Colorado Lawmakers Have Come To An Uneasy Truce Over Reading Bills Out Loud

February 20, 2020
Lawmakers at work at the state capitol, May 13, 2016.Lawmakers at work at the state capitol, May 13, 2016.Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Lawmakers at work at the state capitol, May 13, 2016.

The first part of Colorado’s 2020 legislative session has come and gone with only one attempt so far to have a few bills read out loud at length. State law requires that if a lawmaker wants a bill read out loud when it comes up on the floor — it is, no matter how long that takes.

It’s a parliamentary tactic Republicans used to great effect last session to slow the pace of work at the capitol, and some lawmakers are surprised it hasn’t flared up already. 

The ploy came in response to Democratic bills the GOP felt were rushed through the legislature. But the controversy surrounding it, and how Democrats responded is still unsettled, which has impacted how some lawmakers go about their work.

“I've changed the way that I organize the calendar for how we're going to do work based on the length of bills in case somebody asks them to be read at length,” said Democratic House Majority Leader Alec Garnett. Next to every bill on the calendar he writes the amount of time it would take to read the full text out loud. 

Garnett also said he has asked his colleagues not to introduce any lengthy statute clean up measures (sometimes 500+ pages long), “because they could be weaponized at any moment.” 

In another twist related to a potential Republican request for a bill reading, the House floor debate on the measure to repeal the death penalty was rescheduled because some conservatives said a long debate would interfere with their ability to attend President Donald Trump’s Thursday rally in Colorado Springs

“I'm trying to make sure there's enough space for people to be [at the rally] and to be heard,” Garnett said.

Even though Democrats control both legislative chambers and the governor’s office, House Speaker KC Becker said it’s still important to bring all sides to the table. She said the bill reading issue has played a role in her continued emphasis on bipartisanship in this session.

“Trying to legislate through obstruction is not the best way to go, so I don't support the Republican approach on reading bills at length as an obstructionist tactic,” Becker said.

Nevertheless, she has asked her colleagues to work hard to engage the other side. Even if Republicans don't like a Democratic idea, Becker said they'll still appreciate the outreach. That message has resonated with Democratic Rep. Sonya Jaquez Lewis of Boulder County.

“I think there's definitely a move by a lot of us in the House to find more co-sponsors from the other side of the aisle,” Jaquez Lewis said. “I mean, the fact that your bill will have a less likely chance of being read out loud if you have bipartisan sponsorship, I think is a good thing. So, I know I have made a lot more effort to try to find co-sponsorship from my colleagues on the other side.”

But Jaquez Lewis wouldn’t go so far as to say the GOP stalling tactic was a net positive, even though “it has made us all look at what can we do to keep things running smoothly in the House.”

Tension over the parliamentary maneuver quickly escalated in the Senate last year when Republicans asked that a 2,000-page bill be read at length. It would have taken staff a week to do so and ground all Senate legislative work to a halt. Instead, to speed up the process, the Democratic Senate President set up a bank of five computers to read the bill’s text at 650 words per minute. Republicans sued, and a Denver District Court sided with the GOP and said a bill reading must be intelligible. Democrats have appealed. 

“I think the lawsuit was sort of the last straw, it was kind of kind of like a low watermark maybe,” said Democratic Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg in reflection. “I think it forced some of us to have some conversations. It forced some people to say I'm sorry on both sides and to say, you know, maybe we didn't need to do it that way.”

For Fenberg, the start of this current legislative session was a good time to hit the reset button and try to prevent things from getting “nasty pretty quick” by making sure Democrats and Republicans were discussing everything a bit more. 

And so far this approach appears to be working. Republican state Sen. Owen Hill of Colorado Springs, one of the senators that requested bills to be read in full, said Democrats are being more inclusive.

“Maybe it's a recognition that there isn't a monopoly on the truth out here,” he said. “Despite the fact that one party controls all of the branches of government and that we need a variety of perspectives in order to make good policy.” 

But lawmakers are under no illusion that the legislature won’t get tenser toward the end of session and Republicans will more regularly ask for bills to be read at length. After all, the tactic wasn’t used until March 11 last year.

“I think people always wish it's an easier path to get their own way,” said Hill. “But the reality is we have a system that's designed to make sure that everybody has a voice.” 

State Rep. Dave Williams, a Colorado Springs Republican, has already pledged to try and slow down efforts to repeal the death penalty. 

“If I have to utilize all the time that I can in order for the Democrats to think twice about going against the will of the people, then I will,” he said. “And my hope is that Democrats will at least allow the people to vote on this by referendum. If they do that, then I guarantee you things will go a lot quicker and a lot smoother.”

But the fact that Williams’ concern is with the policy, not how fast the bill is moving through the statehouse is a stark difference from the last session. 

In 2019, a death penalty repeal measure was introduced on March 6 and the public hearing was just one business day later, giving many people little time to prepare testimony or come to the capitol to voice their opinions. The fast pace angered Republicans, and some Democrats, and was one reason the measure was defeated. Another controversial Democratic-backed bill to pass stricter oil and gas regulations also had only one business day between the introduction date and public hearing.

“Both parties get arrogant, but in this particular case, the Democrats went overboard,” said Republican political consultant Dick Wadhams. He thinks Democrats are trying to make amends for their behavior a year ago, which he believes is politically smart. “It doesn't remove the controversy in terms of the public policy aspects of what they're trying to do, but at least in terms of the process, they seem to be a little bit more mindful that they have a responsibility being in the majority.”

And for other lawmakers, the bill reading controversy is a non-factor this session. “It's not something I even think about,” said Democratic Sen. Jeff Bridges of Greenwood Village. “The minority has the right to try and extend the process and that's one of the few ways they can exert some control over what happens. And they did that and we did what we had to do. And at the end of the day, we got a lot of good work done for the people of Colorado.”

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