Colorado’s 2019 legislative session has already seen its fair share of drama.
After winning decisive majorities in the November election, Colorado Democrats took control of both legislative chambers for the first time since 2014. At the same time, Jared Polis assumed the Governor's Office, bringing a hands-on approach to Colorado's top job.
The result has been a flurry of bitter legislative fights and some big victories for Democrats. Despite a well-funded and vocal opposition, Gov. Polis signed the most significant update to Colorado's oil and gas regulations since 1951. He also approved a controversial "red flag law," which gives judges the power to temporarily remove firearms from people believed to be a threat to themselves or others. Not to mention a bill that could someday award Colorado’s electoral votes to the presidential candidate who wins the national popular vote.
And all of that could just be the prelude to a jam-packed finale to the legislative session, which wraps up on May 3. Here's some of what the Democrats in charge have left on their to-do list.
Paid Family Leave
Status 4/24: SB 19-188 will no longer establish a statewide family leave program. Instead, the bill has been converted to set up a task force to study the issue. You can read more here. Our original update continues below.
It’s hard to understate the potential impact of Democrats’ paid family leave bill. If it passes, every Colorado worker could take up to 12 weeks of paid time off to care for a sick relative, bounce back from a health condition or welcome a new child. To pay for the program, the state would collect a premium on each person’s paycheck, with employees and employers sharing the cost 60-40.
The plan has faced stiff opposition from Colorado’s business community, which is still hoping for changes that would give employers more leeway to provide their own plans and exceptions for small businesses.
Greenhouse Gas Emission Targets
Status: HB 19-1261 has cleared the Colorado House and is awaiting consideration in the state Senate.
Colorado House Speaker KC Becker is the main force behind this bill. The ambitious legislation would set new goals for reducing greenhouse gas emission in Colorado, aiming to reduce output 30 percent by 2030 and 90 percent by 2050, compared to 2005 levels.
The legislation likely faces a tough test in the state Senate, where Democrats hold a narrower advantage than they do in the lower chamber. But the biggest fight may have already happened behind the scenes. As the Colorado Independent reported, Becker clashed with Polis over whether the state needed to mandate emission reductions.
The bill now under consideration does not include any fees for emitters, but it would direct air quality regulators to come up with rules to meet the goals.
Status: HB 19-1257 has passed the state House and awaits consideration in the Senate.
What kind of legislative session would it be without some tussling over the Taxpayers’ Bill of Rights? This time, lawmakers have left the semi-regular ritual until the bitter end.
As listeners to CPR’s Taxman podcast know, TABOR caps the amount of money the state can spend. Any extra revenue is meant to be returned to taxpayers. The bill under consideration would ask voters this November to let the state keep any surplus. A companion bill would split those extra funds equally between transportation, K-12 education and higher education.
The plan is a close relative of Referendum C, which called a timeout on TABOR refunds from 2005 to 2010.
Conservatives say the plan is unnecessary since Colorado has often seen a surplus during the current economic expansion. Expect a bitter legislative fight that could extend to the ballot this November.
School Immunization Requirements
Status: HB 19-1312 has passed its first committee vote and is awaiting a floor debate in the Colorado House.
Many public bill hearings this session have stretched late into the evening, but nothing touched the debate on Democrats’ plan for vaccine exemptions. Testimony went on for nearly 14 hours, with parents trading barbs over whether to vaccinate their kids.
Colorado is now dead last for kindergarten vaccinations for diseases like measles, mumps and rubella, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This bill, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Kyle Mullica, attempts to change that by making it harder for parents to opt out of immunization. If it passes, parents would need to submit a form in-person the first time they seek a non-medical vaccine exemption.
It’s not clear where Polis stands on the bill. He told CPR’s Colorado Matters he’s wary of the government forcing decisions on parents. “You’re going to create distrust of vaccinations,” he said. “We want to go the other way...for people to see good science.”
Public Health Insurance Option
Status: After being amended in the Senate, HB 19-1004 is being reconsidered by the House.
The bill could make Colorado the first state in the country to offer state-run health insurance. The hope is that by competing against private insurers, the state could drive costs down, especially in rural parts of the state with a limited number of insurance options.
The legislation wouldn’t quite enact such a program. Instead, it would direct state agencies to study to the idea, and report back to the legislature this fall. The bill has enjoyed bipartisan support, but it faces a tough challenge from federal regulators, who’d need to sign off on the plan.
Health Care Reinsurance
Status: HB 19-1168 is working its way through the state Senate. A committee hearing on the bill was postponed Thursday, so lawmakers could look into whether the plan would meet federal rules.
The aim of the bipartisan reinsurance bill is to lower health care costs. How it works is a little complicated. The state would take on some of the priciest medical bills on Colorado’s individual market. That would allow some providers to lower premiums for health care. The plan has a $237 million price tag, but the state would split it with the federal government.
The plan was a key campaign promise for Polis, who said it could happen without any more cost to Colorado taxpayers. The next two weeks will be crucial if Democrats hope to push the plan across the finish.
Status: HB 19-1327 is just out of the gate after lawmakers introduced the bill last Thursday.
Lawmakers negotiated for months before introducing the sports gambling bill. The bipartisan legislation would ask voters to legalize in-person sports betting this November. If passed, it would allow bets on games in-person at mountain casinos and provide online betting licenses. The state would collect 10 percent of all proceeds, which would go toward water conservation projects.
Status: SB 19-255 has cleared one Senate committee but faces tough odds before the upper chamber.
Under current law in Colorado, local governments are banned from regulating their rental markets. That’s stopped progressive cities, like Denver and Boulder, from setting price controls on rental units in its boundaries, as well as requiring developers to set aside a certain number of affordable units when they approve new buildings.
The bill now before Colorado lawmakers would scrap that ban, allowing different cities to regulate their markets as they see fit.
The idea has sparked a broad debate about rent control. Landlords and other opponents say the policies are often counterproductive because they often end up restricting supply in the rental market. Supporters counter something needs to be done to stabilize skyrocketing housing costs and slow gentrification. At the very least, they argue the policies could force developers to build new apartments for middle and lower-income renters, rather than flooding the market with luxury units.
While the plan has survived one committee vote, it could run into trouble on the Senate floor. Some pro-business Democrats, like state Sen. Angela Williams, has expressed skepticism about the legislation.
Workplace Harassment Policies
Status: SB 19-244 makes certain harassment complaints public and has been introduced in the Senate and is awaiting its first hearing.
Senate Rule Change Resolution 11 passed the Senate unanimously
House and Senate Joint Rule Change Resolution hasn’t been introduced yet but the leaders in each caucus are discussing what should be included in the rule change
House Rule Change Resolution hasn’t been introduced.
Since the fall of 2017, the state legislature has spent nearly $400,000 dealing with workplace harassment. The previous session was rife with harassment complaints against five state lawmakers and former Democratic Rep. Steve Lebsock was expelled from office. Lawmakers pledged to improve the policy, and now more than a year later they’re still grappling with what to do.
SB 19-244 would create an office of legislative workplace relations. The office would be required to release an annual statistical report of the numbers of complaints received and their resolution. In addition, if a workplace harassment committee made up of lawmakers finds that a legislator violated the harassment policy, the committee must release the report to the public unless it decides by a two-thirds vote not to do so.
Senate Resolution 11 sets up a four-person committee, two Republicans and two Democrats to handle workplace harassment complaints made against lawmakers. The committee could consult outside experts and hire investigators to look into claims and would make a recommendation on potential consequences. The top Senate leader would no longer handle complaints.
A House Rule Change Resolution would create a similar six-person committee of lawmakers to handle complaints in the House. The resolution needs a two-thirds vote to pass.
The House and Senate Joint Rule Change Resolution would address issues such as how much confidentiality accusers should get, and whether third parties like lobbyists should be covered under the workplace harassment policy if they are accused of misconduct. It needs to pass each chamber by a two-thirds vote.