Their numbers will be diminished in the upcoming legislative session, but Colorado House and Senate Republican aren’t demoralized.
Republicans in November lost the one-seat majority they've held in the Senate for the last two terms, while Democrats increased their House majority to a level not seen since the 1960s
Facing minority status in both chambers for the first time since 2014, GOP leaders acknowledge Democrats can pass pretty much whatever legislation they want out of the General Assembly but say they don’t plan to roll over and will stand firm for conservative principles.
They’re also quick to caution majority Democrats against running roughshod over a party that might have gotten pummeled in the last election but still represents millions of Coloradans and considers itself the guardian of core Colorado values — from the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights to the Second Amendment and the opportunity to extract riches from the land.
The House Republican leader said he’s hopeful his caucus can find common ground on a range of issues with Democratic Gov.-elect Jared Polis, a wealthy entrepreneur with a libertarian streak.
Meanwhile, the Senate GOP leader doesn’t hesitate to invoke the 2013 recall elections that cost two Democratic senators their seats and forced another from office after the Democrats passed a package of gun control measures in the wake of the Aurora theater and Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shootings.
They might not have the votes, but Republicans insist they haven't lost their voice.
“The biggest lessons [from the November election] are that our ideas are still popular with voters, if you look at the ballot initiatives. We didn't do a good job relaying our ideas with our individual candidates,” House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, R-Castle Rock, told Colorado Politics.
“Going forward, we're going to be pushing those same ideas — lower taxes, limited government, individual freedom. There are times we can work with the Democrats on those. There are certain Democrats on certain issues we can work with.”
Neville said he's happy with the open lines of communication Republicans have with the incoming administration, including productive conversations with Polis about shared goals, such as lowering the over-all income tax rate by doing away with some tax credits.
Neville added that he believes the House GOP’s 24-member caucus is unified in ways the Democrats’ 41 members aren’t.
Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, R-Parker, said Republicans will again treat transportation funding as a top priority and foresees wrangling with Polis and the Democrats over the revenue source.
There could be some money available for roads and bridges from the roughly $1 billion in surplus funds the state anticipates collecting this fiscal year, he added, though he plans to urge lawmakers to direct that money first toward education.
“On opening day I'll probably make an argument that we ought not put either caucus — any caucus, any member — in a position of the accusation of taking money from education,” Holbert said. “If we have more revenue than we thought we were going to, maybe we'll look at an allocation for K-12 to buy down the negative factor — and then some for roads and bridges.”
Holbert told Colorado Politics he’s cautioning his caucus against providing the other party with a bipartisan veneer by signing on to Democratic-led legislation — the norm in recent years, when all bills required bipartisan support in order to pass — without solid assurances the measures won’t morph into something they’ll regret.
Republicans — who largely represent counties benefiting from Colorado’s oil and natural gas boom — plan to push back against attempts to limit fracking by highlighting the arguments that surrounded Proposition 112, a losing ballot measure that would have restricted drilling nearly everywhere in the state.
“When people have an opinion on fracking, specifically, it does test their resolve and make them think a bit when they see the mom or dad next door with the T-shirt on saying 'I am oil and gas.' It isn't just something that happens out there in Weld County or Delta or Mesa, it's people who live next door, their parents. They're the kids in our schools,” Holbert said.
He added that GOP lawmakers will emphasize the importance of severance tax revenue from fossil fuel extraction to communities across the state.
“Not trying to offend voters but to ask the question, 'Do you know what that means? Do you know where the money comes from?' Because if you don't, before you take a real hard position on this, you probably ought to understand that,” he said.
“We're going to be explaining those things at the mic and in committee," Holbert said. "We're certainly going to watch for the majority party to, if there are bills that go directly against the will of the majority in November, we will definitely point that out.
"If the majority of voters said no to 2,500-foot setbacks, is the answer to decrease it by a foot, or 100 or 500 [feet]? I don't know. We'll have to see what they want to do. But the voters spoke. Not everybody said no, but the majority said no, and I would encourage the leadership in both chambers, the governor, just be thoughtful, be aware. And I know they are.”
(Proposition 112, which would have imposed 2,500-foot setbacks on new drilling operations, went down to defeat in November, though voters also rejected Amendment 74, a counter measure pushed by the oil and gas industry that would have compensated property owners for the impact of regulation.)
Holbert anticipates his Democratic counterpart, Senate President-designee Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, will exert a moderating influence on Senate Democrats.
“I think that [Garcia] will be challenged to bring his new folks up to speed and maybe discuss the opportunity to govern from a balanced, reasonable perspective — and what happened last time that they didn't,” Holbert said, noting that Garcia represents a district that recalled a Democrat and installed a Republican in 2013. “If anybody knows, he does.”
Garcia, Holbert pointed out, voted against one of the 2013 gun bills — a strict limit on magazine capacity — and has since co-sponsored bills to repeal the magazine limit, which gives the Republican confidence he’ll steer his caucus away from extreme measures.
“Who better to sit down with a Democrat who might want to ban something and say, ‘Wait a minute, the last time we did that, it didn't work well’?” Holbert asked.
“Ultimately, the people are the boss, and if 50 percent plus one of the people decide they don't like what's happening down here, there's a mechanism for the people in the district to make a change,” he added.
“If [voters] decide they don't like the way I comb my hair, they can recall me. If they don't like the way a legislator or group of legislators vote on bills or sponsor bills, if they go too far, the voters aren't limited.”
Marianne Goodland contributed.