take on an assault weapons ban or ban the sale of assault weapons to those under the age of 21, as well as look at concealed carry.
What else is on the agenda?
The angst among animal rights activists over horse roundups in western Colorado is driving legislation to create a sanctuary or state preserve for those horses, according to Sandra Hagen Solin of Capitol Solutions.
That legislation is expected to be carried by Sen. Joann Ginahl, D-Fort Collins, who has long advocated animal rights.
Solin noted there have been 146 deaths among horses rounded up in the last 18 months by the Bureau of Land Management. The legislation, she said, is intended to improve overall management of the horses that are rounded up and sent to Canon City, and to amplify the importance of fertility control.
Bills from 2022 that are expected to get another look include the following:
- The Protecting Opportunities and Workers' Rights Act, aka POWR, is expected to go another round in the 2023 session under the sponsorship of Sen. Faith Winter, D-Westminster. The 2021 version would have expanded discrimination and unfair employment protections for Colorado workers. That included adding marital status and caregiver status as protected classes under the state's anti-discrimination laws and clarifying the role of independent contractors for harassment and discrimination claims.
- The 2022 bill that would have allowed employees to consume marijuana outside of working hours without fear of retaliation is also expected to surface again in 2023.
The state budget
All of these ideas will come up against the realities of the state’s 2023-24 budget, with both lawmakers on the all-powerful Joint Budget Committee and the governor both warning that there will be little money available for new programs launched by new legislation.
The December revenue forecast presented by the Legislative Council economists projected the state budget for 2023-24 is short about $56 million if lawmakers plan to fund all existing obligations, plus increases due to inflation and enrollment growth in education, health care, corrections and other state services, and to maintain the state's 15% general fund reserve.
The budget, which is currently in the hands of the Joint Budget Committee, will need the buy-in of the majority of legislators and the governor.