Colorado's lawmakers are back to work Jan. 8 and, according to House Speaker KC Becker, the breakneck pace at which they adopted a Democratic agenda last session may slow this time around.
Democrats still hold the ‘trifecta’ — control of both legislative houses and the governor’s office — that led to the adoption of full-day kindergarten, health care reforms and an overhaul of oil and gas regulations.
Many of those issues had been debated and negotiated for years, Becker said, so when her party took over their approval was relatively quick. In 2020, lawmakers will consider newer proposals and return to debates over ideas where Democrats are divided, like the death penalty and paid family leave.
“We’re not trying to match last year, we just want to pass good policy’’ Becker said.
On the pace of the upcoming legislative session, compared to the last:
"There are a lot of new ideas. These are things that necessarily haven't been vetted year after year after year. A lot of the legislation we passed last year, we'd been trying for years to pass. So it may not be that degree of impact, but there's still a lot that we're going to work on, driving down health care costs, we're going to continue to look at gun safety, we're going to continue to address affordability issues in general."
On paid family leave; state-run program or state-required with policies provided by private companies?
"I am going to stay open to both options … There are pros and cons to both. The social-insurance model, I think, can really benefit low-wage workers and is less likely to end up in discrimination. I think the private model leaves a lot more leeway to business to figure out for themselves how to provide paid family leave. I don't know right now what's going to be proposed, but I do want to see something pass."
On disagreements within her own party for Polis’ public option plan for health insurance. The proposal is under heavy fire from industry:
"There are a lot of issues to work through … There are folks working on drafting a public option and working through the issues that others are raising about the downfalls of that. If they can be successful, I think we’ll see something move forward."
On how the 2020 election will impact the legislative session:
"Election years are tougher years. There's a lot more campaigning done at the Capitol … Legislators are much more aware of what they are saying publicly and what they are proposing publicly, who's listening, who's watching."
On repeal of the death penalty — an idea derailed last session by Democratic opposition:
"I hope it gets repealed. I personally don't think the death penalty achieves a lot. I think it's very expensive and I think it's arcane. I hope it'll pass and I think it can pass this coming year."
Do cost overruns in health care reinsurance and full-day kindergarten show a pattern of Democratic overspending?
"Full-day K and reinsurance were both bipartisan. And the proposals that Republicans have put forward for more transportation funding is cut Medicaid funding. That's not something we're willing to do. It's not something the public supports. It's not a good outcome to just have more sick people in Colorado. So that's a non-starter for us."
Ryan Warner: This is Colorado Matters from CPR News. I'm Ryan Warner.
What will Democrats do with their second year of total control- at the state Capitol? And how will 2020, being an election year, affect their agenda? Session starts Wednesday, and we sat down with Speaker of the House K.C. Becker of Boulder.
Speaker, welcome back to the program.
House Speaker K.C. Becker: Thank you for having me.
RW: Last year with a brand new governor and Democratic control of both houses, you got a sweeping agenda through: full-day kindergarten, some healthcare reform, big changes in oil and gas regulation, a major gun law. Do you expect that pace to keep up, that many kind of meaty issues to be decided?
K.C.B.: I think we had a really exciting session last year. We did get a lot done, and you know there's a lot more new things and more things that members are working on. How aggressive it is, we're not trying to match last year, we just want to pass good policy.
RW: "We're not trying to match last year," just expound on that.
K.C.B.: There are a lot of new ideas. These are things that necessarily haven't been vetted year after year after year. A lot of the legislation we passed last year, we'd been trying for years to pass, so it may not be that degree of impact, but there's still a lot that we're going to work on, We're going to continue —
RW: Affordability of health care?
K.C.B.: Affordability of health care, but affordability of just living in Colorado right now. That could be housing costs, childcare costs, and we're going to continue working towards a clean, greener future in Colorado.
RW: Okay. Let's break some of that apart. You talked about issues that may not have been discussed before. It is often the fact that legislation that is successful has been unsuccessful in many previous sessions. What's a new thing you want to take on?
K.C.B.: Taking the next step forward in clean energy. We're going to be looking at beneficial electrification, for instance.
RW: Beneficial electrification, what does that mean?
K.C.B.: Yeah. It's really how can we advance the use of cleaner sources of energy, and some of that is by continuing and incentivizing electrification of buildings, or cars, or things like that.
RW: That is to say, if a building is currently heated in some other way, moving them to electricity and electrifying cars a bit more straightforward, I think.
K.C.B.: In terms of other things that are new, we had a bipartisan school safety committee that looked at how can we really help keep schools safe. We're going to be working on mental health or improving the reporting system around school safety issues -- not things that we've necessarily done before but I think are going to be bipartisan and really helpful to Coloradans.
RW: Now, you don't have to have Republican input, K.C. Becker, you're in the majority. Is it important to you?
K.C.B.: Process always matters. Having the majority doesn't mean you get to run roughshod over people. I'm emphasizing, and I know leadership in the Senate is emphasizing making sure you're talking to folks affected by any policy that you want to run. That being said, we're going to work hard to make change in the areas that we most want to.
RW: I will say that we'll speak with your Republican counterpart in the Senate on tomorrow's program. Would you say there's a top priority for Democrats this year? I mean we've talked about a lot of different issues, but is there a must-do besides the budget, which is a constitutional must-do?
K.C.B.: Our overarching theme year after year is having an economy that works for all.
RW: I think you mentioned housing earlier. That's certainly something that hits people, well, quite literally where they live. What can the state legislature do about the cost of housing?
K.C.B.: We passed a lot of legislation last year to put more money into affordable housing. We can look at paid family leave as a way to help workers be able to afford to take time off. We're going to look at a retirement security bill. A lot of Coloradans, like in many states, are just not prepared for retirement. So what can the state do to incentivize more people putting money aside for their future?
RW: Do you mean like matching it?
K.C.B.: I don't know that we could actually afford matching it, but the majority of Coloradans have jobs that don't offer a 401k. If we have —
RW: Let's pause there. The majority of Coloradans don't have a job that has retirement plans for them?
K.C.B.: That's true.
K.C.B.: Yeah. A lot of hourly employees, small employees, so we want to make the ability to have a retirement plan something that happens more because it impacts people in their futures, it impacts the state if people aren't prepared for retirement.
RW: Potentially people who then get onto the state's dole, if you will.
RW: Okay. I want to talk more about paid family leave in just a bit. But a lot of the signature proposals that passed last session, full-day kindergarten and a health reform called reinsurance, seem to be running significantly over budget. Is there a danger that this feeds into the narrative of Democrats being big, maybe even irresponsible spenders?
K.C.B.: I don't think full-day K or reinsurance are irresponsible policies. Both of them help keep money in people's pockets. But we have unique constraints in Colorado around our constitution in terms of how much money we have coming into the state. So even though we have a robust economy, we're not allowed to use the money we're collecting and invest it back in this state.
RW: But you knew that going into these big policies and TABOR is not a surprise, in other words.
K.C.B.: Right. So it just is, going forward, we have to be really thoughtful about the policies and the long-term financial impact of the things that were passing.
RW: Were you not thoughtful enough when it came to reinsurance and full-day kindergarten?
K.C.B.: I think they're both really successful. I think they have a long-term economic impact that just means tighter budgets going forward, but that doesn't mean that they weren't worth it. But again, we also have to make sure that we're investing in the fundamentals, K-12 education, higher ed, transportation.
RW: Speaking of TABOR, the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights, I just want to say that last year voters rejected a proposal to raise money for transportation and education by giving up refunds provided under TABOR. They wanted to keep that money. Some interest groups say they won't be discouraged by last year's vote though, that they are preparing a raft of TABOR issues for the November ballot. Good idea? Bad idea? You were instrumental in the last one.
K.C.B.: I would have liked to see Prop CC pass. It didn't pass, but that doesn't mean that those issues go away. Anyone in Colorado has the opportunity to propose a ballot measure and their own idea for how to address those things. And on these issues, especially transportation, if we don't have new revenue coming into the state, we're only going to do ourselves harm long-term. Our gas tax in Colorado is the exact same as it was in 1992. It's not a sustainable funding source. Until business groups, Republicans and Democrats all come together on a single solution, we're going to drive ourselves into the ground, so to speak.
RW: I think of the fact that the legislature previously agreed to put another proposal on the ballot for this year, which would allow bonding to pay for projects without raising more revenue. That already was put on hold once. Do you think it'll make it to the ballot this time?
K.C.B.: So it's been on the ballot in the past and it's failed. Whether it ends up on the ballot in 2020, I don't know yet. I think it's important to say that bonding isn't new revenue. I'm not convinced that we need bonding or that it's a responsible financial decision. What we need is new revenue and we need folks to agree on a solution about that.
RW: I mean just to go back to some of the previous conversation, there will be people who hear you saying we need new revenue, we need more revenue, and then who look at the rather large bites that Democrats chewed in the last session with reinsurance and full-day kindergarten, and who say, "Well, when will their appetites stop?"
K.C.B.: Full-day K and reinsurance were both bipartisan. And the proposals that Republicans have put forward for more transportation funding is cut Medicaid funding. That's not something we're willing to do. It's not something the public supports. It's not a good outcome to just have more sick people in Colorado. So that's a nonstarter for us.
RW: Okay. on the subject of health care, the public option is another proposal likely to come up this session that would allow individuals to buy into a state-backed insurance plan. It would also allow the state to limit what hospitals can charge those policyholders. According to The Colorado Sun, opponents of a public option have already spent more than a $100,000 in ads opposing this. The Colorado Hospital Association calls it unacceptable. Will there be a public option after this session, four months afterwards?
K.C.B.: The governor put forward a proposal and there are some legislators working on drafting it. There are a lot of issues to work through.
RW: Your own party isn't in agreement on this.
K.C.B.: I think our own party is interested in continuing to address the escalating costs of health care.
RW: Let me just say that in many parts of Colorado there's only one option for health insurance. The idea behind this presumably is to introduce a little competition.
K.C.B.: I think that's what folks hope. There are folks working on drafting a public option and working through the issues that others are raising about the downfalls of that. If they can be successful, I think we'll see something move forward.
RW: Another issue on which Democrats don't necessarily see eye to eye is paid family leave, which you mentioned earlier. This would provide time off to care for newborns, also for major illness. A committee that studied this recommended something similar to a proposal that failed last year. It would have the state administer the program, collecting money from employers and employees to pay for it. Governor Polis asked the committee to consider another option, which is to have the state require that employers provide this but let them buy their programs on the private market. Do you have a preference when it comes to paid family leave?
K.C.B.: First, I'd say I think there is broad support amongst Democrats and amongst many Republicans that people should be able to take time off to address their own health or their family's health concerns without losing a job. But the particulars of it, the details of it, matter. The governor did ask the task force to consider a private model versus a social insurance model.
RW: What do you like best?
K.C.B.: I am going to stay open to both options.
RW: Should the state be in the business of administering something like this?
K.C.B.: There are pros and cons to both. The social insurance model, I think, can really benefit low-wage workers and is less likely to end up in discrimination. I think the private model leaves a lot more leeway to business to figure out for themselves how to provide paid family leave. I don't know right now what's going to be proposed, but I do want to see something pass. I think the bill sponsors have done a good job of working with stakeholders over the last few months, making sure all sides have the opportunity to share their concerns.
RW: You have talked about bipartisanship, but 2020, there's an election going on. I'm sure you're aware.
K.C.B.: I've heard.
RW: It could get ugly with the presidential race, a U.S. Senate campaign in Colorado, all of the members of your chamber, the House, up for reelection, and impeachment in Washington radiating. Can you honestly keep the peace?
K.C.B.: Election years are tougher years. There's a lot more campaigning done at the capital.
RW: Tell me what that means.
K.C.B.: Legislators are much more aware of what they are saying publicly and what they are proposing publicly, who's listening, who's watching.
RW: Everything's a campaign.
K.C.B.: Everything becomes a campaign. I think it generally makes folks more cautious, so that's not necessarily a bad thing. What we really want is well-vetted policy. We don't want the toxicity of Washington to come in to Colorado or to the General Assembly specifically. So I think we're always looking out for that, but you can't control everything.
RW: That means — you're always looking out for it and how do you nip it in the bud …
K.C.B.: Sure. It's really important for us to keep things civil.
RW: How do you enforce that?
K.C.B.: We have the majority but we always make sure we're talking to the minority about what the schedule is, what are their needs, what are they going to really want to be talking about? We don't want to surprise them. We want to include them in the process.
RW: Was it always that way last session? Were there lessons you learned?
K.C.B.: I'm always learning lessons. We can always do things better. There's a saying that the majority ends up having its way, but you have to make sure the minority has its say.
RW: There was one issue where folks didn't feel that was necessarily true, that it was moving at such a breakneck pace that it unsettled folks, and that had to do with repealing the death penalty. This got sidelined last session because of two Democratic members, both who lost sons to homicide. Do you think that the death penalty will be repealed in Colorado?
K.C.B.: I think the bill will come forward. I hope it gets repealed. I personally don't think the death penalty achieves a lot. I think it's very expensive and I think it's arcane. I hope it'll pass and I think it can pass this coming year.
RW: What would be different?
K.C.B.: I think there's been work done across the aisle with members to bring people on board.
RW: Does that include your own members?
K.C.B.: Yes. I couldn't give you a final vote count and tell you where every single member is. It's a sensitive topic whether you're personally affected it by not. It's a very sort of personal decision about how you feel on the death penalty. But I think, more and more across the nation, we're seeing red states, blue states all say, "I don't know that this is serving anyone well."
RW: You think there are more votes, though, than last year?
K.C.B.: I do.
RW: You do. Speaker, thank you so much for being with us.
K.C.B.: Thank you for having me, Ryan.