With The Finish Line Near, The Colorado Legislature Gets Ready To Cram

<p>(Nathaniel Minor/CPR News)</p>
<p>The Colorado state Capitol building on Monday, Jan. 9, 2017.</p>
Photo: Colorado Capitol Jan 2017 4 | Building Looking East
The Colorado state Capitol building on Monday, Jan. 9, 2017.

Colorado lawmakers are settling in for a late night.

After 119 days, the legislative session closes at a minute before midnight Wednesday. Lawmakers have a matter of hours to strike deals on some of the most significant pieces of legislation at the state Capitol. It’s also when potential compromises could fall through the cracks.

One of the main items on the docket is a plan to shore up the state pension system. The Public Employees Retirement Association faces a funding gap between $32 and $50 billion.

Lawmakers and the governor’s office have long been at work on a plan to close the gap within three decades, but there’s still broad disagreement on the details. The House and the Senate have each passed their own versions of a bill. The legislature has now convened a bipartisan conference committee to strike a bargain.

Democratic Rep. Dan Pabon said the discussion is like carefully dialing a set of knobs. The group has to adjust different factors, like how much to increase employee contributions and the retirement age, in order to find a compromise.

“I think this is a case where the term paper is due tomorrow and we might turn it in the day it’s due,” Pabon said.

Another uncertainty is the Colorado Civil Rights Division, which is up for reauthorization at the state Capitol. The division includes the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. The panel decides whether discrimination complaints against businesses or employers deserve further legal action. It’s faced criticism from Republicans, who say it has a bias against businesses.

In April, the Republican-led state Senate unanimously passed a plan to increase the commission to nine members, split evenly between Democrats, Republicans and independents. The plan quickly drew criticism from House Democrats and Gov. Hickenlooper, who said it would make the panel more partisan.

Now, it could be to the advantage of House Democrats to run out the clock. Money for the division has already been included in the latest budget. If a reauthorization does not pass, then lawmakers would have another year to decide its fate.

By that time, there’s a chance Democrats will have erased the one-vote Republican margin in the state Senate, all while managing to hold onto the House and the Governor’s Mansion.

Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, helped strike the Senate compromise to reauthorize the division. He said, so far, House Democrats appear to be making a good-faith effort to work something out.

“There are active discussions,” Gardner said. “I think they have been constructive so far. And I’m hopeful that between now and midnight tomorrow, we will have an agreement.”

A final choice awaits lawmakers at the end of the evening. After each session, it’s tradition for everyone to head to Stoney’s Bar and Grill just down the street for the Capitol and put aside politics in favor of a few drinks.

It’s an open question whether the party has a place in the #MeToo era. The annual event is where Democratic Rep. Faith Winter said she was harassed by former Rep. Steve Lebsock in 2016.

The allegation opened the floodgates of other harassment accusations against Lebsock. After an investigation upheld stories from five women, the Colorado House voted to expel him last March. It was the first time the legislature has ousted one of their own since 1905.

Rep. Winter said her peers should attend if they want, but behave themselves.

“It was never about the party,” Winter said. “And frankly, Rep. Lebsock harassed people stone-cold sober.”