Colorado’s legislature rebooted its 2021 session Tuesday after a five-week hiatus. The reason for the unusual pause in lawmakers’ work was of course to sit out the pandemic as its numbers, happily, continue to wind down. Much of the rest of Colorado continued to toil away at work and school during those five weeks, probably unconcerned and maybe even unaware their elected state senators and representatives had taken leave.
Now that lawmakers are back on the job, we’ll reiterate our usual plea to them to stick to the basics of lawmaking and avoid meandering off onto flights of fancy. Yes, that is a bit like expecting your elementary schooler to head straight to his room after school, sit up to his desk and dig into his homework. But the admonition to stay on task is more urgent this time.
Last year’s session also was disrupted by the spread of COVID; it was followed by a special session in December largely to address the virus and its ripple effects, and this year’s legislature convened for only three days in January before taking a break. And that’s the simplified version. It amounted to a lot of stopping and restarting of the people’s business.
Assuming lawmakers stay in the saddle this time and see the session through, it’s all the more incumbent on them to follow the straight and narrow path and avoid sideshows. There are bread-and-butter issues to take up, notably passing the annual state budget and forging its key components. Perhaps foremost among those is transportation, which we’ll refer to as “highways” — because that must be the main focus of any transportation-funding package.
We already have called on lawmakers of both parties to address Colorado’s $5 billion-plus backlog of highway, road and bridge projects in a substantive, realistic and strategic way. Expect us to keep calling for that approach to jump-starting this critical need. It means hammering out highway legislation that takes a long-run view and makes a serious, multi-year effort to chip away at the backlog of infrastructure projects. It means compromise. Which, in turn, probably will mean more than one funding source toward that end. There likely will be a new fee that Democrats have been pushing, but it also should include a regular, reliable legislative appropriation out of the general fund — long demanded by wide-ranging transportation stakeholders. Yes, it’s that important. It is essential so Colorado can recover from COVID; accommodate its swelling population — and move its economy forward.
Now, about those legislative sideshows to avoid. There are many. They are tempting because they can make great political theater and play well with vocal constituencies. They also are treacherous because they waste time and in some cases squander political capital on needless conflict. And the opportunities to stray lurk everywhere in every session. Consider a few examples of bills that illustrate the range of possibilities.
There are bills that draw a, “Huh?” Perhaps they earn points for creativity, but they hardly address pressing issues or respond to discernible public demand. Like the now-pending Senate Bill 6, which would tweak state law to allow human remains to be used as garden compost. We’ll take it on faith the practice is currently illegal and that the sponsors did their research in that regard before locking and loading their bill. But — why?
Then there are bills that would accomplish little if enacted yet would stir marathon debate along the way. Take pending legislation that would give military veterans in Colorado the status “discharged LGBT veteran” if they were discharged other than honorably from military service (but not dishonorably discharged) “due to the person's sexual orientation or gender identity …” or related considerations. They then would be eligible for some state programs and benefits available to honorably discharged veterans. Would it be much of a line in the budget? That’s unlikely but unclear. Would it open a legal can of worms? Possibly. Would it set off salvos of politically charged rhetoric back and forth across the aisle in both chambers? Probably.
More insidious are legislative attempts to insert one party’s agenda into broader initiatives that have bipartisan buy-in. A Trojan Horse, if you will. A press release Tuesday by ruling Senate Democrats, on the session’s upcoming COVID-recovery efforts, declares: “Senate Democrats strongly believe that returning to ‘normal’ is not good enough and that reimagining a future where regular people can thrive is a top priority.” Which of course is another way of saying never let a crisis go to waste.
As far as COVID is concerned, we suspect a lot of Coloradans would be quite happy with a return to normal — and perfectly content to reimagine their own future without the General Assembly getting involved.