The final days of the Colorado General Assembly's 16-week session were a flurry of self-congratulations on what lawmakers accomplished and the usual plea for patience on what they did not. There was much to brag about and much to account for.
The session delivered significant changes to the state’s environmental, public health, political, business and criminal justice landscapes. And it was a good time to be a Democrat, controlling both chambers of the legislature and the governor's office.
Lawmakers gave local communities more control over oil-and-gas operations, moved the state toward wedding its presidential pick to the outcome of the national popular vote and made significant reforms to the criminal justice system, including lowering penalties for minor drug possession and waiving bail for other minor offenses.
The General Assembly provided free all-day kindergarten, passed a raft of bills aimed at chipping away at the high cost of health care and insurance premiums, and put millions of extra dollars into transportation and education.
"I think we took on a lot,” said House Speaker KC Becker, a Democrat from Boulder, before her chamber gaveled the 2019 session to a close about 6:40 p.m.
His party's win list had Gov. Jared Polis saying at a Friday afternoon news conference that he "couldn't be more thrilled that we got so much done."
But he added: "No legislature will solve every problem in four months." His late-session proposal to raise funds for preschool and child health programs through cigarette and vaping taxes died in the Senate Thursday night, and a repeal of Colorado's death penalty -- which hasn't been carried out in Colorado for 22 years -- was dropped a month ago.
Polis said he didn't think that calling a special session to handle unfinished business was warranted.
Democrats had the power to pass anything they wanted, if they just held their members together. But Becker said total control takes more time, not less, to get things right.
In sessions since 2015, Republicans controlled the Senate, meaning they killed partisan Democratic bills passed in the House, and Democrats returned the unkind favor with Republicans’ Senate bills that reached the House.
“When you know things have a better chance of passing, you have to take more time with them, be more deliberative, involve stakeholders more, and that’s what’s going on,” Becker said. “I think Senate Republicans, especially, and House Republicans to some extent, have done a good job of slowing the process.”
That they did. Debates on routine bills dragged on for hours, and controversial bills went to the early morning, as bills were read at length, emails from constituents were read aloud, and Supreme Court decisions were recited mixed with the usual rhetorical flourishes you’d expect from 100 politicians.
Senate President Leroy Garcia of Pueblo and Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg of Boulder echoed Becker’s views on Democrats’ successes on many fronts in the last 120 days.
Significantly, Polis created the Office of Saving People Money on Health Care and put his lieutenant governor in charge of it, boosting Dianne Primavera’s paycheck by more than $74,000. The return on that investment theoretically will be in the price of insurance premiums.
Energy and climate
A bill ranked high on the wish list of the Democratic Party base, and the Democratic governor, was the state’s climate action plan to reduce greenhouse emissions by at least 26% by 2025, at least 50% by 2030 and 90% by 2050, based on 2005 levels.
High-profile House Bill 1261 gained final passage in the legislature with a House vote late Wednesday, with Republicans complaining about its potential impact on the economy.
The Senate amended the measure to address disproportionately impacted communities, as well as to grant more credit for technology that reduces emissions, and to instruct regulators to consider how new rules impact electricity reliability.
“I think climate change is so important, because I really believe we have a limited amount of time to address it,” said Becker, once of HB 1261’s sponsors.
Another major bill sponsored by Becker was a watershed moment for environmentalists opposed to oil-and-gas operations, Senate Bill 181.
Polis signed the local control legislation into law. The measure also repurposed the state's oil and gas regulatory board, focusing its attention on public health, safety and the environment over “fostering” the industry.
Opponents said it would cost the state jobs and tax revenue from extraction along the Front Range, as companies look elsewhere.
The last chapter on the issue has not been written, however, as opponents to the new law in Weld County are working on a ballot question to effectively undo the newly placed constraints on the industry either this November or more likely in 2020.
Heat over red flags
Among the 2019 session’s early bills, perhaps none generated more controversy than the "red flag" gun bill, House Bill 1177, also known as the Deputy Zackari Parrish III Violence Prevention Act. The measure was named for the Douglas County sheriff’s deputy who was gunned down by a man believed to be mentally ill on Dec. 31, 2017.
The bill allows a court to order guns to be seized from someone deemed to be a threat to themselves or others.
The 2018 version had bipartisan support from its House co-sponsors, Democratic Rep. Alec Garnett of Denver and Republican Rep. Cole Wist of Centennial, as well as notable Republicans such as 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler and Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock.
Wist, the House assistant minority leader last year, lost his re-election to Tom Sullivan of Centennial, a gun control activist whose son Alex was killed in the Aurora theater shooting in 2012. Brauchler lost his bid for state attorney general.
Most of that Republican support — save for Spurlock — evaporated with the 2019 version, which lengthened the amount of time that a seized firearm could be held by law enforcement.
The bill drew immediate opposition from pro-gun-rights groups and opponents who packed the Capitol for both of its hearings.
Democrats in swing districts steered clear of voting for the bill, mostly from Pueblo, including Senate President Garcia. Democratic Reps. Bri Buentello of Pueblo and Don Valdez of La Jara also voted against the measure.
By the time the bill hit the Senate on March 7, a dozen rural counties had declared themselves “sanctuaries,” meaning they didn't intend to enforce the law. Eventually, 36 out of the state’s 64 counties — including Douglas, Weld and El Paso — passed resolutions against the law, which Polis signed on April 12.
By then, recall committees were organizing against Polis, Garcia, Buentello and Spurlock.
The Rocky Mountain Gun Owners on Thursday announced a lawsuit challenging the measure.
Workplace pay and leave
Democrats passed the Equal Pay for Equal Work Act, after years of seeing the proposal die in the Republican-led Senate.
With the left in charge, Senate Bill 85 passed 40-21 on a party-line vote, then it passed the Senate 20-14, picking up support from Republican Sens. Don Coram of Montrose and Kevin Priola of Henderson.
The measure lets workers sue over sex discrimination on pay, and bars employers from seeking the wage history of a prospective employee to determine a pay rate.
Meanwhile, a paid family leave program got farther than it ever has in five years of trying for Democrats, but it didn’t cross the finish line. Instead, a proposed insurance program to pay for a worker's leave for up to 12 weeks for an illness or to care for a loved one was turned into a task force to study the proposal.
Small business and Democratic skeptics, including Polis, wanted more information on whether the fund to bring in enough money to cover its claims.
With that information, the bill’s sponsors, Sens. Faith Winter, D-Westminster, and Angela Williams, D-Denver, plan to be back next year with legislation to authorize the program.
Williams said a large majority of Coloradans lack any income to pay for extended leave.
“We know that Coloradans every day have some kind of life event that could put them into financial stress, that can lead to unemployment and just snowball into a lot of other items that doesn’t create an economically good working environment here in Colorado,” Williams said.
Polis campaigned for governor on a vow to make a big splash in his first 100 days in office. As the legislative session neared its end, he told reporters he was “very proud of what we accomplished in the first 100 days.”
He pointed to one of his biggest pledges — funding of full-day kindergarten.
Next year’s budget ensures $175 million to ensure all-day kindergarten is available and free across the state this fall.
“Unlike a lot of things in government that seem slow, we’re talking about a few months from now,” Polis said, although questions have been raised about whether schools will be ready in time.
Higher education also will see an increase next year, allowing them to hold tuition costs flat.
A defused sex-ed bill
Meanwhile, lawmakers passed House Bill 1032, a stripped-down version of the sex education bill introduced on the first day of the session and which generated angry opposition and dozens of hours of hearings with hundreds of witnesses.
The bill was rewritten on Thursday to take out some of the language that opponents most strongly objected to, although it retained its core provisions on teaching consent and closing a loophole used by some schools to teach an "abstinence-only" curriculum, which is barred under a 2013 law.
During the bill's final moments in the Senate, Republican Leader Chris Holbert of Parker spoke to the opponents outside the Capitol, which has included Colorado Christian University and the Catholic Church, telling them to be sure they're looking at the version from Thursday and not one from two months ago.
Republican Sen. Don Coram of Montrose, the bill's Senate co-sponsor, said he took "a lot of arrows" over his sponsorship of the bill but that it was the right thing to do. The Senate approved the measure -- much shorter than its original form -- on an 21-14 vote Friday. The House later gave its consent on the amendments and approved it on a 40-23 vote.
Movement on transportation
Following last fall's defeat of a pair of ballot questions to finance transportation improvements, lawmakers this year tried a variety of ways to find dollars for the the Colorado Department of Transportation's 10-year, $9 billion projects wish list. That included failed attempts to swap the state gas tax for a new sales and use tax and to tap into the general fund to pay for transportation.
The good news is that transportation will see more than $300 million in new investment from the state budget next year. The bad news is that most of that is one-year funding, with dwindling gas tax revenues keeping the state falling farther behind growth.
Polis, nonetheless, said the $300 million provided this year for roads showed “the commitment of Democrats and Republicans to do everything we can with the resources we have to reduce traffic and promote safety. Obviously, any long-term solutions would likely go before the voters.
“I am very happy that the legislature, Republicans and Democrats ... did everything they could with what they have, which I think was the message from voters,” Polis added.
“They didn’t bond with new revenue, they didn’t want a sales tax, They said do more, and this legislature has really stepped up, and we’re very supportive of that.”
New way of picking presidents
Democrats decided to commit the state to a new system of casting its Electoral College votes.
Senate Bill 42, which Polis signed in mid-March, commits Colorado electors to voting for whomever wins the national popular vote, regardless of who wins the state vote.
That's assuming that enough other states approve identical legislation to make a difference in the national outcome.
The measure has been attacked by Republicans, many of whom see it as a response to the election of Republican Donald Trump in the Electoral College despite losing the national popular vote by nearly 3 million ballots to Democrat Hillary Clinton.
A petition drive is underway to halt the measure's implementation pending the results of a statewide referendum.
Vaccinations bill dies
After hundreds of parents testified for and against a bill to toughen immunization reporting requirements, the state Senate quietly let the bill die on Thursday.
House Bill 1312 would have required parents or guardians who want to exempt their children from some or all vaccinations to fill out a state standardized form, rather than simply inform their local school.
The bill didn't take away any existing exemptions, but it's underlying goal was to increase the state's vaccination rate for school children. Supporters said it was critical, given the national measles outbreak.
Polis, however, already had said he might not sign the bill if the General Assembly sent it to him, based on the bill’s requirement that parents obtain the form in person from a local health department or the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Also passed in the 2019 session
- House Bill 1039, allowing transgender Coloradans to obtain new birth certificates instead of amended ones and easing rules for obtaining such documents.
- House Bill 1106, barring landlords from charging rental application fees if they can't prove they are used entirely to pay for processing applications.
- House Bill 1110, setting up a task force that will come up with recommendations for the curriculum on media literacy for elementary and secondary public education.
- House Bill 1124, blocking law enforcement officers from arresting an immigrant on orders from the federal government without a court order.
- House Bill 1129, banning licensed mental health therapists from providing "conversion therapy" to gay youths.
- House Bill 1168, setting up a "reinsurance" program to help health insurance providers that experience high-cost claims as a way to keep down costs.
- House Bill 1210, allowing local governments to set a minimum wage higher than that required by the state.
- House Bill 1216, capping the cost of insulin and authorize the state to find out why the drug costs so much.
- House Bill 1224, requiring local jails to provide free menstrual hygiene products to inmates.
- House Bill 1225, barring bail for various petty offenses and traffic cases.
- House Bill 1264, intended to increase transparency for the state's troubled conservation easements program, which some landowners say has cost then hundreds of thousands of tax credit dollars.
- House Bill 1228, doubling state affordable housing tax credits to $10 million a year for five years.
- House Bill 1234, allowing home delivery of marijuana products.
- House Bill 1266, allowing allow paroled felons to vote in Colorado.
- House Bill 1327, asking Colorado voters to approve wagering on sports events and setting a 10 percent tax to support state water planning, as well as provide money to combat gambling addiction.
- Senate Bill 7, adding guidelines and protections around sexual misconduct and violence at Colorado colleges.
- Senate Bill 100, allowing victims of revenge porn to seek civil damages.
- Senate Bill 139, opening more offices in the state's driver's license program for undocumented immigrants.
Conrad Swanson of The Gazette contributed.