From some perspectives, the story of Colorado’s 120-day legislative session has been a battle between obstruction and overreach.
As the legislature sped toward the May 3 finish line in a last-minute scramble, with Democrats scheduling hearings for controversial bills on short notice and tossing other cherished legislation overboard due to the calendar’s constraints, Republicans told Colorado Politics they scored some small wins this session but were mostly consoling themselves that it could have been worse.
In the end, they acknowledged, GOP lawmakers managed to kill a handful of bills, stalled some others and helped blunt the reach of a few more, but anticipated there would be little celebration after the final gavel fell other than relief that the ordeal had finally concluded.
Faced with nearly unprecedented Democratic majorities won in a 2018 election that swept Republicans from power up and down the ticket, GOP legislators began the 2019 Regular Session grimly optimistic that they could find common ground on some issues with freshly minted Democratic Gov. Jared Polis, a tech millionaire with self-professed libertarian leanings.
Republicans also counted on using the power of persuasion to bend the Democrats’ aggressive agenda in a state with a bipartisan tradition and a streak of frontier independence.
But by the time a weather phenomenon called a bomb cyclone whipped through the state just past the session’s midway point in March — experts called the blizzard and its hurricane-force winds the most intense storm ever to descend on Colorado — Republicans’ hopes had been replaced with slow-down tactics and threats to ask voters whether to overturn legislation and mount recall campaigns against vulnerable Democrats.
The spectacle under the dome reached its most absurd manifestation that same week when Senate Democrats engaged multiple computers to read an uncontroversial 2,000-page bill in sped-up gibberish on the chamber’s floor in a futile attempt to comply with minority lawmakers’ demands that they slow things down.
Within days, a judge had sided with Republicans who cried foul, setting the stage for tactics the GOP used for the rest of the legislative session, leading to the Republicans’ routine deployment of the Colorado equivalent of filibusters, a couple all-nighters and a session held on Saturday, something that hadn’t happened in decades.
“If we don't have the votes, the best thing we have is the clock,” said Sage Naumann, the Senate Republicans’ communications director. “And it's been to our advantage the last few weeks.”
But Democrats held the cards, and the best Republicans could do was keep creating distractions to delay the game, occasionally winning enough on a wild bet to stay at the table for another hand.
When lawmakers convened in January, Democrats had just won a historic 17-seat majority in the House and taken back control of the Senate after four years of Republican control, putting an end to the split legislature that existed for six of outgoing Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper’s eight years in office.
“Those are pretty big majorities,” said veteran Republican strategist Dick Wadhams, who chaired the Colorado GOP for two terms earlier this decade. “There was nothing [Republican lawmakers] could really do other than offer principled opposition, which they did."
He termed Republican efforts to “run the clock” a smart strategy that let minority legislators kill some bills considered anathema to many in the GOP caucus.
Those include a bill to repeal the state’s death penalty, which disappeared when Democrats failed to muster enough support within their own caucus, and a bill to allow for so-called safe injection sites for intravenous drug users, which was withdrawn by Democratic sponsors under a hail of opposition on talk radio and social media.
Another win claimed by Republicans came when a bill to establish a paid family leave program for Colorado employees was amended by Democratic sponsors to instead study the proposal.
Late in the session, a plan to let cities impose rent control also died.
“By and large, when you look at the huge Democratic majorities, Republicans did a very good job stopping pieces of legislation I would have said six months ago were going to sail through the legislature,” Wadhams said. “Those were big victories.”
Naumann pointed to the success of some legislation pushed by Republicans, including the bipartisan “safe haven” bill sponsored by state Sen. Jim Smallwood, R-Douglas County, and state Rep. Edie Hooten, D-Boulder, that lets public schools teach students about laws allowing newborns to be turned over to firefighters and health care workers within 72 hours of birth.
After a contentious start early in the session, the bill passed unanimously and was signed into law by Polis.
The fate of one of the most controversial bills of the session, however, drew mixed assessments.
Senate Bill 181, which overhauls the state’s oil and gas regulations, fired up Republican and industry opposition like few other proposals this year — spawning a recall campaign aimed at freshman state Rep. Rochelle Galindo, D-Greeley, and an attempt to ask voters to repeal the law next year.
The bill gives a revamped state oil and gas commission more power to make rules and requires that it prioritize health and safety over fostering the fossil fuel industry, as well as letting local governments put in place their own regulations. Polis signed it into law in April.
While some Republicans cheered amendments they acknowledged improved the bill somewhat, they hastened to stress that the measure still threatens the oil and gas industry statewide.
“it's not acceptable. Is it better? Of course. That's why we were negotiating for days and days and days,” Naumann said.
“When these bills drop and we think they're bad, we’re going to say so,” he added. “If it's going to pass, how can we make it better, who in industry can we talk to? Sometimes it's important to slow down and see what people outside this building have to say.”
Wadhams claimed at least a small win.
“We all knew that oil and gas [legislation] would be passed, although I do think the amendments that were adopted made the bill better,” he said. “It's still a bad bill, but I think the ‘reasonable and necessary’ language and some other amendments were significant.”
Added Wadhams: “I think Republicans did as good a job as they could. They've never backed down from the fight.”
As the session neared its conclusion, Naumann reflected on the change in tone at the Capitol from the days when a Republican-controlled Senate could steer policy.
“In the past, we had to work across the aisle in order to get priority bills across. That's how things got done in this building,” Naumann said. “Just because we don't have the majority anymore doesn't mean there aren't still Coloradans out there that want their voices heard. Our guys were elected as well. They certainly weren't elected to just sit down and not speak.”