CPR Staff Chat: What Did Colorado Get (And Not Get) From Its Lawmakers This Year?

Photo: 2018 Colorado Legislature Ends 2 - AP
A woman walks down the stairs in the rotunda of the Colorado State Capitol as lawmakers work on the final day of the session Wednesday, May 9, 2018.

From guns to vaccines to sex education to kindergarten, this legislative session has had it all.

The session ends tonight, and while elected officials are scurrying around trying to pass or defeat the last items on the agenda, we gathered some of the staffers of Colorado Public Radio and Denverite —​ Megan Verlee, Bente Birkeland, Esteban Hernandez and Sam Brasch, with Dave Burdick moderating — for a quick, chatty check-in on what the heck happened this session.


dave (CPR digital editor): It's nearly the end of the legislative session! You've all been working your butts off, living and breathing process, policy and ... well ... deadlines. For those of us who are interested but haven't been totally immersed, I've got a few questions, and I hope you'll all just jump in at will.

Here we go!

@Bente Birkeland, what's been the most legitimately suspenseful part of the last few days of the session?

Bente Birkeland (CPR public affairs reporter): What would happen with the bill to increase vaccination rates. It recently passed the House and the Senate delayed a floor vote. Other big bills were also up in the air like comprehensive sex ed.

dave: Yeah! That one has been the focus of a lot of attention -- certainly we've gotten emails and calls about it. How did the mood around it change?

Bente Birkeland: The Governor said he did not support a major provision in the bill, and it had been negotiated for months. But the top Senate Democrat told me the Senate was given the bill so late, that there wasn't the time to debate it. Republicans planned to go all in on trying to delay that measure and it could have derailed everything else on the Senate calendar.

Megan Verlee (CPR public affairs editor): (FYI - I believe that's the immunization bill you're talking about there, Bente, right? Not sex ed?)

Bente Birkeland: Yes, that's right. Both of those measures have garnered a lot of discussion here. But some last minute changes on the comprehensive sex ed bill made it more palatable to the GOP.

Like most sessions the last few weeks are extremely busy and some big bills were introduced late in the session, like a proposed tax on tobacco and vaping products which didn't pass the Senate and narrowly cleared the House.

Sam Brasch (CPR reporter): And with the sex ed bill, I think we should be clear that while it was controversial, its impact was likely a lot more limited than people realized. In Colorado, the state can't mandate any curriculum in schools. It's all up to districts. The curriculum only applies to schools that choose to teach comprehensive sex ed. (edited) 

dave: No kidding it's been busy -- it's been tough for us to keep our last-minute-lege-tracker up-to-date with reporting from you all. OK, @Esteban H., what surprises you in terms of what got done or didn't get done?

Megan Verlee: Ooo ooo ooo! I'm over in the corner waving my hand like Hermione once Esteban weighs in because I have ALL THE THOUGHTS. 

Sam Brasch: MEGAN HAS THOUGHTS STOP THE PRESSES

Megan Verlee: No one is surprised

Bente Birkeland: Haha.

Esteban H. (Denverite politics reporter): I think of the things that definitely surprised me was quickly lawmakers were able to move the so-called red-flag bill through the chambers. I remember covering the initial press conference, and it was very emotional, and then being at the Capitol press room as the Senate voted on the bill, paving its way to Gov. Polis' desk

Photo: 2019 COLEG Red Flag Bill 1 | Tom Sullivan - BBirkeland
Democratic Rep. Tom Sullivan sits in the legislature while wearing his son's leather jacket. Sullivan's son was killed in the Aurora Theater Shooting.

Megan Verlee: Yeah, we talked about all sorts of Democratic priorities at the start of session -- gun control but also paid family leave and oil & gas regs and climate change etc -- and it's only until you can watch things move through the process that you see what the majority party is really most unified behind, and Red Flag was clearly one of those.

Esteban H.: "overreach" wasn't just a buzzword. Republican lawmakers immediately put Democrats on notice at the beginning of the session about doing this

Sam Brasch: That just one of the things Republicans did well during the session. The overreach narrative was front-and-center from the start, and they used it to justify some pretty hardball tactics, like demanding bills be read at length (edited) 

dave: OK, now I'm dying to know: @Megan Verlee what are the surprises you're excited to tell us about?

Esteban H.: I was also surprised the death penalty bill didn't get much traction. I know it was opposed by at least one prominent Democrat, but I thought given the statehouse's makeup it would have more potential to end up on the governor's desk

Megan Verlee: I was surprised by the governor

We got so used to Hickenlooper being the invisible man behind the curtain in legislative debates. But Polis' hands were all over this session, in ways I don't think we expected.

Photo: John Hickenlooper Jared Polis Together State Capitol November 15 2018 | 8 HV
Gov. John Hickenlooper and Gov. Elect Jared Polis, both Democrats, at the state Capitol Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018.

dave: Say more about that -- and I want to open that up to all of you, because I was going to ask anyway. What are ways Gov. Polis' relationship with the legislature differs from how Hickenlooper worked with them? (I should say here that @Megan Verlee thinks I should ask this later because as we're having this chat, you're all about to race out and hear Polis speak -- but I'm running this chat and I'm mad with power! Assume that in this space I'll add a note about what he says. Or a link to a Sam tweet thread.)

Esteban H.: Yes! I agree. Hickenlooper liked saying he wasn't hands-on, he liked to let them do their own thing. like he would stand over your shoulder and watch you do something but never stick his arm in to try and assist you

Sam Brasch: Well, let's remember Polis was a congressman not all that long ago. He's not accustomed to being an executive as much as Hickenlooper, who sat on the throne that is the Denver Mayor's Office.

Esteban H.: (Hickenlooper  said at the end of last session that it was the most successful, productive one he had ever been a part of as gov)

Bente Birkeland: He definitely weighs in on big topics and what he likes and doesn't like, ie: death penalty and vaccines. Hickenlooper  talked about bringing diverse groups of people together to try and build consensus. You don't hear that as much from Polis.

Megan Verlee: Polis to me is ideologically interesting; he doesn't seem to care about following party line on lots of things (see the immigration bill he quashed, so the vaccine bill) and he's more pro-business than I think people expected.

Candidates are always claiming to be mavericks, but I think he might actually turn out to be one.

Bente Birkeland: Legislators have told me Polis is more involved behind the scenes  than Hickenlooper. And certainly he made full day Kindergarten a priority that he wanted to see cross the finish line.

Photo: Polis Signs Oil And Gas Bill HV 20190416
Gov. Jared Polis sign Senate Bill 181 into law. The law calls for the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to elevate public health and safety in its regulations.

Megan Verlee: I'd bet Polis' idiosyncratic mix of ideologies drove a lot of Democrats at the Capital NUTS this session

(say that three times fast!)

dave: Can anyone confirm that Polis' idiosyncratic mix of ideologies drove Dems nuts?

Sam Brasch: It's hard not to see his politics tied up with Boulder, too. His home city is "progressive," but it's also deeply protective of private property and a special relationship between parents and kids. I'll check this, but there are some schools in Boulder where half of kids in a class have vaccine exemptions. I'll just go for it here: Polis is just more of a Boulder Democrat than a Denver Democrat. AND THAT DID DRIVE THE DENVER DEMOCRATS NUTS. 

Bente Birkeland: Dave I think if you talk to any of the pro-vaccine folks they may use a harsher word.

dave: Ha! Noted! 

Somewhere north of "bonkers," too, I'm guessing.

Megan Verlee: More than vaccines, I think Polis' stance on immigration is going to have a lingering impact. He took an active role in preventing a strong anti-ICE bill from making it through the legislature really stood out to me. Latinos are a hugely important part of the Democratic coalition, and I suspect there are a lot who are reassessing him after this year. This quote from an Allison Sherry story a few months ago has really stayed in my mind:

“We pushed so hard for him to be governor,” said Jossy Martinez, director of the board at the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, who called Polis the single obstacle in passing broader state legislation that could help undocumented immigrants.

“We were door-knocking, canvassing,” she said. “I have become really disappointed when I found out he was not supporting us on this. How is it that you came and got all of our support and then he says, ‘just kidding’?”

Esteban H.: The relationship between Polis and the immigrant advocacy community has been absolutely been scarred by this session.

dave: @Sam Brasch, speaking of the different varieties of democrats ... there was a lot of noise about democratic overreach before the session started, as @Esteban H. noted. How'd that turn out?

Sam Brasch: Well if the Democrats tried to overreach, they didn't really get to do it. The two examples Republicans tend to point to is the oil and gas regulations and the national popular vote bill. Those are controversial, but Democrats didn't get paid family leave. They didn't get to reform vaccine exemptions. The didn't get a tax increase on tobacco products. By going in with an "overreach" narrative, I think Republicans did manage to stop a lot of legislation they would have seen as an "overreach."

Bente Birkeland: But so many Democrats are really happy that Polis championed oil and gas reforms. Democrats have been trying to tackle that issue for years, and SB 181 would would not have passed the legislature under a Hickenlooper administration.

Sam Brasch: Good point Bente.

Megan Verlee: And honestly, Polis might be taking just the right approach by going all in on some Democratic issues and holding others at arms length. Hickenlooper did it his whole administration, being moderately pro-business and relatively friendly to oil and gas while also passing gun control and civil unions ... He managed to keep a pretty high popularity rating most of the time. Now we just have to see if Polis' particular mix of left and center stances will also hit the right note with Coloradans 

Bente Birkeland: How much of the concern from immigration rights advocates is because they saw Polis as a champion on the issue in Congress?

Megan Verlee: I think that made his stance at the state level an especially hard thing to swallow.

There's tape of him *screaming* about immigration on the Senate floor, and then he declares that how much coordination local law enforcement can have with ICE is a matter of local concern. That's, um, an interesting juxtaposition.

Esteban H.: He was pretty open about opposing a sanctuary state type of status for Colorado, like what Calfornia has

Megan Verlee: I don't think the 9to5 (ie backers of expanded workers rights) wing of things is too happy with him either. Sam, what have you heard from them?

Sam Brasch: Oh man 9to5 is MAAAAAAAAD 

Paid family leave has been one of their priorities for years, which, as we said, sorta fizzled out. The group was also behind a plan to let local governments regulate rents. That didn't even get a floor debate. Like immigrant advocates, I think they're feeling pretty betrayed by Democrats right now.

dave: OK, lightning round because I know some of you have to go talk to the governor -- if you had to pick a person or two who got the most done this year, or who raised their profile substantially, who would that be?

Sam Brasch: State Sen Julie Gonzales. A lot of her bills ended up on the chopping block, but she's now seen as a leader on a range of progressive issues. Immigrant rights. Housing. Marijuana. Really you name it.

Esteban H.: Sen. Gonzales

Megan Verlee: DAMMIT Sam, you took mine

Okay, apparently it's unanimous.

Photo: COLEG 2019 | Sen. Julie Gonzales - KBeaty
Sen. Julie Gonzales sits in a Finance Committee meeting, March 5, 2019.

Sam Brasch: I mean she was EVERYWHERE.

Esteban H.: She did rent control

And the death penalty. Both failed, but she raised her profile

Bente Birkeland: Democratic Rep. Tom Sullivan already had a pretty high profile for an incoming legislator. But he was a fierce advocate for the red flag gun law, and his compelling personal  story put him even more on people's radar.

Megan Verlee: And he was a strong opponent to the death penalty repeal, which stalled out.

Sam Brasch: I think you also have to hand it to State Sen Bob Gardner, master of the unofficial filibuster. The man can talk without end and became a real weapon for Republicans as they tried to run out the clock on Democrats.

Photo: State Sen. Bob Gardner
District 12 Sen. Bob Gardner speaks at the podium, March 20, 2019. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Bente Birkeland: Republican Sen. Bob Gardner, involved in the workplace harassment policy changes and also the Senate lawsuit. He is known for talking at great length and was at the center of all the action in the Senate.

Esteban H.: Rep. Owen Hill? It seems like he's angling to be the GOP's rising star

Bente Birkeland: He did help get $100 million for transportation into the budget, a top priority for the GOP.

Sam Brasch: The guy's hair also always looks amazing. I wonder what kind of product he uses...

Esteban H.: That's definitely pomade

Sam Brasch: Noted

Esteban H.: Expensive pomade

Megan Verlee: Can we also give a shout out to Rep. Wilson (R-Salida) who's been introducing full day K bills EVERY YEAR forever, just to watch them die and now finally, in what I think is his last year in the House, he scores a win?

Bente Birkeland: House Speaker KC Becker also sponsored some of the major environmental bills on climate change and oil and gas.

Esteban H.: Rep. Herod also passed criminal justice reform bills that are popular in Denver and will be something she can stick on a campaign flyer when she runs for Congress

Megan Verlee: I did not expect to see a Republican lawmaker's dream fulfilled this session, but Wilson was the one exception

Criminal justice was a HUGE under-the-radar issue

They did so much on it, but because a lot of the reforms had bipartisan support, they kind of flew under the radar.

Bente Birkeland: Totally agree.

Esteban H.: Ending cash bail for low-level offenses had bipartisan support. She was very happy to note both liberal and conservative counties supported it

dave: OK, I said I'd keep us on a schedule, and we've basically done it -- thanks for your time, everybody. Lace up your blue sneakers for the final 9 hours of the session.

Megan Verlee: This is so fun. Can we keep going forever. Please?

Bente Birkeland: Thanks everyone. It has been fun!

Sam Brasch: Ok cool I can go home now right Megan?

Megan Verlee: Sam, the Capital is your home now. So yeah.

Sam Brasch: :tired_face: