Loren Furman is an unflappable political veteran, as cool a customer as I know in the marketplace of ideas; always positive, always in command of the issues, always the clearest voice in the room.
She was flapped, and how, when she spoke to chamber and economic development leaders from across the state on a Zoom call as the legislative session was in rapid boil.
The senior vice president of state and federal relations for the Colorado Chamber of Commerce described the Capitol chaos for her peers, as she broadcast from a cavernous granite hallway.
Furman spoke of bills that were introduced out of the blue one day that week, rushed to a committee the next and voted on within hours to join the state code ever after.
“What they’re doing is introducing them and passing them so quickly,” she told the other chamber leaders about a multitude of changes coming their way. “And these bills are only going to make it impossible for businesses to try to recover after the pandemic.”
Furman said she was worried about proposals to increase worker’s compensation premiums, a new tax on employers to pay for the state’s reinsurance program, a “terrible, terrible” tax policy that removes breaks for businesses that many rely on, especially now; those breaks make Colorado attractive to new companies, she said.
Faced with a $3 billion deficit from the pandemic's economic devastation, Democrats still protected government services, so somebody had to pay. Businesses, big winners for a decade, got the call. Top Democrats said they listened and moderated where they could.
“We rose to the challenge,” House Speaker KC Becker said. “We were adults in the room. We addressed really hard problems. We didn’t just say what’s most popular right in this moment with the most politically connected people. “
Legislators voted to suspend their normal 120-day session on March 14, a little past the halfway point. They returned to a whole new world on May 26. They quickly took another short break, when protests turned violent outside the Capitol as the nation spasmed in outrage over racial injustice.
In two weeks' time, lawmakers created a sweeping police integrity bill with the support of prosecutors and law enforcement leaders. Sen. Rhonda Fields and Rep. Leslie Herod both called it historic, because it was. Both parties met in the middle, a rare moment of clarity and unity.
“Sometimes we make history in this building and sometimes history makes us,” House Majority Leader Alec Garnett of Denver told reporters. “What happened outside this building really guided our response.”
The tone of haste, however, doesn't usually create good policy. Every legislative session I've known — in multiple states — lawmakers do little the first few weeks of the session, then everything moves a breakneck speed to the end, every year.
In the court of public policy, the law of unintended consequences is practiced.
Major pieces of legislation came and went before anyone could marshal much opposition outside the building.
In a moment of reflection on a paid sick leave bill late on Friday afternoon, Rep. Adrienne Benavidez spoke the truth.
“Those businesses do not know. When we do legislation like this, people hear about it, they read about it in the newspaper and they come and show up and testify at hearings,” said the Democrat from Adams County. “They don’t hear about a hearing right before and expect that. This is a mandate that maybe we need, and I would tell you we do, but we cannot continue to put it on business without getting them at the table with us.”
The federal relief package provides paid sick leave through the end of the year, and a family leave question is expected to be on the November ballot. Plus, there’s already talk of a comprehensive leave bill next session. Why rush, she asked.
“I want people to weigh in,” Benavidez pleaded. “I have a lot of small employers in my district, and I would bet a lot of them don’t have sick leave. Do I personally think sick leave is important? Yes, but I know it’s not free.”
At other times, the session moved like a mudslide. Saturday night, Sen. Jeff Bridges, a Democrat from Greenwood Village, took the president's gavel temporarily and asked his chamber mates to show some restraint, as they began to spend hours debating the paid sick leave bill that Democrats were always bound to pass.
"Please, for the sake of everyone here," he said, "let's just keep this all moving."
And it was a day earlier on the same bill in the House, when Rep. Colin Larson, a Republican from Littleton, spoke to the times lawmakers were living in.
"I feel like we’ve really lived in a bubble here the last few weeks when we've been back at the Capitol, because the reality of what’s going on out there is still very bad, and businesses are hurting, people are unemployed, there’s a great deal of economic uncertainty," said the freshman lawmaker, who is facing a tough primary against the former officeholder, "Dr. No" Justin Everett, who gave up the seat in 2018 to run for state treasurer.
"And I feel like this building is not really focused on that reality.”