There’s An Uneasy Mood In The Senate As Colorado Lawmakers Enter The Home Stretch

March 26, 2019
Photo: 2019 Legislature Opens 8 HV 20190104
Incoming Senate President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, on the Senate floor Friday Jan. 4, 2019.

Partisan tensions at the Colorado Capitol have been inflamed by parliamentary maneuvering that top Democrats fear could derail much of their agenda leading into the final part of the legislative session. The back and forth boils down to a question of how fast the Senate works to move legislation through the chamber.

Democratic House and Senate leaders plan to fight a Denver District Court decision that said a bill requested to be read out loud at length must be done so at intelligible speeds.

“I respect what the court has said but don’t share the same view,” Senate President Leroy Garcia said. “I look forward to some long-term resolution.”

The dispute started when Republicans, angry at how quickly Democrats were moving an oil and gas bill through the Senate, asked that a different 2,000-page bill be read out loud in the chamber, a move to prevent other business from happening.

Eventually, Senate President Leroy Garcia and Senate Secretary Cindi Markwell transferred the reading of the bill from human staff to a bank of five computers set to run at a speed of 650 words per minute — several times faster than normal human speech. When Republicans sued in response, Judge David H. Goldberg said the use of high-speed computers violated state law.

Garcia defends his decision to use computers to speed up the reading because it would have taken nonpartisan staff six days to read House Bill 19-1172. This particular measure had already cleared the House unanimously and was on the Senate calendar for a vote.

“This was something that was brought upon us on a bill that has been worked on two-plus years,” Garcia added that he wanted to prevent the Senate’s work from grinding to a halt. “Nothing that was used is that different to what’s happened in other cases,” he said referring to a few times in the past when a slate of non-partisan staff have read various parts of a bill simultaneously to speed up a request that it be read at length.

History Of Reading Bills

Colorado’s Constitution allows a member to request a bill be read out loud in full. When the state was founded not every lawmaker was literate, and there wasn’t an easy way for lawmakers to get copies of bills to read for themselves.

Now in 2019, bills are listed online and lawmakers have state-issued iPads. It’s not typical for any measure to be read out loud before debate happens.

“If they’re complaining about reading a bill. That’s on them,” said Republican Sen. Owen Hill of Colorado Springs. After the court’s decision, Hill has requested various bills be read at length, including the Senate journal (a log of the previous day’s events) and non-controversial measures. Hill said he’ll continue to do so until Democrats slow down the rate at which they’re introducing and hearing major pieces of legislation. 

“This is one of the tools the constitution gives us and says this is one way to slow things down and we need to for the good of our process for the good of deliberation,” he said.

The Senate takes up the budget bill this week and trying to delay it looks likely, as Hill doesn’t feel the GOP has been part of any meaningful budget discussions.

“Everything has been Democrats saying ‘my way or the highway’. The only thing we can do is at least slow things down and highlight how we’re spending $34 billion,” he said.

What’s Next and What it Means for Legislation

Any appeal of the Denver District Court decision is not expected to be resolved by the end of the current legislative session. And even though the fight is in the Senate it impacts the House too.

“It’s not that we’re going to be debating bills or considering amendments,” Democratic Speaker of the House KC Becker said. “It’s a purely obstructionist move that the Denver District Court enabled. And so it’s a complete overreach because it’s really within the General Assembly’s purview to interpret our rules and how we do business.”

She says it impacts how quickly bills are heard, what’s introduced. “It is amazing that a procedural move enabled by a district court could end up killing legislation,” she said.

House Republicans have indicated they will also start using bill readings to slow things down.

“What the Democrats are doing is fundamentally unfair to the voters,” said House Minority Leader Patrick Neville in a statement regarding Senate Bill 19-181 on oil and gas regulations. “They are attempting to ram through life-altering, job-killing legislation without giving people the ability to petition their government. But Coloradans have already spoken. They made their voice abundantly clear when Proposition 112 was defeated last year. Since the voters lack the ability to petition their government in the bill, we must now look at all available options to slow down this legislation.”

Democrats, who gained control of both chambers of the legislature for the first time in four years have a broad agenda. In addition to oil and gas regulation, they want to pass paid family leave, equal pay for equal work, establish new carbon emission standards and enact a stricter gun law that would allow courts to temporarily remove guns if someone is deemed a danger to themselves or others.

“It’s almost like some people are drunk on power,” said Republican Sen. Don Coram of Montrose. Coram works across the aisle and is one of the Senate’s most moderate members. He’s never seen this pace of bills in his nine years at the capitol and worries Republicans and Democrats will play political games and overplay their positions.

He said there was a time a dispute like this would have been settled, maybe with a drink in hand, over dinner.

“It’s hard to poke someone in the eye and then say ‘let’s go have a drink.’ I think we need a cooling off period,” he said.

It’s the first time in state history a Senate President has been sued by his colleagues and Garcia doesn’t think it should become the norm.

“There are some unwritten rules,” he said. “Members don’t talk about each other’s family. You don’t do that, you don’t bring yourself down to that level. You are a Senator of the state of Colorado and so I think there is a lot of opportunity for diplomacy.”

Republicans counter the lawsuit was not a personal attack on Garcia but was appropriate given the circumstances.

“Prior leaders have found ways to resolve differences, and I hope we can do the same this session. I consider President Garcia a friend,” Minority Leader Chris Holbert said.

On Monday, there appeared to be some progress. Following a disagreement over whether Democrats marked certain Republicans absent rather than excused, Garcia met with top Senate Republicans to have a broad discussion on how both sides could agree to restore decorum to the chamber.