It’s Yet To Be Seen If Election Year Politics Will Tangle Up Colorado’s Legislature

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Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Colorado’s state Capitol building was quiet New Year’s Eve except for scattered tour groups, selfie-snapping visitors and a few staffers preparing for House members to return.

Colorado’s annual legislative session will convene on Jan. 8 under the shadow of the impending impeachment trial of President Donald Trump and the November election.

Most of those same lawmakers will themselves be up for re-election.

Even with those dual headwinds, Democrats, who control both chambers and the governor’s office, say there’s a lot they want to get done. But while members in both parties expect to work together on some issues, they’re braced for acrimony.

Some of the items still on Democrats’ to-do list are things they weren’t able to pass last year — like a repeal of the death penalty and a state-run paid family leave program. Other bills that could spark a partisan fight would build on the party’s recent policy wins, including a suite of new gun policies and proposals for lowering health care costs.

If Democrats end up passing controversial policies, it will be a bit of a departure from past election years, when lawmakers generally avoided anything that might make them a target with voters.

“You could always kind of look forward to, ‘OK, session will be a little bit calmer, not as controversial because everyone is focused on getting re-elected,’” said Democratic state Sen. Angela Williams of Denver, who has been in the legislature for nearly a decade. “I don't think that'll make a difference [this year].”

Williams dropped out of the U.S. Senate race in late November and had been facing a primary challenge for her state Senate seat in 2020 from Rep. James Coleman. On Monday, Williams said she will not seek reelection.

Another wrinkle in the new session? Opening day marks the first time all 100 lawmakers have been together since conservative activist groups tried, unsuccessfully, to recall five of their Democratic members. And while most Republican lawmakers weren’t involved with the recall campaigns, it could color the session for some.

“There were 24 Republicans in the House and not a single one of them had the courage to stand up and say that they didn't think that was right, you know, publicly,” said Democratic Rep. Tom Sullivan of Centennial who faced an attempted recall. “They've told me who they are. They've told me what they think: that I don't deserve to be down there and so, that's something that I'm going to be dealing with.”

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
State Rep. Tom Sullivan speaking on the Colorado House floor, March 4, 2019.

Sullivan was the sponsor of 2019’s so-called ‘red flag’ gun law, which many opponents gave as the reason they targeted him for a recall. In the new legislative session, he intends to introduce a bill that requires gun owners to alert police if one of their weapons is lost or stolen.

As Sullivan and other Democrats roll out their session wish lists, some Republican lawmakers hope those policies stay just that — wishes.

“My number one hope is it's not going to be a more partisan session than last year and it's more like a 2014 session,” said Republican Rep. Lori Saine of Dacono. That was the year that majority Democrats chose to lay low, after running the table on big new laws the year before and after two Democratic state senators were successfully recalled. “It was all the puppies and kittens and rainbows bills in 2014. I'm not sure we're going to see that this year. It might be a harder session than last year, which means a lot less sleep.” 

Republicans complained last session that SB19-181, a massive overhaul to the state’s oil and gas regulations, was a rushed Democratic effort that overturned public sentiment just months after voters rejected a ballot measure to significantly restrict drilling.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
District 63 Rep. Lori Saine, Colorado House of Representatives, April 19, 2019.

“I'm concerned that we may see things where there are efforts to contradict the will of the people,” said Republican Sen. Paul Lundeen of Colorado Springs. “Efforts by the Democrats to do exactly the opposite of what the voters have just spoken about so clearly in this past election. So I think that might be part of the framing of what's going to happen.”

How much power Republicans have to affect work this session may rest in the hands of the courts. Last session, they protested the Democrats’ agenda by using their parliamentary power to have long bills be read at length, bringing all work to a halt. Senate Democrats countered by having computers speed read the text.

A lawsuit over that tactic was decided in Republicans’ favor, but Democrats have appealed.

“It is going to be a very exciting session no matter what,” said Democratic Rep. Brianna Titone of Arvada, who is running for her second term in a swing district. In 2018 she flipped a red seat by just a few hundred votes, helping to expand the blue majority in the House. She’s also Colorado’s first openly transgender state lawmaker.

“I always feel a lot of pressure just being who I am and having to prove that I'm worthy to be there. But I don't let that pressure get to me.”

If there’s one piece of legislation that is almost guaranteed to make it through the process in the coming session, it’s the state budget. Colorado lawmakers take pride in passing a balanced budget each year with at least a few bipartisan votes. It’s also the only thing they are constitutionally required to do.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect the news that Sen. Angela Williams will not run for reelection.