Chris Holbert

Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, a Republican from Parker, talks about averting pay and per diem increases written into law while the state struggles under twin health and economic crises on Monday, June 1, 2020.

In an end-of-session talk with reporters, Senate Republican leaders said Monday the 2020 session was less contentious than last year's, and they give some of the credit to Gov. Jared Polis, who acted as something of a peacemaker. 

That said, Senate Republicans are pinning their hopes on retaking the Senate in the fall elections, to restore the balance that they said the General Assembly needs. 

The 2019 session was contentious, to say the least. Senate Republicans sued Senate President Leroy Garcia of Pueblo over how a 1,203-page bill was read; there were numerous efforts to stall and delay Senate action, either through filibusters or with at least a dozen requests to read bills at length. 

But before the 2020 session began, according to Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert of Parker, Polis brought together Garcia, Holbert and Majority Leader Steve Fenberg of Boulder to work together.

Reading a bill at length wasn't designed to burn 40 hours of time, Holbert said, it was to be asked, "What do you want?" They had a list, which included putting a petition clause into the oil and gas regulatory reform bill, Senate Bill 19-181. That didn't happen, Holbert said.

Polis pushed for more communication between the two sides, and "it was very much what I wanted the Democrats to do months before," Holbert added.

He said he also visited with Garcia in Pueblo during last year, pointing out that while Republicans are in the minority, they still matter. "I think [Democrats] have done a better job of talking with us this year."

Assistant Minority Leader Sen. John Cooke of Greeley agreed that the 2020 session was less tense and more collaborative, especially on issues such as the private prison bill, House Bill 1019, which saw a major rewrite in the Senate, and Senate Bill 217, the law enforcement accountability measure. Cooke, Sen. Bob Gardner of Colorado Springs and Democratic Sen. Mike Foote of Lafayette put together the substantial changes that won the bill a 32-1 vote last week, rare for a major piece of legislation in 2020.

The prison bill could have been a long, ugly fight, but the negotiations, which included a nearly-three hour recess mid-hearing when it was in the Senate, involved not only the bill sponsors but the Democratic leadership, who Holbert said chose to negotiate. That narrower margin between Democrats and Republicans, and the personalities, also proved to be an asset. 

But "there were hard feelings in the caucus" about the 73-day recess, Cooke said. 

The Democrats' mantra of "fast, friendly and free" wasn't, Holbert said. That referred to a pledge by Democrats about what would happen in the session's remaining days: that they would deal primarily with the budget, school finance act and pandemic-related legislation. It turned out to be much more than that.

Holbert's frustration with 2020 is more to do with communications, or the lack thereof, with the governor than with his Senate counterparts. 

Fast, friendly and free "was a slogan, easy to say, sounds great. It turned out not to be that way," Holbert said, in part because the governor said he would leave CARES Act funding decisions to the General Assembly. In the end, Holbert said, they were handed $70 million out of $1.67 billion to manage. He also kept Republicans out of the loop on issues such as the "stay at home" order, which prompted a letter from Republican Sen. Paul Lundeen of Monument, outlining the caucus's concerns. 

"We wanted more communication" on the stay-at-home order, the extra days of delay in restarting the session and the CARES Act money, Holbert said. The latter didn't even include the Joint Budget Committee, he said.

"We're glad it's about to end."

Cooke said he didn't believe a word of "fast, friendly and free," adding that Democrats proved him right. On some things, however, Democrats wanted bipartisan support and wanted to look reasonable, and that made them willing to work with the other side. 

One thing Republicans are most proud of: preserving the senior/disabled veterans homestead exemption. While the Joint Budget Committee voted 4-2 to sweep the program's $163 million, the individual committee members who voted for it never ran a bill to do so. 

Holbert said the exemption is very important in his district, especially in the more rural parts of the district. Both parties were reluctant to go there, he said. Cooke said that it being an election year also saved the exemption.

What the future holds, according to Holbert: an effort to take back control of the state Senate. People don't like one-party control, and voters want that balance, he added. "Our appeal to the people of Colorado: split chambers work very well." That will take a swap of just two seats, assuming the Republicans hold the eight that are also up for election this year. 

Further proof of a gentler Colorado Senate in 2020? Senate Republicans didn't even once ask for a bill to be read at length, Holbert said.

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