Update: Senate Bill 113 passed the House Thursday on a 40-24 bipartisan vote, with 16 Democrats voting "no."
Wednesday marked the first major opportunity for the expanded coalition of progressive Democrats devoted to decriminalization to flex their muscles at the state Capitol, and while they failed to halt a budget request for more prison beds from advancing, their opposition signaled they will be a force to reckon with as the legislature tackles measures on a range of issues they back but which the Polis administration doesn't necessarily support.
The issue on Wednesday was a proposal from the Polis administration to fund hundreds of new prison beds and pay for more positions in the Department of Corrections.
The request received the approval of the state Senate last week on a 28-6 vote, but with two Senate Democrats who favor decriminalization voting against.
In the state House, the progressive coalition is substantially larger, with the 2022 elections adding several members to an informal caucus that already includes Reps. Leslie Herod, Steven Woodrow, Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, Jennifer Bacon, and Mike Weissman. The additions include Reps. Javier Mabrey, Elisabeth Epps and Lorena Garcia.
The coalition came within four votes Wednesday of stopping the the request from moving forward, and the close vote signaled the group could exact concessions in a strategy its members could replicate as the legislature tackles other big bills, including legislation on assault weapons, criminal justice, rent control and fentanyl.
And in fighting the budget request for more beds, the coalition had help from the other side of the aisle.
Senate Bill 113 is sponsored by the Joint Budget Committee as part of the 2023 package of supplemental requests intended to make mid-year adjustments to state agencies' budgets.
The Department of Corrections is seeking $20.3 million for a variety of purposes, but what's setting off some lawmakers is the request for more beds and staffers.
Critics noted that the department currently has 1,600 vacant positions and about $20 million in vacancy savings, prompting some lawmakers to press the agency over why it simply won't use that money to fund new positions.
In response, House Democrats on the Joint Budget Committee pointed out in a caucus meeting Tuesday that the $20 million is, for budget purposes, already spent — it is considered committed for retention bonuses, and the 393 beds the department is asking for are already occupied, meaning the department went ahead and filled those beds before asking for funding precisely because it had to house prisoners.
The fight started in the Senate last week, when the proposal got two "no" votes from Democrats aligned with the decriminalization effort: Sens. Julie Gonzales and Robert Rodriguez, both of Denver. Gonzales watched the next round of debate in the House on Wednesday.
The first sign of the House coalition's opposition came early Tuesday, when Herod became the lone "no" vote against the bill in the House Appropriations Committee. Misgivings over the department's request also surfaced in a House Democratic caucus meeting later Tuesday morning. In that meeting, Bacon and Gonzales-Gutierrez questioned whether the department is doing enough to reduce prison populations, while Weissman said he is frustrated with how the department is representing inmate counts.
The bill's backers said it's important to support the department in its need to bring in more staff. Advocacy for the measure from JBC member Rep. Emily Sirota, D-Denver and Rep. Shannon Bird, D-Westminster, has earned them the scorn of criminal justice advocates from outside the Capitol.
Republicans joined in on the fight, too.
Rep. Matt Soper, R-Delta, said "poor management should not be rewarded," a nod to concerns raised by JBC staff, as well as by Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, R-Brighton, when the bill was in the Senate.
Soper called the "personal services" line item in the budget, which denotes the funding for staff, request a slush fund.
"There's no accountability or transparency here," he said, offering an amendment to strip out the funding for the 393 beds and reduce funding by $1.6 million.
"There's no clarity in how we're counting people in the prisons," added Bacon, who noted the JBC got different numbers depending on the day, with a difference of more than 1,000 in the inmate count.
"We do care about the people going in and out of jail" but also "need a better sense of what we're funding," said Bacon, who favored Soper's amendment.
Herod, the daughter of a correctional officer, also supported the amendment, saying the corrections department needs to fill its vacancies first before asking for more staff and beds.
Everyone talks about fiscal responsibility until they have to be fiscally responsible, added Rep. Don Wilson, R-Monument.
Soper said lawmakers can address the department's additional funding needs when crafting the Long Appropriations Bill, which would contain the spending plan for Colorado in the upcoming fiscal year. The budget bill is due to be introduced in the Senate on March 27.
Soper's amendment received opposition from lawmakers in his caucus whose districts include many of the state's prisons.
If the department says it needs more money, "they might just actually need it," said Rep. Richard Holtorf, R-Akron, whose district includes the Sterling Correctional Facility, one of the state prisons that would benefit from the supplemental funding for staff recruitment and retention.
"We should stand up for DOC," he said.
Rep. Stephanie Luck, R-Penrose, whose district includes more prisons than any other lawmaker, also advocated for the funding, saying that to remove the funding and not fund the new positions would severely affect operations.
That was contrasted by claims from other lawmakers that DOC already has a problem hiring staff and this would only add to the budget's bottom line rather than address the staffing shortages.
Bird, in advocating against the amendment, said the funding would help stop the "hemorrhaging" of staff and help keep staff safe.
A division vote, which requires members to stand and be counted, but without an official recorded vote, showed around 29 members from both sides of the aisle in support of the amendment, with more Democrats voting in favor than Republicans. Notably, Weissman voted against it.
Soper did not ask for a recorded vote, stating he believed the amendment would lose "yes" votes.
SB 113 will be up for a final vote on Thursday and if adopted, will head to the governor for signing.
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