Upset With Dems’ Rapid Lawmaking, Colorado Republicans Try To Gum Up The Works

March 11, 2019
Photo: Colorado State Senate Chamber 2017 - AP
The Colorado Senate is shown during the body's closing session in Denver, May 10, 2017.

Brewing Republican anger over the speed at which Colorado Democrats are pushing major pieces of legislation culminated Monday in the GOP calling for a 2,000 page bill to be read at length on the Senate floor — bringing all other work by the chamber to a halt.

The minority party doesn’t have a lot of options to slow down the process. The Senate was scheduled to debate a major oil and gas regulation overhaul and the repeal of the death penalty this week.

“I think there’s agendas here that are so strong that they feel a mandate that they have to do something immediately,” Republican Sen. Don Coram said of the high profile oil and gas bill. “Truth is this could drag out over a 2-3 week period. The results would probably be the same, but perception would certainly be different.”

The bill has been on a fast track. SB 19-181 was introduced on March 1. One business day later, Democrats held the first hearing. In defense of the move, Democrats said the ideas in the bill are concepts they’ve discussed for years, things like health and safety as the top priority, local control, and dealing with orphan wells.

Sen. Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, the main sponsor, said he has held countless meetings with industry representatives.

“Making sure that we pass a bill that not only works for the industry and is feasible but also works for the communities that are impacted,” the Boulder Democrat said.

Opponents however, don’t buy it and said they weren’t looped in to all of the details.

The bill that would abolish the state’s death penalty also has some upset at the quick pace. SB 19-182 was introduced March 4 and the hearing was scheduled for March 6. Democratic Sen. Rhonda Fields, who supports the death penalty, thinks it didn’t “have to be orchestrated this way.” Two of the three men on death row are there for the murder of her son and his fiancé.

“The Democrats are in charge in the House and in the Senate,” she said. “And I want to believe that we are a party that is open to diversity of thought, despite our beliefs. I don’t think we need to lead this way.”

The first hearing on a bill helps shape the narrative, garners the most media attention and is often when the public first learns what lawmakers on the committee actually think. It’s also the public’s chance to tell their stories in front of their representatives.

Republican Sen. Bob Gardner of Colorado Springs made a speech on the Senate floor to call out Democrats for how they handled the death penalty bill. He serves on the Senate Judiciary committee and later told CPR said someone connected to a victim of one of the men on death row contacted him. They wanted to speak, but weren’t able to because of the short notice.

“They know the repeal will essentially mean he is taken off death row,” Gardner said. “For them that’s gut wrenching. Even if they can ultimately accept it, the fact that they don’t the opportunity to come and tell the committee why it’s important to them and what their feelings on the matter is just unacceptable in terms of public process.”

Bill sponsors typically control when a measure is introduced and the committee chair decides when it will be heard, but often defers to the sponsor. Democratic Sen. Angela Williams of Denver, the sponsor on the death penalty repeal, said the legislature has a number of big issue items, like paid family leave and stricter gun laws among others, which is why she had a short timeline.

Williams is Catholic and wanted the death penalty bill to be in committee on Ash Wednesday.

“We want these heard in the Senate before budget week, which starts March 26,” she said.

The compressed timeline also gives opponents less time to mobilize and put pressure on senators who may get cold feet. If Republicans hold their line, Democrats can only afford to lose one vote.

Yet, not every contentious bill gets this treatment. Democrats have a controversial comprehensive sex education bill that’s had plenty of time, so did a bill to tie Colorado’s electors to the national popular vote as well as a measure to temporarily remove guns from people who are a danger to themselves or others. If there is one common denominator though, it’s that this accelerated timeline seems to be happening with bills that start in the Senate, more so than the House.

“If they won’t slow the process down, we will,” Senate Republican spokesman Sage Naumann said of his party’s efforts to require a 2,000 page bill be read word for word. The statement from GOP Senate leaders said that repeated efforts to get their colleagues “to slow down and appropriately vet, debate, and discuss these massive pieces of legislation that threaten billions in state revenue, hundreds of thousands of jobs, and the Colorado way of life have fallen on deaf ears.”

Meanwhile, Democrats blasted Republicans for the procedural move and then found a technological end-run around the protest maneuver.

“With the halfway mark of the session behind us, I was excited to get to work today,” said Democratic Sen. Kerry Donovan of Vail in a tweet. “But instead we are reading a 2,000 page at length that eliminates obsolete provisions. And by we, I mean the non-partisan staff. The party who made the motion is down to 4 members on floor.”

Reading of the massive bill was transferred from human staff to a computer set to run several times faster than normal. Senate rules require they honor the request for a bill to be read at length, but don’t say anything about whether the reading must be understandable.