Chris Holbert transportation (copy)

Colorado Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert speaks in support of adding more money into transportation spending at the state Capitol on Wednesday, March 27, 2019. 

Prepared remarks by Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, delivered Wednesday, Jan. 8., 2020:

Mr. President, Mr. Majority Leader, members, family, and guests:

The Colorado Senate has convened for the Second Regular Session of the 72nd General Assembly. Today, we begin the 144th year in the history of this state legislature.

Colleagues, it is an honor to serve with each of you. So few people have the opportunity to stand in this well, to debate issues, and participate in crafting the laws of our state. I’m humbled to be counted among you and those who have served before us.

For some of you, this will be your final general session serving in this chamber. During the final days of this session, we will gather here to offer what Senator Pat Steadman labeled as “eulogies to the living.” We will recognize those who, due to health challenges, term-limits, or their own decisions will not be members of this chamber when it convenes next January.

Senator Court, thank you for your sense of humor, your tenacity, and your extensive institutional memory. My family and I will continue to pray for your healing and full recovery. God Bless you, friend.

Senator Todd, thank you for your kindness, your wisdom, and your willingness to work together.

Senator Hill, thank you for your brilliant mind, innovative approach to just about everything, and for being bold.

Senator Crowder, thank you for caring about the young, the old, veterans, rural Colorado, and well... everyone.

Senator Tate, thank you for your effective negotiation skills, your ability to express complex issues in simple terms, and for your love of hockey.

Senator Foote, thank you for being Number 17 on the Minority side of the aisle! Seriously, thank you for your keen legal mind, ability to explain law in simple terms within complex matters, and on a personal note, for your help with President Schaefer’s bill last year.

Senator Marble, thank you for your principled voting record, your patriotism, and your encouragement over the years.

Senator Williams, thank you for your friendship and the beautiful tribute to the Buffalo soldiers that you presented here at the State Capitol. You won our first-term bet. You became a committee chair before I did, but I made chamber leadership before you. I guess you won on both counts. I will miss serving with you.

To all of those who have or will be leaving, it has been an honor to serve with you, rewarding to get to know your stories, to learn from you, and to better understand the world from your perspective. Thank you for your service to the People of Colorado.

Article V, Section 7 of our state constitution states that “The general assembly shall meet in regular session at 10 a.m. no later than the second Wednesday of January of each year.” That is today. The state constitution also says that our annual general session may not exceed 120 days. That will take us through midnight, Wednesday, May 6th. At that point, our law-making authority will end and we part-time, seasonal, citizen-legislators will, once again, be citizens, just like everybody else.

Last year, amidst the furious pace of our first regular session together, we were reminded of other requirements found in the Colorado constitution. Mr. President, while it is understandable that members of the Majority might feel frustration toward the tenacity with which the Minority approached debate last session, it was nonetheless disappointing to hear those principled efforts described as “children throwing temper tantrums.”

No, we are all adults here. Motions are not personal, required procedure not tantrum, and votes are not attacks. I count you as a friend, Mr. President, and I consider all of you – even those with whom I might on occasion disagree vehemently on some given policy– to be friends, too.

Mr. President, we in the Minority will indeed take the constitution of the United States, the Colorado constitution, it’s statutes, and legislative rules at their “literal meaning.” We will utilize our knowledge of those documents to effectively and diligently communicate the positions that our constituents sent us here to defend and we will use the few tools afforded to us as the Minority.

But, Mr. President, we share your desire to work through this session more as we ended the last one than with the turmoil we experienced mid-session.

Thank you, Mr. President, for your call last July. As I recall, you were in your back yard in Pueblo grilling dinner and drinking a beer while I was doing the same in Parker. Mr. President, that open and honest conversation allowed us as leaders to see what others could not: that there simply were not enough votes to support what was being discussed under the premise of a special session. Thank you, Mr. President. Let’s do more of that over the next 119 days.

And now, to the elephant in the room.

Article V, Section 22 of our state constitution states: “Every bill shall be read by title when introduced, and at length on two different days in each house; provided, however, any reading at length may be dispensed with upon unanimous consent of the members present.” That is not a legislative rule, nor is it a mere law as enacted by the General Assembly. No, that is a requirement of our state constitution as amended by the People of Colorado. It’s there because the People wanted it that way.

While we have grown accustomed to having unanimous consent and dispensing with such reading-at-length, the state constitution to which we have all sworn an oath to defend, describes a standard operating procedure in which every bill is read at length, twice, on separate days, in each chamber.

That would be Second and Third Reading here in the Senate and again in the House. Every bill. That would be quite a limitation given that our 120-day general session cannot be extended. But, we didn’t do that. In fact, last session the Senate Minority requested just 13 bills be read at length, for a total of about 12 hours during that 120-day session.

But, Mr. President, as you and I have discussed, the objective of such readings was not to simply expend time. No, the objective usually was, and is, to vie for discussion, the opportunity for you, the Majority Leader or another member of the Majority to ask, “What do you want?” That question can be the magic words that open a not-so-secret door to success. Our responsibility in the Minority is to be able to answer to that question if and when asked.

Yes, the state constitution allows the Majority to pass any bill it wishes and there is nothing at all that the Minority can do to stop it. However, the state constitution doesn’t necessarily grant the Majority the authority to pass an unlimited number of bills during each limited session timeframe. Thus, prioritization and communication become important factors in this unique environment in which we work.

We proved how well it could work when we found a way to include three hundred million dollars of transportation funding in the current state budget. Critics scoffed that the budget amendment would never pass here in the Senate, but it did. Naysayers proclaimed that it would never hold in the House, but it did. In the end, we achieved a dollar amount and a level of bipartisan cooperation that shocked many and probably disappointed those few who actually thrive on confrontation.

We achieved that again, the two of us, Mr. President, over the interim relative to special session discussions. And, Mr. President, I am confident that we can achieve it many more times over the next 119 days.

How do such negotiations happen here in the Colorado General Assembly? Well, it’s probably due at least in part to Article V Section 22a of the Colorado constitution, which prohibits caucus positions. It concerns me when I hear questions from the lobby or press corps asking if our caucus will “lock down” on a certain piece of legislation.

Unlike Congress in Washington, DC and most other state legislatures, we aren’t allowed to do that. Nope, here in the Colorado General Assembly, each member is accountable for his or her votes to his or her constituents… and no one else.

Still, it was interesting to read an analysis of all Third Reading votes cast here in the Senate during the 2019 general session. That analysis was conducted by the Colorado Sun last summer and it showed that the most bipartisan member of the Senate Minority, he who had the sixteenth fewest “No” votes on Third Reading, actually demonstrated greater independence in his voting record than did all nineteen members of the Majority caucus combined.

Moving forward, it’s important for all of us, the members elected, to keep Article V, Section 22 concerning the reading of bills and 22a, which prohibits caucus positions in mind. Why? Because the next part, Article V Section 22b, specifies that any bill that does not comply with the prior two sections shall be nullified if it becomes law. Yes… that too, is in our state constitution.

Mr. President, last year, I discussed some of the results of the 2018 election, which gave control of our state government to your party. In reviewing those results, I noted that while the people tended to vote with you when it came to candidates, they tended to vote with me when it came to issues.

In 2019, the People of Colorado soundly rejected Proposition CC. That outcome demonstrates, once again, that the voters expect better return from government for their money.

Colorado taxpayers have sent us an ever-increasing supply of dollars every year since the 2011-2012 state budget. Taxpayers rightly expect us to be more accountable and to provide greater return for their dollars

Unlike how things work in Washington, D.C., here in Colorado a dollar means a dollar. We must pass a budget each year and that budget must be balanced. We cannot deficit spend, nor can we print money. Unlike Congress, we cannot continue adding spending commitments paid for with ever-increasing debt. No, here in the Colorado General Assembly, our state constitution requires us to live within the means that the taxpayers of Colorado send to us each year. And, as they have given us more, they rightly expect better return on the priorities they see for our state: transportation, K-12 public education, and higher education.

So where do we go from here?

Over the past three years, Senate Republicans have advocated for an annual appropriation of at least $300 million to roads and bridges. We remain consistent with that call for the next fiscal year. The Governor’s budget request includes $605 million for roads and bridges. At first glance, that might seem like more than twice the amount for which we have advocated. But, there’s a catch.

We note that $555 million of that budget request is a result of Senate Bill 17-267, which created yet another enterprise, a state-owned business. Part of that 2017 bill directed the State Treasurer to issue Certificates of Participation or “COP” debit, a type of public debt that is not contemplated by our Taxpayers Bill of Rights. That is the source of those five hundred and fifty-five million debit dollars and we ought not take credit for that funding this year. If credit is due for that funding, then let it go to those who supported Senate Bill 267 in 2017.

Upon closer inspection, it is disappointing to find only fifty million dollars coming from the General Fund to address our transportation needs. That is actually a decrease of $250 million from our bi-partisan efforts last session. Members, especially to those who serve on the Joint Budget Committee, let’s please dedicate ourselves to maintaining at least $300 million for roads and bridges in the 2020-2021 budget. It isn’t a matter of taking those dollars from somewhere else. No, in this case, it is simply a matter of leaving that dollar commitment where it is currently.

On the matter of roads and bridges, it is important for us here in the state legislature to keep in mind the part-time, seasonal, nature of our role as state legislators. Every other Colorado elected official has the power of his or her elected office throughout the year. We, on the other hand, have law-making authority for only 120 days each year. Thus, we ought to think less as fulltime project managers and more like the part-time resource allocators that we are based on our state constitution.

For example, according to the Office of Legislative Counsel, the last time that the General Assembly voted to approve a specific road or bridge project occurred in the year 1899. It was a wagon road between Leadville and Pueblo that was built by convicts. Why was that the last time? Because Colorado is a local-control state and elected officials at the county and municipal levels of government, those who hold the power of their elected offices year round, generally decide what transportation projects get done and when within their respective jurisdictions.

Colleagues, we all represent and work with town or city council members, mayors, and county commissioners who approve and oversee road and bridge projects within their communities. They work with each other and with constituents to determine how each unique locality views issues such as public transportation. It’s no surprise that, here in Colorado, diverse communities see things in diverse ways; and each of them is right for their respective community.

I am grateful to the county commissioners in Douglas and El Paso Counties for their leadership in working with the federal Department of Transportation, the Colorado Department of Transportation, between those two counties, and with the municipal jurisdictions along the southern I-25 corridor to widen I-25 from Castle Rock to Monument. In our unique, local control, state, there is hardly ever reason for we part-time state legislators to travel to Washington, DC in order to discuss interstate highway expansion and maintenance. But, our county commissioners do that frequently.

Mr. President, members, as a way for us to all say, “Thank you” to those who have made the I-25 “gap” project a reality, please welcome from Douglas County Colorado, Commissioner Lora Thomas. Thank you, Commissioner Thomas and also a shout out to former state Representative and now County Commissioner Mark Waller who has led that effort in El Paso County.

Moving forward, Senate Republicans want to ask voters to consider bonding as a means to leverage hundreds of millions into billions of dollars, sooner rather than later. If the Majority decides to refer a question relative to the gas tax, then allow some or all of that “new revenue” to go towards bonding, please.

The failure of Proposition CC also means that we must be thoughtful in our decision-making relative to K-12 public education. As a result of the Great Recession, the state implemented a large debt that is owed to the 178 school districts here in Colorado. We refer to that debt as the budget stabilization factor. Today it sits at nearly $572 million.

Here in Colorado, this legislature doesn’t set teacher salaries. Over the last summer, I attended a meeting of Republican chamber leaders from around the county. There, I met the Majority Leader of the West Virginia House of Representatives. Since that has been one of the states often mentioned in stories about teacher protests at state capitols for higher salaries, I asked her if the West Virginia state legislature somehow establishes teacher salaries on a statewide basis. She responded with a resounding “Yes!”

That discussion demonstrates that the state constitution of West Virginia and that of Colorado are different. States are different. We know that because, here in Colorado, local school boards determine teacher salaries, not the state legislature. West Virginia does it their way and we do it another, and both are correct according to those two different state constitutions.

Still, Republicans share the desire to pay teachers more, especially those teachers who excel at teaching. Putting more toward buying down of the budget stabilization factor would allow local school districts to increase teacher salaries within their respective jurisdictions. We didn’t tell those local school boards how to cut their budgets during the Great Recession and we ought to avoid telling them how to increase their budgets during a booming economy.

Mr. President, members, as a way for us to say “thank you” to teachers across Colorado, please welcome from Palmer Lake Elementary in Monument, Colorado, Lindsey Burris. Let’s do all we can to support teachers and the 178 locally elected school boards to increase teacher pay in their school districts.

During this session, Senate Republicans will introduce a package of education bills that are designed to make real, positive, changes to our public K-12 education system. We will address school choice and innovation, taxpayer accountability and transparency, ways to better support great teachers, and ways to address the safety of students, teachers, and staff within our public schools. We are focusing on ways to improve delivery without necessarily asking for more money from taxpayers. We will respond to the taxpayers of Colorado by delivering better return for the increasing number of dollars they send to us.

As to the third leg of the failed Proposition CC, that being higher education, it is important that we recognize our limitations as a state legislature. Do you know that the amount of funding that we are able to send to the University of Colorado is approximately five percent of their total funding each year? Yes, five percent. As a minority stakeholder, we should avoid acting as though we have majority control or influence over their annual budget. Rather, we should seek ways to help our institutions of higher education to think outside the box, to be more entrepreneurial, and to achieve their goals in new and innovative ways.

To that end, there are two leaders of Colorado higher education here with us today who deserve our thanks and recognition. First, as president of Arapahoe Community College, Diana Doyle has worked to expand access to concurrent enrollment for high school students throughout the Front Range. Whether through a credential or an Associates Degree, we know that greater success can be realized with each level of success achieved in higher education. Over the summer, I was proud to attend the grand opening of an ACC satellite campus in Castle Rock, which improves access for more people to achieve greater outcomes. Mr. President, members, please welcome to the Senate chamber, the President of Arapahoe Community College, Ms. Diana Doyle.

Mr. President, we also have with us the President of a Colorado-based four-year institution of higher education that hasn’t increased tuition since 2011, does not charge student fees, and has healthy financial reserves if ever they are needed. The institution offers a published standard tuition that is the fifth lowest in the nation, yet this institution does not receive COF dollars from the state. This institution serves as an example to us here in the General Assembly because it actually delivers high quality at low cost. US News and World Report ranks CSU-Global as the eighth best online Bachelors Degree program in the nation and number six for BA degrees for Veterans. I was also honored to attend a grand opening of a new CSU-Global facility in Aurora, which also improves access for more people to achieve great outcomes. Mr. President, members, please welcome to the Senate chamber the President of CSU-Global, Ms. Becky Takeda-Tinker.

Mr. President, members, working together President Doyle and President Takeda-Tinker have embraced articulation agreements as envisioned on a bi-partisan basis here at the Capitol. In my opinion, they represent the best of the present and a very bright future for higher education here in Colorado. Together, Republicans and Democrats have addressed transition points between pre-school all the way through Bachelors or even more advanced degrees earned in Colorado. Ladies, thank you for your innovative and effective leadership.

Improving access for people to achieve greater outcomes. Hmm… that’s starting to sound like a theme. Given our finite ability to fund, our focus should be less toward creating new programs and pleading for more money, and more toward raising awareness about existing programs that actually work; to improve access for people to achieve great outcomes.

For example, for some students, some families, concurrent enrollment can cut the cost of a four-year college degree in half. While it’s not the right answer for every student, it’s perfect for some… and it already exists.

Mr. President, members, we have with us today a high school student who completed all of the requirements of an Associate’s Degree in Science by the end of her junior year in high school. Her school and school district have paid for most of those college credits. Now, as a high school senior, she is working toward a certification as a veterinarian’s assistant. Grace, would you please stand and members, hold your applause for one moment.

Mr. President, members, Grace Sandez attends Colorado Early Colleges in Fort Collins. Former state Senator Keith King founded that school and others like it in Colorado Springs, Parker, and Aurora. Today, and they educate 3,500 students.

Looking ahead, Grace hopes to attend a veterinarian college and fulfill one of her lifetime goals, to be a veterinarian. And she has opportunity to accomplish that goal as a first-year junior in college because our predecessors here in the legislature and leaders in her school district, at her school, her teachers, and parents improved access for people to achieve greater outcomes. Mr. President, members, please welcome to the Senate chamber future veterinarian, Miss Grace Sandez.

Just this week, I spoke to a parent of a high school senior who was excited about how concurrent enrollment was providing opportunity for her son. Her only frustration was that she and her son didn’t know about concurrent enrollment until his senior year in high school. Members, we owe it to parents of students here in Colorado to inform them about concurrent enrollment, and to do that earlier in the student’s academic career - middle school – which, for students like Grace and her family can cut the cost of a four-year degree in half.

But, concurrent enrollment isn’t the right answer for all students and our prior work on articulation agreements and simplifying transition points P-24 embraces that fact. For example, Carson, my son, has graduated from high school and is currently working to complete his Associates Degree with the intention of transferring to CSU-Global as a third-year junior.

For Carson, that path made sense. He is working and earning income while completing his first two years of college at ACC while his third and fourth years of college will likely be completed online, all while living at home and keeping his expenses low and debt to a minimum. Mr. President, members, please welcome my son, Carson Holbert, to the Senate chamber.

But, Mr. President, not every student in Colorado receives the support and encouragement they deserve. No, for some, each day is a challenge for acceptance. During the 2015 general session, I was proud to serve as a prime sponsor of “Jack’s Law” named for Jack Splitt. That law required each locally elected school board to adopt a policy that would allow a parent or designated adult caregiver to dispense cannabis-based medicine to a designated patient student while on school property during school hours. I was proud to see the Douglas County Board of Education lead the way with such a policy following the 2015 General Session.

No, that law doesn’t allow kids to possess cannabis on campus, only a parent or adult care giver. No, the law doesn’t allow for anything to be smoked. Most of the time, it’s about an eyedropper of oil. Open, swallow, and get back to class. But, in some cases, there might need to be a more robust solution available for someone who could potentially suffer a grand maul seizure. One constituent who I represent is deathly allergic to the pharmaceuticals used in such an epipen. If he were to experience a grand maul seizure, then some good Samaritan who intended the best could actually kill my friend by injecting what for others is the only hope. That constituent needs a solution that does not involve those pharmaceuticals and, instead, must rely on a THC-based cannabis alternative.

But, the school board in our school district has refused to allow that cannabis-based alternative to be stored on school grounds. If the student were to suffer a grand maul seizure, then there would not be time to retrieve the proper medication from his home and the young man could die. Why are students still being discriminated against due to cannabis-based medicine? Why can’t being seizure-free for four years be evidence enough that good things can come from that plant? How can we stand by as one or more school boards in this state presumes to decide which student lives and which might die?

If Representatives Singer and Van Winkle can find the right wording, the right solution, then I would again ask for your help in sending yet another clear message to those 178 locally elected school boards. Jack’s Law passed this chamber unanimously and I would hope that our next step might be unanimous as well.

One of Jack Spiltt’s fellow student advocates for cannabis-based medicine is here with us today. Ben, would you please stand and members, please remain seated for a moment longer. Those who served on the Senate Education Committee in 2015 might remember that little boy from five years ago who wrote his own testimony and read it aloud before committee. As you can see, Little Ben isn’t so little anymore. When one person who testified in opposition to Jack’s Law asked, “where is the evidence?” I turned and pointed to Ben Wann and said, “it’s right there” and he stands here again, today.

Ben is an epileptic who has now lived four years seizure free due to cannabis-based medicine. Ben needs a cannabis-based nasal spray to be stored at his school in the event that the worst happens. But, the Douglas County Board of Education won’t allow it to be stored on campus. Members, would you please welcome Ben and his parents, Amber and Brad Wann, to the Senate chamber? Members, I may ask for you to stand with Ben again later this session.

Mr. President, I have great confidence that, working together, we can address these and many other issues. I am proud to stand with you and our thirty-three co-equal colleagues here in the Colorado Senate.

We can do this, Mr. President. And now, let’s get to work.

Thank you, Mr. President.

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