Facing A Democratic Majority, Colorado’s Republican Lawmakers Focus Their Efforts On Transportation

January 7, 2020
Senate Minority Leader Chris HolbertSenate Minority Leader Chris HolbertHart Van Denburg/CPR News
Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, R-Parker

On the eve of Colorado’s 2020 legislative session, the leader of the state's Senate Republicans acknowledges his party is operating from a position of weakness.

But Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, a Republican from Parker, said they’ll continue to fight for what he believes Coloradans want: more money for transportation.

Democrats hold the majority in both houses of the legislature and control the governor’s office.

“The sad reality for being in the double minority in our current legislature is that whatever we can get done, we have to have agreement from the majority,” Holbert told Colorado Matters.

He said he met recently with Senate President Leroy Garcia, a Pueblo Democrat, for a “very cordial” lunch.

“I think the president is sincere in wanting the 2020 session to kick off and run much like we ended the ‘19 session," Holbert said.

After a mid-session wrangle over a parliamentary procedure, the two parties reached agreement on several issues before they adjourned for the year.

Holbert said Republicans will make transportation a top priority and will press for more money from the operating budget than Gov. Jared Polis has allocated in his proposed budget.

While Polis wants to set aside $550 million, most of that would come from sources other than the general operating fund. Holbert wants a total of $300 million from the operating fund, in addition to money from the other sources.

Interview Highlights

On navigating a legislature where Democrats hold the majority in both houses and control the governor’s office:

"The sad reality for being in the double minority in our current legislature is that whatever we can get done, we have to have agreement from the majority. There's no way to go around them."

Republican priorities for the session:

"One of the themes that we've had for the past three years and will be again this year is we'd like to see at least $300 million of general fund, that's state tax dollars, allocated towards roads and bridges, transportation infrastructure. Most of the funding for our roads and bridges in Colorado comes from state and federal gas tax and that is not part of the general fund, that's not part of the budgeting process."

On why the $550 million Gov. Jared Polis’ proposes to spend on transportation isn’t enough:

"Only $50 (million) of that is general fund but we’d like to see (another) $250 million general fund dollars and that would actually get us up in the range of $800 million (total) for the first time in a very long time. We would actually be approaching that billion-dollar level and really making a change in the infrastructure need that we have in Colorado."

A potential 2020 ballot issue to allow the state to issue bonds for roads, without increasing taxes.

"If we take those general fund dollars that we've been pushing for and have achieved in the past few years, that's money the taxpayers are already paying into the system. If we were to allocate that as the source of revenue to pay back bondholders, then depending on where the bond market is and how much we can pledge to pay back every year, we can go out and bond in the tune of billions of dollars, $2 billion, $2.5, $3 billion."

On a possible move to raise the gas tax:

"I'm concerned about that because as we bring more hybrid and fully electric vehicles on our roads, they're not buying gas, they're not paying gas tax. So we need to be careful about putting too much dependency on gas tax, whether or not it's raised or not, that is something we need to be very aware of. And I think there's also discussion about how people who drive hybrids or electrics might pay into transportation in some different way."

On the repeal of the death penalty:

"I think that the death penalty is a viable option if someone takes the life knowingly of another. That is the one thing that we as a society can say, 'Well, if you're going to do that, we can return that to you.' And we do it so rarely in Colorado. I think I'm solidly let's leave it where it is — as an option. And most members, I think, of my caucus see it in a similar way."

On Gov. Polis’ plan for a ‘public option’ for health insurance:

"I think that we should not move forward on that, at least not this year, that we should allow the reinsurance bill that was passed last year more time to have hopefully greater influence.  I think that too much change too suddenly in something as important as healthcare is too risky. It seems precarious."

(Ed. note: Under reinsurance, the state absorbs the most expensive medical claims, which gives private insurers leeway to lower premiums.)


Full Transcript

State Sen. Chris Holbert: The sad reality for being in the double minority in our current legislature is that whatever we can get done, we have to have agreement from the majority. There's no way to go around them.

Ryan Warner: Have you been seeking that kind of buy in on particular issues?

CH: Yes, there's been discussion. I really appreciate the time that President Garcia afforded me and the two of us went to lunch in Pueblo. I drove down and we had a very cordial lunch.

RW: This is Leroy Garcia who is the senate president.

CH: Yes, and I think the president is sincere in wanting the 2020 session to kick off and run much like we ended the '19 session.

RW: And what was that lunch like in Pueblo? What issues came up? I'm curious.

CH: Well, I think it's important for the majority to recognize that they get to pass any bill they want to and there's no way the minority can stop them, mathematically. However, the constitution, the state constitution does not give the majority, even when they hold it in both chambers, the ability to pass an unlimited number of bills. We only have 120 days, we cannot go longer. It cannot be extended here, and that means prioritization becomes very important and 120 days probably doesn't mean 500 or 600 or 700 bills, but it certainly can mean dozens.

RW: So the time is finite.

CH: Yes.

RW: One can call a special session on a single issue, but that takes time and money and it's an extraordinary step.

CH: And then anything that happens in a special session, starts from square one. It doesn't carry over here.

RW: So what would Republicans like to see addressed this session?

CH: One of the themes that we've had for the past three years and will be again this year is we'd like to see at least $300 million of general fund, that's state tax dollars, allocated towards roads and bridges, transportation infrastructure. Most of the funding for our roads and bridges in Colorado comes from state and federal gas tax and that is not part of the general fund, that's not part of the budgeting process.

RW: Why is it so important to you, the general fund, that kind of that particular purse, if you will? Why that's the source?

CH: We are confident that the people of Colorado, voters, taxpayers expect roads and bridges, transportation infrastructure to be one of the top priorities and when we spend nothing or spend very little of their general fund dollars, I think people tend to look at that and say, ‘Gosh, it doesn't seem like it's a priority.’ We have something in the range of more than $9 billion of infrastructure needs and we'd like to see some amount put from the general fund toward roads and bridges. And $300 million has been the minimum that we've been asking for the past three years. I appreciate working with the majority leader, (State. Sen Steve) Fenberg last year and we got that up to $300 million in the budget last year. The budget this year includes $550 million.

RW: Yeah, I was going to say transportation, an ongoing priority for both parties and the Democratic governor suggested a total of $550 in this year's budget for that. You complimented him publicly on that choice.

CH: But the problem is that only $50 (million) of that is general fund, but we'd like to see $250 million general fund dollars and that would actually get us up in the range of $800 million for the first time in a very long time. We would actually be approaching that billion-dollar level and really making a change in the infrastructure need that we have in Colorado.

RW: Okay, lots of numbers flying around for sure. Let's get to the nugget of this. Why is transportation for you such a priority?

CH: Well, the three top priorities I think for most of us on both sides of the aisle are K through 12 public education, higher education and transportation.

CH: Those are three things that people across the state care about and they tend to be very important in campaigns, this being an election year. We saw the defeat of (Proposition) CC last fall and that focused on those exact issues. The argument that I've had against CC and for funding is that the … 

RW: CC, by the way, would have allowed the state to keep the TABOR refunds that people get … 

CH: The overage, yes.

RW: Yeah, and (the state) would have spent that on education and transportation.

CH: Yes, education meaning K through 12 and higher education.

RW: And higher ed.

CH: So that lost, and my argument against CC and through my years in the legislature and this year, is that the taxpayers of Colorado have been paying us more tax dollars every year that I've been (in the legislature) except the 2011 year when I got to the House. But thank you taxpayers, you've been paying more volume of tax dollars, so we continue to increase budgeting pretty much across the board for the state, but it has been frustrating over the years to see transportation get very close to zero or actually zero general fund dollars when it's such a strong priority for people across the state.

RW: Two measures to raise money for transportation failed at the ballot in 2018.

CH: Yes.

RW: But your party continues to support the mechanism behind one of them, that's bonding, essentially borrowing without raising additional revenue to pay off the debt. How would that work if you were to land something like that on the 2020 ballot?

CH: If we take those general fund dollars that we've been pushing for and have achieved in the past few years, that's money the taxpayers are already paying into the system. If we were to allocate that as the source of revenue to pay back bondholders, then depending on where the bond market is and how much we can pledge to pay back every year, we can go out and bond to the tune of billions of dollars, $2 billion, $2.5, $3 billion.

RW: Leveraging that money from more than you might be able to, if you spent it directly.

CH: So for bonding, we would need permission from the voters. That's a TABOR question that would go to the voters.

RW: Yeah. How likely do you think that is to land on the 2020 ballot?

CH: It is in statute and it was originally going to be on the ballot in '19 … 

RW: Right, and it was deferred.

CH: ... and then it was moved to '20 in a bipartisan negotiation that happened last year during the '19 session. We moved it out one year, but I do recall the governor saying he didn't want to discuss new sales tax increases or bonding. It seems like maybe bonding is not completely off the table, but I have been hearing from other legislators that there is some discussion of potentially raising the gas tax. Maybe that would be the revenue source for bonding or maybe we just use that cash to pay cash for projects and not bond, but we think it's important.

RW: Yeah, but a lot of questions to answer and a lot of avenues that could be explored, roads if you will, that you would go down. This idea of raising the gas tax, that hasn't happened in Colorado in some time, am I right?

CH: That is correct. It's somewhere in the range of 25 years or so.

RW: Yeah.

CH: And I'm concerned about that because as we bring more hybrid and fully electric vehicles on our roads, they're not buying gas, they're not paying gas tax. So we need to be careful about putting too much dependency on gas tax, whether or not it's raised or not, that is something we need to be very aware of. And I think there's also discussion about how people who drive hybrids or electrics might pay into transportation in some different way.

RW: You'd like to see that considered in any conversation. Meanwhile, of course you have a governor who has placed a high priority on getting more electric vehicles on the road.

CH: Yes.

RW: Okay, so I want to go to a different topic here, which is repealing the death penalty.

CH: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

RW: And I want to use it as a contrast, because in the conversation about roads, there are a lot of kinds of things you can tweak that maybe might please Republicans or result in some bipartisanship. On something like the death penalty, Democrats proposed the repeal last year, may bring it up again, it strikes me as more black and white, kind of traditional wedge issue. Is there a way to find a middle ground on something like the death penalty that might be acceptable to both sides of the aisle?

CH: I doubt it, but maybe. We're always willing to try. I think the fascinating aspect of the death penalty is that I've seen it die twice, no pun intended, but fail to pass. And primarily, it has been Democrat Senator Rhonda Fields.

CH: And if listeners aren't aware of her life story, it's really important to know that. Her son was not just murdered, but there was a hit put out on him by a gang because he was going to testify in a court and he was assassinated and his body was actually found, by coincidence, in the district that I represent south of Park Meadows Mall. And I've talked with Rhonda and her daughter about this and the testimony that they have of being in the court during the trial is powerful. I have not been in that situation.

And I recall being on a committee when we were in the House together, with then Representative Fields, and she basically stood up to Governor Hickenlooper and said no. And that bill did not advance. And I saw Senator Fields last year take that very same position and stand up and just say no.

RW: Now, it seems to me that she felt very much that the conversation was rushed and not nuanced enough.

CH: Yes, and maybe Senator Fields in that regard had a similar observation as my caucus did about a lot of other things, but … 

RW: Let me just say there was a lot of tension in the last session, especially early on. The pace that Republicans perceived the Democrats moving at the lack, perhaps, of inclusion and enough dialogue around stuff.

CH: Just have a tremendous amount of respect for Senator Fields. We disagree on many things, but I do admire her willingness to stand up for what she believes to be right based on an experience that I think she may be the only member of the General Assembly who has gone through that kind of scenario.

RW: There is a member of the legislature who lost a child in the Aurora theater shooting as well.

CH: True, yes. So we'll see. I think that the death penalty is a viable option if someone takes the life knowingly of another, that that is the one thing that we as a society can say, "Well, if you're going to do that, we can return that to you." And we do it so rarely in Colorado.

RW: Is it a discussion worth having again?

CH: I think I'm solidly let's leave it where it is as an option. And most members, I think, of my caucus see it in a similar way. But again, there's this fascinating bipartisan opportunity with Senator Fields to say "No, we probably should not do that." So, we'll see where it goes.

RW: I'd like to talk about healthcare before we go. A proposal that's expected from the Democrats would be the beginnings of a public option, a state-backed policy. Supporters say this will create competition for insurance companies, especially in rural areas that are sometimes served by only one private insurer. The idea is that this might cut costs. What do you think of a public option?

CH: I think that we should not move forward on that, at least not this year, that we should allow the reinsurance bill that was passed last year more time to have hopefully greater influence.

RW: So reinsurance, the state had to seek federal support for this. The Polis administration is touting it as a way for people to save money when they buy plans on the individual market. You want to see that play out a little? Can you walk and chew gum, though, on this?

CH: I think that too much change too suddenly in something as important as healthcare is too risky. It seems precarious and … 

RW: Meanwhile, there's the fate of the Affordable Care Act, which (means) the reinsurance program itself is in doubt.

CH: Yes. I have always been an advocate for getting government out of the doctor/patient relationship and putting it further and further into it, seems a recipe, in my political perspective, to make costs increase more.

RW: Okay. Are you aware that it's an election year, Senator?

CH: Absolutely.

RW: Did you know that?

CH: Every two years, every other year.

RW: This is a biggie, right? It's a presidential, it's a senatorial and obviously elections for the state capitol as well. How do you expect that to influence the session? Meanwhile, of course, impeachment, it's hard to say it's rolling ahead at this point, but impeachment is ongoing. How do you expect that to affect the relationships, the conversation, the direction of the session?

CH: I think less so in the senate. We have term limits, so we can be in a chamber for eight years, sometimes there's nine or 10 if someone wins a vacancy election and comes in mid -- just after (the) halfway point and that's confusing. But in the senate, only half of the seats are up for election. Maybe a third of those are really, really tight competitive districts. In the House … 

RW: As for the House. I was going to say, as for the House.

CH: All 65 seats, every two years, so they really can't avoid it in the House. And maybe that's one of the reasons that we consider, we’re classified the senators, the upper chamber, we get to know each other a little bit better. We maybe have more experience and half of us aren't up for election. So I think that it translates to maybe less impact in the senate, which is probably a good thing.

RW: Senator, thanks for being with us.

CH: You're welcome. Anytime.