For roughly five hours, the Republican minority in the state House of Representatives stretched a debate over the chamber’s rules into an airing of grievances over the governor’s emergency powers and Democratic leadership, with one lawmaker earning a rebuke for referencing the election protests of last week.
“If you think you had problems last Wednesday, they might not be over yet,” Rep. Richard Holtorf, R-Akron, warned Democrats, referring to the gathering of President Donald Trump’s supporters at the Colorado Capitol on Jan. 6. A larger gathering in Washington, D.C., besieged the U.S. Capitol, directly resulting in the deaths of four rioters and one police officer.
“Let’s be very, very careful not to incite any activities outside of this building,” newly-elected Speaker Alec Garnett, D-Denver, cut off Holtorf.
GOP representatives used Senate Joint Resolution 1, which modifies the pandemic-specific rules for the operation of the General Assembly, as a vehicle to try to curtail the governor’s emergency powers, limit the authority of the majority party and push approval of the rules altogether to next month.
“I think the long debates today over what are normally quick, procedural matters is a reflection of the political turmoil we have been experiencing nationally,” Rep. Cathy Kipp, D-Fort Collins, told Colorado Politics. “I am hopeful once we have a new president that the rhetoric will tone down and return to what we used to think was normal.”
Multiple Democrats failed to see an endgame in repeated amendments from Republican representatives to the emergency rules. Assistant Minority Leader Tim Geitner, R-Colorado Springs, denied that the proposals and speeches were a stall tactic for the session, which is scheduled to run for three days before recessing until mid-February.
“I know that there’s concern, is the minority stalling? Are we disrupting the first day? Folks, these are the rules ... which we operate under,” he said. “That’s what this debate affords us, is the ability to understand the impact of this proposed rule.”
However, multiple Republicans appeared to raise the threat of similar extended debate when the session resumes if Democrats did not seriously consider their ideas.
“Are we gonna do the people’s business or are we just gonna waste everybody's evenings night after night and stay away from our kids?” asked Rep. Shane Sandridge, R-Colorado Springs.
“I will tell you: it’s gonna be a long day if people won’t want to listen to what is being brought forth,” added Holtorf. Asked what the minority party’s goal was, Holtorf told Colorado Politics, “They [Democrats] listen and add our amendments and we move forward.”
Among the new language in the pandemic protocols, known as Joint Rule 44, Republicans objected to a provision allowing a majority of the Executive Committee — which consists of four members of the majority party and two members of the minority party — to reduce the number of bills lawmakers could introduce during the emergency from the current five.
“I need those five bills,” said Rep. Colin Larson, R-Littleton. “I think this is, frankly, really dangerous to the institution,” he added, clarifying that he did not believe any of the current Democratic leaders would institute such restrictive measures.
The House later approved a Republican-sponsored amendment to guarantee legislators the introduction of at least one late bill. Democrats also backed another amendment from first-term Rep. Stephanie Luck, R-Penrose, to ensure lawmakers receive 24 hours' notice before the General Assembly reconvenes.
But those changes did not happen before pleas from conservative legislators to slow the process and take more time to review the changes. House Minority Leader Hugh McKean, R-Loveland, said in a statement that the rules changes were provided to the minority party just two nights before the session started, and questions about the changes, raised in an Executive Committee meeting on Tuesday, went unanswered.
“The rules were drafted with no input,” Rep. Terri Carver, R-Colorado Springs, accused the majority. “Not a little. No input from the House minority.”
“What I see this rule change as is nothing more than a power grab,” said Rep. Dave Williams, R-Colorado Springs.
Democratic leadership pushed back on that characterization.
"We shared the draft language for the changes with the minority on Monday, had a very long discussion about them yesterday in the Executive Committee," said Majority Leader Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo. "Fundamentally, these are small changes that grant additional flexibility in places where we’ve found we need it, and that remove flexibility in places where we feel it could be abused. It’s disappointing to see the minority make a show of these pretty minor adjustments."
Williams introduced multiple amendments, including one to prevent the legislature from defining “calendar days” in the pandemic rules as nonconsecutive — a nod to the constitutional requirement that the session “not exceed one hundred twenty calendar days.”
“We have decided as a body to invoke this rule, which is unconstitutional,” said Williams. “But it’s done so the majority can have more of an opportunity to pass the agenda they want to pass. And that’s wrong.”
Williams's assertion, however, did not comport with the interpretation of Colorado's Supreme Court. Last year a majority of justices decided that the legislature’s interpretation of calendar days as nonconsecutive was constitutional.
Another amendment from Luck would have established a committee to summon experts and witnesses every 10 days to review whether Gov. Jared Polis’ continued emergency declarations meet the statutory requirements of an emergency.
“It behooves us to be sure that we're working off of good facts, that we have good information, and that we’re doing all that we can to provide viable solutions,” Luck said, so Coloradans “can live a life of abundance, so that they can thrive.”
Rep. Mark Baisley, R-Roxborough Park, was more explicit: “It’s wholly unfair to our citizens that they live in a perpetual state of emergency in displacement of their constitutional republic.”
The arguments echoed those in last year's special legislative session, in which Republicans again used various COVID-19 relief measures for amendments to limit or reverse the pandemic health restrictions Polis has implemented. The Republican efforts on Wednesday also took place shortly after they put forward their own candidate for speaker of the House, denying Garnett a unanimous coronation and drawing criticism from Democrats.
The resolution changing Joint Rule 44 passed 40-22, with Holtorf the only Republican voting in favor. The measure passed the Senate by 20-15, also on a party-line vote and following a brief debate from Senate Republicans, in contrast to the House's hours-long fight.
By a similar party-line vote, the House passed its temporary rules unrelated to pandemic operations. Williams attempted to insert an amendment requiring a two-thirds majority for rule changes, instead of a simple majority.
When it was pointed out to Williams that past Republican majorities offered similar rules, Williams stated simply: “They shouldn’t have done this.”