Colorado’s economy, climate change, transportation, education and gun violence are top priorities for Colorado House Democrats this year, newly-appointed House Speaker KC Becker said Friday on the opening day of the Colorado General Assembly’s 2019 session.
Becker outlined her priorities just minutes after she was elected as speaker of the House, the fourth woman to hold that position.
Representatives also must take a bipartisan approach to solving the state’s substantial issues, Becker said.
Reaching across the aisle isn’t mandatory since Democrats hold a comfortable majority in the House.
Even so, Rep. Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo, said Democrats aren’t looking to “just bulldoze our way through” the 120 legislative session.
“But at the same time, elections have consequences,” Esgar said. And the November midterms elected Democrats across the state and set the expectations of Coloradans, which she said she hopes House Republicans will recognize.
Some of those Republicans say they’re wary Democrats will force their agenda on the state, rather than seek bipartisan solutions.
“It didn’t sound very collaborative,” Fountain Republican Rep. Lois Landgraf said of Becker’s address. “But I’m hoping I’m wrong.”
Indeed, Rep. Patrick Neville, R-Castle Rock, who will continue as the House minority leader, said Republicans are willing to reach across the aisle this year, but there are areas where they’ll push back.
“People make mistakes. People are fallible. People can be tempted,” Neville said. “We don’t want to give those in government too much power to interfere with our lives because they’re just as prone to mistakes as the rest of us.”
During her address, Becker first addressed the economy, jabbing at President Donald Trump, who she said tweets about the stock market “at least when it’s up,” despite the struggle of many Coloradans.
“We’ve gone from a deep recession to a thriving state,” Becker said. “But the advantages of Colorado’s growth and economic prosperity of the last five or six years haven’t been felt by every corner of our state.”
Many Colorado families save money for years to get ahead, but to no avail, Becker said.
“That means we need to give them the tools they need to get ahead,” she said.
Some of those tools include paid family leave and equal pay for women and minorities, she said. That also means bridging the gap between urban and rural portions of the state, reducing the cost of health care and providing the opportunity for more high-paying jobs in the state.
Landgraf said she supports paid family leave, but only using a free-market approach that doesn’t place undue financial burdens on employers.
Neville said Republicans would not support an “expensive and involuntary program.”
“We’ll oppose it because we know, and history teaches, that such a program will cost more than planned and be less efficient than planned,” he said. “Even as it makes Colorado less affordable for single moms, working families and young people joining the workforce.”
Another step to addressing the economy, Becker said, is to provide more affordable housing.
“That means we need to invest state dollars in our affordable housing trust fund,” Becker said. “It is my hope and the hope of many in this chamber that we work together to problem solve and expand opportunity.”
Landgraf acknowledged affordable housing is an issue. And a solution shouldn’t doesn’t include raising the minimum wage because that would further raise the cost of living, she said.
Shifting to climate change, Becker once more said Coloradans must find a solution without help from the federal government, which “has once again chosen to bury its head in the sand” rather than addressing the issue.
“Climate change is real,” she said. “We need to continue Colorado’s climate leadership for the sake of our economy, public health and clean air.”
Colorado’s natural resources natural resources at risk and their future depends on addressing climate change, Becker said.
Another issue at stake for the state’s future is education, Becker said.
“Many of our educators are having to work multiple jobs just to pay their own bills,” she said. “And many students have never had the experience of being in a fully funded school system.”
The state must invest more in education, from preschool to college, and ensure students are prepared for the ever-changing job market, she said.
Despite recent investments in education from the statehouse, Neville said results are still lacking and more must be done like deregulating public schools, paying teachers more and expanding charter schools.
Additional work is needed to curb “skyrocketing” health care costs, Becker said and Neville agreed.
Both advocated for more transparent health care pricing, though Becker said she seeks more stability to the health insurance market while Neville decried mandatory participation and said he wants to offer consumers more choices.
Related is the nationwide opioid epidemic, which Becker said has claimed more lives than the Vietnam War and requires more work “to end the stigma surrounding addiction and recovery.”
But for Republicans, that work doesn’t include the implementation of safe injection sites for drug users, Neville said.
“Asking the taxpayer to foot the bill to continue addiction is a bad idea,” he said. “Subsidizing the slow-motion suicide of our citizens is wrong. We can and must do better.”
Another life-saving move in Colorado would be implementing more legislation on gun control to curb the rising tide of gun violence in America.
“Our state, our children, our families and even those who are now represented in this chamber have been personally impacted by this crisis,” she said. “That means we will work to pass the life saving Extreme Risk Protection Order bill to prevent tragedies before they happen.”
To Landgraf, that sounded like a “red flag” bill.
Such a bill might allow law enforcement to remove firearms and ammunition from the control of someone considered to be at-risk of committing gun violence.
Landgraf said she would oppose that type of legislation and would instead favor something that addresses mental health issues because she said she’ll “never believe gun control is the solution.”
Neville shared similar reservations.
“New laws designed to prevent the mentally ill from acquiring firearms are so badly written and open to abuse that they are more likely to rob the innocent of the ability to defend themselves than to prevent the mentally ill from killing,” he said. “While we are prepared to look closely at such bills, we are not willing to leave the innocent defenseless so we might feel good about ourselves.”
Colorado Springs Republican Rep. Dave Williams said he hopes Democrats don’t shut down debate with their strong majority.
“The election results speak for themselves -- they did win the House and the Senate and the governorship, and we certainly respect that as Republicans,” he said. “But we also expect that our districts and their voices are not disenfranchised in the process and are heard.”
Whether the two parties will work together or in opposition remains to be seen, Williams said. It’s too early to tell. He did, however, have thoughts on how his fellow Republicans will receive Becker’s priorities for the general assembly.
“Most of the big ticket items that the speaker discussed in her speech are ones that you’re going to find, I would say, unanimous, and if not unanimous, nearly unanimous, opposition from the Republican caucus," he said.
Ernest Luning contributed to this report.