Colorado’s Legislative Session Comes to an End

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Gov. John Hickenlooper signs the annual budget bill on April 24, 2015. Under the state constitution the only thing the legislature is required to do is pass a balanced budget each year. The last day of the 2015 session was a mad dash for some bills.
Credit Bente Birkeland / RMCR
Gov. John Hickenlooper signs the annual budget bill on April 24, 2015. Under the state constitution the only thing the legislature is required to do is pass a balanced budget each year. The last day of the 2015 session was a mad dash for some bills.

State lawmakers waited until the last minute to decide some of the biggest issues hanging over the capitol for the 2015 legislative session. They worked overtime to get everything wrapped up before a midnight deadline Wednesday night. 

Reducing the number of standardized tests public school children take has been a top priority for lawmakers in both parties this session. The Governor even mentioned it during his January State of the State Address. Despite overall agreement on the problem, the issue wasn't resolved until the final moments of the session, after months of negotiations and numerous bills on the topic.

Test reform wasn't alone, priorities such as a felony DUI bill, reauthorization of the Office of Consumer Counsel, a change in the law for rain barrels, and a salary increase for elected officials were all on the docket in the waning moments of the General Assembly.

"As recently as about 20 hours ago I remember walking away and thinking this process was over and we weren't going to get across the finish line," said Senator Andy Kerr (D- Lakewood).

Kerr sits on the Senate Education Committee and was involved in negotiations from the beginning on testing reform. One of the major sticking points was ninth grade tests. The federal government doesn't require them, and many state lawmakers wanted them gone, but Gov. John Hickenlooper said he wouldn't support reducing math and English assessments in ninth grade. Kerr backed the House Bill 1323 [.pdf], which ended up being the final testing bill that passed.

"I know that it has disappointed some, but we're going to reduce the total footprint, the frequency, and the amount of hours students spend on testing throughout the year," said Senator Chris Holbert (R-Parker), another key negotiator.

The measure would streamline literacy tests in the early grades, allow for paper and pencil options for standardized tests, and reduce high school testing. It would also create a pilot program for local districts to create their own assessments, and possibly use them instead of the state assessments. In the end, legislators kept ninth grade testing.

Senator Laura Woods (R-Arvada) was one of the no votes. She doesn't support ninth grade tests and wants the state to opt out of common core PARCC assessments.

"Parents, teachers and students are being held hostage by PARCC," Woods said. "They’re being [held] hostage by legislators in both chambers who refuse to listen to their constituents."

On the last day of the session a bipartisan felony DUI law also cleared both chambers. It would charge people with three or more prior drunken driving convictions with a class 4 felony.

Lawmakers also gave approval to a set of pay raises for themselves, county officials, and statewide elected officials such as the Governor. It would go into effect in 2019.

In the session's waning moments, other measures weren't so lucky. Colorado will remain the only state in the country where it is illegal to collect small amounts of rain from your roof.

"I don't want to adversely impact those in agriculture but I think those in an urban environment are wanting to engage more meaningfully on water issues in Colorado," said Senator Ellen Roberts (R- Durango). "It's precisely what we need to manage our scarce water resources."

The bill would have allowed people to collect water from their roofs equivalent to about one kiddie pool full of water. Some Republicans worried it would impact downstream use. The measure was laid off for a vote on the second to last day of the session.

"I think it's a victory that it got out of committee, because it's a conversation people want to have," said Roberts.

Another topic lawmakers left to the last minute was continuing the Office of Consumer Counsel. The office advocates on behalf of the public when utility and telephone companies ask the state for rate hikes. The office avoided being dissolved, but will lose oversight of telecom.

"Why would [we] knowingly gut the Office of Consumer Council to carve out telecom? We have one last time today on the last day of session to the right thing by taxpayers," said Senate minority leader Morgan Carroll (D-Aurora) who argued against the change on a final vote.

Meanwhile Republicans said telecom doesn't need to be included as part of the office's mission because the state largely deregulated it in the 2014 legislative session.

"The difference between telecommunications and utilities is competition, what we're talking about with telecommunications is they are competing with several other forms of communication that are not regulated," said Representative Jon Becker (R- Fort Morgan).

This session lawmakers did agree on restoring money into the state budget and adding more funds for public schools. But many controversial bills such as a fetal homicide measure, and efforts to repeal gun restrictions were defeated – something to be expected in a split legislature where Republicans and Democrats often canceled each other out.