The first day of Colorado’s legislative session opened in the shadow of an international confrontation with Iran and the impending rancorous impeachment proceedings in Washington, D.C.
In contrast, members of both parties called for a civil tone in Colorado, while also making it clear they have plenty to fight over, including paid family leave, health care, education and transportation.
"Nationally, this year may go down as one of the most bitter and divisive our nation has ever been through," said Democratic House Speaker K.C. Becker in her opening speech.
“And while I remain hopeful that a change will soon come in D.C., I invite you to join me in taking matters into our own hands to prove once again that government can still work for the people.”
What Leadership Has To Say
The first day of the four-month lawmaking marathon had plenty of friendly greetings and collegial speeches. But it was obvious by morning’s end that Democrats would push another package of major bills and Republicans would resist with legal tactics and public messaging.
This is the second annual session since Democrats won complete control of the legislature in the 2018 elections. Republicans will not have a chance to retake power until the November elections, months after this legislative session has finished.
Becker called for compromise but didn't temper her fellow Democrats' ambitions. She said that 2019 had been one of the “most historic, productive sessions” in the state’s history, and promised more of the same in 2020.
She called on the legislature to adopt new gun laws and to abolish the death penalty. As expected, Becker promised to return to Democrats’ long-debated paid family leave proposal, saying the "time is now" and urging all sides to work together on a final policy.
On transportation, she warned that there’s no “secret pot of money” to meet growing needs, countering Republican messages about using the state’s existing resources. And she returned several times to the idea that the legislature could save Coloradans from harrowing circumstances, including high health-care costs.
“Coloradans need and are demanding a more affordable state and a more just economy. Too many people are not feeling the benefits of our state’s growth That’s where our focus should be," she said. "Every Coloradan should have the opportunity to share in our state’s prosperity."
Her Republican counterpart, House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, opened his speech by acknowledging his party’s lack of power. Neville jokingly said he wanted to make a motion to conclude the whole session on its opening day — but the Republican acknowledged he’s more than a few votes short for that.
In a mirror image to Becker, Neville similarly used his speech to call for bipartisan action, but underlined his party’s resistance to major Democratic priorities. He pointed to California’s cost of living and widespread homelessness as a warning about liberal politics.
“What we want to be is Colorado, proud and free. We do not want to be eastern California,” he said.
Over in the Senate, the parties' leaders seemed to clash more sharply. Senate President Leroy Garcia and Minority Leader Chris Holbert exchanged early warnings about the session ahead.
Garcia called out some of the delaying tactics that Republicans used last year, including a requirement that bills be read aloud in their entirety.
"Let me be clear, there has been a brazen effort to not only divide this chamber but dismantle it, from Washington-style political antics to pointless attempts to upend the will of voters," Garcia said.
Later, Holbert defended the Republicans' tactics.
"Mr. President, while it is understandable that members of the Majority might feel frustration toward the tenacity with which the Minority approached debate last session, it was nonetheless disappointing to hear those principled efforts described as 'children throwing temper tantrums,' he said.
"No, we are all adults here," Holbert added. And those delaying tactics are likely to return, several Republican officials said.
Back in the House, Neville laid out point-for-point responses to Democratic priorities.
He and other Republicans agree that education needs fixing, but he said the problem wasn’t “a lack of money.” Republicans plan to focus on education reform this session, with an agenda that includes expanded school choice, bonuses for high-performing teachers, and more transparency in school performance ratings. Neville called them “education bills with a twist.”
He also laid out a defense against what he described as Democratic “special interests.”
“When life and liberty and justice are threatened, we’ll stand up and fight,” he said, promising to resist state involvement in health care, which he said would raise costs for the public.
He also warned that the “flawed visions of climate alarmists” would raise utility bills. And he said he would fight against potential payroll fees or taxes that Democrats could use to fund the paid family leave program.
Still, Neville sounded with a hopeful note for the Colorado House, when he concluded that while he and Speaker Becker “don’t often see eye to eye, we can look each other in the eye.” Similarly, Holbert stressed his friendship with Garcia in the Senate.
In a moment of unity, Becker and Neville both paid tribute to Republican Rep. Kimmi Lewis, who died of breast cancer late in December. The House stood in honor of her and applauded her chosen replacement, Rep. Richard Holtorf. The chamber also honored the late Ruben Valdez, a former House speaker who passed away last October.
There will be a couple of other new faces in the legislature this session. Democrat Mary Young was sworn in to replace Greeley Rep. Rochelle Galindo, who has resigned amid an allegation of impropriety. And a vacancy committee will appoint someone to fill Denver Sen. Lois Court’s seat after she said she would step down for health reasons.
Opening day was a chance for speakers and legislators to put personal touches on the usual routines of the legislature. Becker's young sons Leo and Ryder led the pledge of allegiance -- after she pointed out the correct flag for them. Rep. Dave Williams, assigned to alert the Senate that the House had convened, brought his baby son Logan along for the task.
As the roll call ticked through in the House, representatives demonstrated a little verbal latitude, calling out: "Presente!” “Here!” “Present and ready!” “Good morning, Colorado!” “Aqui!"
And from Young, the newly appointed representative from Greeley: "Here for the first time, but not the last!"
With one day down, lawmakers have 119 days left to complete their work for the year.