Legislative leaders talk 2019 session at Metro Denver Chamber breakfast

Speaker of the House-designee KC Becker talks about her caucus's agenda. Photo by Dave Anderson on InSync Photography + Design.

Kelly Brough, president and CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, might have said it best: "We don't know yet."

That's what to expect from the 2019 Colorado legislative session, particularly when it comes to what Gov.-elect Jared Polis will do about many issues facing Coloradans that didn't emerge on the campaign trail.

But as to the issues upon which Polis has campaigned, Brough's message was clear: that she and her chamber allies intend to partner with Polis on the three most critical issues facing the state, which the chamber sees as  education, health care and infrastructure, including water and transportation.

And those same items topped the agendas of the legislative leaders in attendance at Thursday’s annual legislative preview, hosted by the chamber at the Hyatt Regency Denver at Colorado Convention Center‎ hotel.

With the Denver Business Journal's Ed Sealover handling questions, the lawmakers discussed their business agenda for 2019.

For House Speaker designee KC Becker of Boulder, that means transportation and education funding, as well as addressing the high cost of health care and child care. The House Democrats' agenda also includes the environment, particularly on renewable energy and climate change, she said.

Sen. Angela Williams of Denver will chair the Senate’s Business, Labor and Technology Committee beginning Friday, and she appeared in place of incoming Senate President Leroy Garcia of Pueblo.

“Our priorities are not much different,” Williams told the crowd, estimated at 450. After the failure of two transportation ballot measures last November, Williams said the conversation around transportation funding will not go away and that it will be important to work across the aisle with minority Republicans on that issue, as well as on education.

One of the defeated measures on the fall ballot was the chamber-backed Proposition 110, which would have raised the state sales tax to pay for $3.5 billion in transportation projects.

Despite 110's loss, Becker said the state still needs a new revenue source for transportation funding, although she added that they could look for other ways to fund it.

She applauded the $495 million that the 2018 General Assembly put into transportation and hinted the same amount is possible in the 2019 session, but that approach won’t work forever. Eventually, Becker said, it could pull money away from schools and colleges, health care and corrections.

She also said she believes if a transportation measure were on the ballot by itself, without competition from other measures, it would succeed. Prop 110 shared ballot space with Amendment 73, a proposal to raise taxes for schools that also met with defeat.

Williams agreed that the state could not bond for transportation projects without a revenue stream to support it. “We need to invest,” but gave no particulars about solutions her caucus is considering.

Both Becker and Williams said the state should put in more funding for education, despite the rejection of Amendment 73. Neither, however, had any suggestions on how to pay for that.

Becker said the state also needs to do a better job in funding higher education, which is usually the first place for cuts when the state has to trim budgets.

One of the stickier issues facing the 2019 General Assembly is what, if anything, to do with the Gallagher Amendment. That’s the 1982 voter-approved constitutional change that set a ratio for residential and commercial property tax rates.

Over the past 35 years, that fixed ratio -- combined with the effects of another amendment, the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights -- has driven down property tax payouts for residential taxpayers in many rural areas, and that means less funding for special districts that rely on those dollars, like fire and water.

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Sen. Angela Williams of Denver outlines Senate priorities at Chamber breakfast

Sen. Angela Williams, a Denver Democrat, outlines her caucus's priorities at Chamber breakfast. Photo by Dave Anderson on InSync Photography + Design.

Is the legislature willing to tackle Gallagher this year? Sealover asked. Becker downplayed the possibility of a legislative solution, which would have to go to voters for approval.

“There’s only so much the legislature can do about Gallagher” since it’s a constitutional amendment, she said, and getting a referred measure out of the General Assembly would require a two-thirds vote in both chambers.

Becker said she didn’t know if that was likely, hinting that the two caucuses aren’t seeing eye-to-eye on the issue.

“If it were up to me, I’d repeal TABOR [the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights],” Williams said. "If we address Gallagher we have to be careful about its effects with TABOR,” adding that Gallagher is strangling the General Assembly’s ability to fund transportation projects.

As for bills directly affecting business, several are already being discussed by Democrats. One is another attempt at what’s known as the FAMLI bill, which would require employees to pay a fee into a state fund that would pay for paid-time off.

Another is a “ban the box” bill that would ban employers from asking if potential employees had ever been convicted of a crime, along with a measure that would allow local governments to raise the minimum wage in their communities.

Williams acknowledged the anxiety those bills are causing, pledging that she and Garcia would have open conversations on those bills with the business community. And while she noted she had voted against the FAMLI bill in 2018, she is a co-sponsor of it in 2019 with Sen.-elect Faith Winter of Westminster.

“I believe in the principle of it,” Williams said, adding that Winter is “open-minded” on how to make it work.

Becker said that previous changes -- such as a 40-hour work week and the federal Family and Medical Leave Act -- were not viewed positively by business when they were adopted years ago. Now they’re part of doing business, she said.

Onto the subject of oil and gas, both were asked if they would support a six-to-nine-month moratorium on oil and gas permits.

Becker said that was something for Gov.-elect Jared Polis to handle, not the legislature, but added that “I don’t know if a moratorium is the right way to go.”

Becker said there is a backlog of 6,000 permits with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, a  arising out of the midterm elections and the wait to see what happened with Proposition 112, which would have barred most new oil and gas development within almost half a mile of buildings. As it turned out, 112 was defeated.

Williams agreed that she did not support a moratorium. “I don’t want to take food off the table” for people working in the industry, she said.

But Becker and Williams both dismissed the possibility of another setback measure from the legislature, as well as handing oil and gas regulation over to local communities.

“We can address” issues such as air and water quality, trucking impacts, odor and noise, Becker said, adding that “I don’t think local control is the answer,” either, because some communities don’t have the time or expertise to regulate those activities.

Instead, the COGCC “should consider more directly or more robustly health and safety impacts, which is not a strong part of their review," she said.

Finally, the two leaders addressed health care costs and what their caucuses intend to do about it. Williams said she didn’t have specifics but it is high on Senate Democrats’ priority list. Becker said House Democrats are  looking at “surprise” out-of-network bills, reinsurance, and transparency in hospital pricing.

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House Minority Leader Neville and Senate Assistant Minority Leader John Cooke

House Minority Leader Patrick Neville discusses his caucus's role in a Democratic-majority House, along with Senate Assistant Minority Leader John Cooke. Photo by Dave Anderson on InSync Photography + Design.

As for the Republican minorities in the 2019 legislature, House Minority Leader Patrick Neville of Castle Rock said his caucus will fight against new taxes or fees, pointing out that Coloradans rejected several ballot measures that would have raised taxes. “It’s clear [from] this election season. Taxes are off the table," he said.

Senate Assistant Minority Leader John Cooke of Windsor said his caucus is focused on roads and bridges, K-12 education and health care. “We had $1.2 billion of revenue that we weren’t expecting [in 2018],” Cooke said, and 2019 will be the same.

His caucus views their role as holding the majority accountable. And instead of being the backstop to Democratic bills, as was their role from 2015 through 2018, Republicans will be “the conscience of the Senate.”

On transportation, last year's Senate Bill 1 is still the answer, Cooke said, and one that lead to a ballot measure in November for additional bonding. The big question appears to be how much tinkering the Democrats will do with the 2018 law, he added.

Neville said the legislature should look at education reforms in addition to education funding, especially on the issue of assessments. He also said he believes full-day kindergarten, long on the wish list of Democrats and even a few Republicans, will become a reality this year, although he doesn’t support it.

Republicans don’t favor tinkering with Gallagher, according to Neville and Cooke.

“Gallagher is working; it’s keeping our property taxes low,” Cooke said. If fire and water districts need more funding, they should ask voters for it, as was done in 2018 in Kersey, in Weld County, he said. Neville said his caucus is open to a regional solution to the Gallagher formula.

Cooke said his caucus would be the voice of reason on anti-business bills in the 2019 session.

Both Neville and Cooke dismissed the moratorium idea for oil and gas; Cooke called it “ridiculous. ... Let the COGCC handle it,” he added.

The one area where there seemed to be some agreement between the two parties: on the issue of transparency on health care costs.

“We did make progress” last year, Neville said.

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