Colorado’s 2020 legislative session commenced this week — an annual event which prompts prognostications from virtually everyone in the business of commenting on such things. Herewith, a few of mine:
1. The overall situation is unchanged from last year; both legislative chambers and the Governor’s Office are in Democratic hands. One-party rule — from either side — tends to weigh toward the dogmatic, as certainly proved to be the case last year. There is little to suggest that that will change this go-round, and several indications that it will continue. With the leftward tilt of the party in charge, that will mean an appreciable expansion of government power at the expense of the private sector coupled with further liberalization on the social front, most notably in the area of criminal justice. There is little the Republican minority can do, tactically, to serve as a check on these matters, beyond the employment of procedural weapons wielded with significant success last year.
2. But monopolization creates its own troubles for the ruling party. The ability to legislate with impunity encourages ambition and feeds the temptation to pursue long-simmering individual agendas, not all of which may be in perfect alignment. Quite a bit has been made of a possible rift between the governor and the Democratic legislative majority (probably overstated) eliciting proclamations fervently downplaying any fissures (probably understated). Jared Polis is considerably more active in pursuit of a program than was his immediate predecessor, and differences in legislative priorities are bound to sow some level of discord. Then too, there exists flashes of the more existential divergence within the Democratic Party nationally, pitting the zealous far-left wing of the party against the more pragmatic moderate liberals. This does not adumbrate a civil war within the ranks of the Colorado Democratic Party, but periodic eruptions during the session could prove interesting.
3. The budget will loom over everything, probably more so than usual. Another consequence of monopolized governing power is the tendency to bite off more than can be chewed. Last year the legislature, even under the aegis of TABOR restraints, racked up quite a bill. With the party in charge that holds the functionality of government as an article of faith, it is to be expected that they will come up with a host of new programs, each costing money. But enthusiasm runs up against the reality of a balanced budget requirement, and the refusal of the voters to extend the general assembly’s line of credit last fall with Proposition CC. It’s too early to tell if pragmatism will win out over ambition and place a systemic check on the majority’s appetites. But we know at least two new programs that will wind through the process — family and medical leave, and the health care public option, both by-products of last sessions efforts. FAMLI, in particular, has already come in far above previously advertised cost projections, and the public option seems on track to exceed even the cost overruns of the re-insurance program. That won’t leave a whole lot for full-day pre-K, climate proposals, or other initiatives which may nevertheless prove too tempting to pass up.
4. Transportation could figure prominently. Being denied the CC revenue some hoped for might, per impossible, motivate the legislature to prioritize funding for roads, or even accept a renewed bonding structure. But transportation policy likely will not center on a new high-speed rail experiment.
5. Criminal justice will take a hit. It is fully expected that the legislature will ramp up the war on cops, following the devastating salvo last year of publicizing internal affairs records. The goal won’t be crime reduction — unless what is meant by “crime reduction” is simply decriminalizing more crimes. The target will be the cops, not the robbers. Efforts are underway to abrogate government's primary responsibility — ensuring public safety — by reducing penalties for assaulting first responders, making it harder for police to use force to protect themselves, and subjecting them to kangaroo courts when they do.
6. Finally, there are the wild cards — how the upcoming presidential election and highly visible national issues will play in the state; crazy ideas from rogue legislators that gain traction; those issues that no one saw coming and are impossible to predict, etc.
The next 119 days will be interesting and erratic. All that can really be said with much certainty is that by the end Colorado’s government will be bigger in the places it ought not to be, and withdrawn from the places it should be.
Kelly Sloan is a political and public affairs consultant and a recovering journalist based in Denver.