With only five days left in the legislative session, state lawmakers still have more than 200 bills left on the calendar, leading many to worry some may die not because of policy concerns, but because there’s a backlog.
The House and Senate held a rare Saturday all day session this past weekend to try to move legislation through. The last time the chambers did that was 2006 during a special session.
“The last week of session, it looks like an uphill battle with a hill that's filled with mud and Jello,” said Democratic Rep. Jonathan Singer of Longmont. He’s served at the Capitol since 2012 and is worried about the fate of some of his bipartisan bills that still need to get through the Senate.
“We've got a great package of opioid bills to actually deal with our opioid recovery issues. I have a bill dealing with just making sure our child support commission can continue and make sure that families who owe child support get it to the kids who need it the most. And these are technical bills for the most part that do a lot of good,” he said. “But the question is whether the process is going to get in the way of good policy.”
The state Constitution requires every bill to get at least one hearing, but measures aren’t guaranteed anything more than that. Speaker of the House KC Becker said she’s concerned the clock will run out for a slew of priorities from her caucus, such as affordable housing, broadband expansion, and climate change.
“Republicans would probably prioritize it for filibustering and that's unfortunate,” she said of her bill to decrease the state’s greenhouse gas emissions.
By law, Colorado’s legislature must adjourn by midnight, Friday, May 3. That means the more time Republicans spend talking on any given measure, the more likely it is some Democratic bills will just run out of time.
Becker sees a wider pattern of opposition from Republicans. She said recalls planned against Democratic state lawmakers and petitions circulating are part of a 360-degree approach that seeks to create a narrative of Democratic overreach. Becker feels that line of attack is inaccurate. She’s also critical of a Denver District Court decision that said the chambers must comply when Republicans ask for bills to be read at length, another potent stalling tactic.
“I think what the court decided was a real miscarriage of justice, and for them to step in and say how the legislature actually does its business was a really bad decision,” Becker said. “It's absolutely emboldened Republicans to do a lot more filibustering.”
Republican Rep. Dave Williams of Colorado Springs has asked for bills to be read at length several times this session. He doesn’t apologize for it nor accepts the Democratic argument that this is why the calendar is so backed up in the final days.
“For them to have all the power and blame us is outrageous,” he said.
Democrats control both legislative chambers, the governor’s office and won the statewide offices too. Republicans note that they too won their seats and have an obligation to represent their voters.
“House Republicans have no reason to roll over and just rubber stamp whatever the majority wants,” Williams said. “We're not going to deliberately gum up the works or anything, but we're going to give thoughtful debate, and if it's a bad deal and we're going to say it. And if it takes long then so be it.”
He noted the House debate on a vaccine bill could have been a lot longer had the Democratic sponsor not agreed to a Republican amendment to exempt homeschoolers. With that change, even the final vote moved relatively quickly.
“I will give credit to [House Majority Leader Alec] Garnett for encouraging his side to work with us, so as to not only make a bill better, but also, help manage their calendar and the process. And I don't think you're seeing that in the Senate,” Williams said.
Figures from the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Legal Services show that the Senate has more bills left on its agenda than the House. But overall fewer bills have been introduced in the legislature than the previous four sessions. Colorado had split legislative control in those other sessions, so a lot of partisan measures were always destined to die.
“At this point [Republicans] are trying to delay so that we can't get to Democratic priority bills that they oppose on the calendar,” said Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg. “We can, but then they will filibuster those so long that we then don't get to anything else that day. So we are constantly rearranging the schedule as priorities shift and as we pass bills and as the house sends bills over to us.”
Some of the delays have been because of Democrats, not Republicans. A paid family leave measure sat on the calendar for weeks because Democratic senators couldn’t agree on the policy. Other controversial bills were introduced late in the process, such as a house bill aimed at increasing Colorado’s vaccination rate. Just last week Democrats unveiled a proposed ballot initiative to significantly increase taxes on tobacco and vaping products. If it passes it would go before voters this fall.
“One of the things that the majority has to do is manage the calendar, knowing full well that the minority in our system is empowered in certain ways to represent its constituencies,” said Republican Sen. Bob Gardner of Colorado Springs.
He’s known as one of the Republicans’ most vocal debaters and was part of the court case that ensured bills read at length would have to be done so at an intelligible speed.
“I am very proud of the work that we've done in slowing things down and turning some things back, not nearly enough. And we will continue to do that for another week,” Gardner said.
However, if a lot of Democratic priorities die on the calendar there is another option. House Speaker Becker said it’s a real possibility the governor may call a special session.
“It just absolutely depends on what could end up on the list, whether it'd be supportive or not. It’s a serious thing to call members back for a special session, but not getting some of this stuff done is a real impact to Coloradans’ everyday lives,” she said.