The Colorado legislative session kicked off Wednesday morning, with speeches from party leaders that framed their priorities for the coming year.
The largely ceremonial opening day was the start of a 120-day session, where lawmakers will face difficult budget issues -- despite a strong economy, the state faces a budget shortfall made all the more thorny by laws around constitutionally-required taxpayer refunds.
The session will also see debates over affordable housing, health insurance coverage, women’s reproductive rights, end of life decisions among other issues..
And of course, it wouldn’t be a Colorado legislative session without marijuana bills and efforts to get rid of red light cameras that many drivers curse while zooming through intersections.
Prize Fight Over Hospital Provider Fee
The biggest fight will be over a Democratic proposal to reclassify the hospital provider fee. This fee was set up by the Legislature in 2009 to allow the state to obtain federal matching funds, which ultimately expanded Medicaid and other health care options for Coloradans. The fees assessed from the money hospitals collect from patients account for about $700 million in annual revenue for the state.
Right now, the fee is subject to revenue restrictions tied to the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights – which requires the state to issue tax refunds when revenue exceeds the rate of inflation and population growth. And the hospital provider fees are contributing to a budget situation where revenues will exceed the TABOR cap, resulting in $156 million in refunds on taxpayers’ 2015 returns.
So, taxpayers will get small refund checks while funding for K-12, higher education and road projects are cut.
“I would say our budget is our biggest challenge this year,” House Speaker Dickey Lee Hullinghorst said. “We have a budget that is being hampered by a TABOR mess … where we cannot invest money from our increased revenues from our great economy.”
“The same economic realities that forced us to cut our budget in lean times should be blessing us today with the ability to invest for the long-term prosperity in our state," she said on Wednesday.
Democrats – backed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, who has made this his top legislative push this year – hope to move the hospital provider fee out from under TABOR mandates and into a TABOR-exempt enterprise fund. This, Democrats say, would free up hundreds of millions of dollars in a budget that would otherwise experience a shortfall.
But Republicans so far are saying good luck with that.
“Unless we can provide a constitutionally sound proposal, it leaves us in a pretty tough place to support it,” said Republican Senate President Bill Cadman of Colorado Springs.
Cadman cites a legislative legal staff analysis that indicates the Democrats’ proposal is unworkable – a non-binding opinion that Hickenlooper budget director Henry Sobanet thinks is “fatally flawed.”
Republicans say Democrats created their own budget mess by over-spending in years they were in charge at the Capitol.
“We’ve continued to spend and spend and spend and now we’re putting ourselves into a position where, no we can’t pay for everything,” said House Minority Leader Brian DelGrosso, R-Loveland.
“The math is simple," he added Wednesday. "And if we don’t prioritize our dollars we will continue to have this same conversation year in and year out.”
Cadman says much of the budgetary woes can be attributed to Medicaid expenses. He says the current Medicaid system is unsustainable, with its 350 percent growth over the last 15 years. Much of the growth has come in recent years, on the heels of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which allowed for more people to access Medicaid.
Cadman says he will look into ways to rein in Medicaid spending, including a possible revival of legislation that asks Medicaid users to pay a small co-pay.
“[It is] so disproportionate to everything else in the budget,” Cadman said of Medicaid spending. “It creates an immense amount of pressure on everything else.”
Republicans will also make a push for increased transportation funding, something they’ve fallen short of in recent sessions.
Delgrosso expects his members will propose multiple transportation funding bills, one of which will be another effort to seek voter-approval for $3.5 billion in bonds for highway project funding. The same effort failed last year, out of concerns from the governor’s office and the Colorado Department of Transportation that repayment logistics would actually negate any funding gains made.
Different Tacks For Affordable Housing
Democrats plan to unveil a package of bills to address affordable housing – a major issue in Colorado, as the state experiences large and fast population growth, which has contributed to soaring rents.
“Regardless of whether you are in an urban area, or even in some of our rural areas of the state, housing prices continue to skyrocket,” said House Majority Leader Crisanta Duran, D-Denver.
Democrats will seek funding to create more affordable housing options around the state. They will also unveil a proposal that would create a first-time homebuyer’s savings account program, a tax-free account that can be used for new home down payments or closing costs.
But Republicans argue if Democrats are serious about increasing affordable housing options for Coloradans, they will back efforts to pass condominium construction defects reform legislation.
This is a perennial effort to rein in lawsuits that target home builders when construction defects occur. Republicans say current laws have led to a chilling effect on developers, who are not building condos out of fear of ending up in court. This has caused many Colorado cities to enact their own construction defects laws.
“The environment there has become so hostile, there’s nothing for sale in that entry-level [housing market],” Cadman said.
But Democrats say laws should protect homeowners from shoddy construction. And they argue there is no evidence Republican proposals would do anything to create more affordable housing to begin with – which is why last year’s attempt failed.
"As far I’m concerned that [bill] did little to help the average Coloradan with affordable housing, the high cost of housing,” Hullinghorst said.
Planned Parenthood Funding A Target
Reproductive rights issues always come up at the Legislature, but there will be increased focus this year, given the recent mass-shooting at a Planned Parenthood facility in Colorado Springs, where three people were killed and several others injured. The alleged gunman, Robert Dear, made statements in court that indicate his motives were political.
The reproductive health provider has been targeted by conservatives over allegations that they have profited from the trafficking of fetal body parts – something the group flatly denies.
Republicans have concerns over funding received by Planned Parenthood’s Colorado chapter, even though the only state funding the group receives is in the form of Medicaid reimbursements.
“I find it hard to believe that we send them millions of dollars and not think that we’re providing some indirect funding,” said Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, who heads a Republican study group that has looked into Planned Parenthood operations.
Cathy Alderman, a recent spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood Votes Colorado, says the group is undeterred by recent events and plans to introduce legislation to expand access to contraceptives. And there may be legislation to increase penalties for a person convicted of blocking access to health services that include abortions.
Will We See Compromise On Other Issues?
Marijuana bills covering a range of issues will also be introduced this session. They could include legislation to address what constitutes as private marijuana consumption and to clarify other pot laws, including how private marijuana clubs can operate.
And efforts to curb photo radar technology, including red-light cameras, will once again be debated. Some argue the technology saves and leads to better driving habits. Others question their value and have constitutional due process concerns over their use.
Hickenlooper vetoed two red-light-related camera bills last session. Debate on this issue is one of the few inside the Capitol where political lines are blurred.
But, beyond red-light cameras, there may not be much bipartisanship this session. After all, 2016 is a presidential election year and many lawmakers will be running for re-election in November.
“There’s always a little bit of partisan activity relative to an upcoming election,” Hullinghorst said. “But I fully believe that we have some important initiatives we’ll be able to work with [Republicans] on. And that’s probably the way we’ll have to do it or they won’t pass.”
So, will consensus be reached on important issues?
“I think this session can be as good as both chambers want to make it,” said Sen. Ellen Roberts, D-Durango, who is part of Senate Republican leadership. “We still have policy challenges and we still hope to get things done.”