In final hours of legislative session, Democrats watch some priorities fail and party infighting take hold

Listen Now
11min 00sec
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
State Sens. Julie Gonzales and Bob Gardner speak on the last day of Colorado’s legislative session. May 8, 2023.

“Be careful what you wish for” was a common refrain in political circles after last fall’s election gave Colorado Democrats massive majorities in both chambers of the legislature.

Late Monday night, those words may have felt prophetic as lawmakers grappled with a messy, and contentious, end of session.

While Democrats won major victories this year — significantly strengthening Colorado’s gun laws and passing new protections for abortion and gender affirming care — the session ended bruisingly for the party, with simmering frustrations bursting into public view.

Progressive lawmakers complained the party failed to live up to the mandate voters gave them.

“Progressive policy is dying,” said first-year Rep. Lorena Garcia of Adams County as lawmakers entered their final days of work. “We're seeing middle-of-the-road, moderate policy getting passed.”

Garcia said the hardest part of the session was feeling like Democrats weren’t fully taking advantage of their wide majorities. “Voters are wanting something bigger and bolder. And we tried and that's not what's happening.”

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
State Reps. Mandy Lindsay (left to right), Elisabeth Epps and Matthew Martinez at their desks on the last day of the legislative session. May 8, 2023.

Even as progressives lamented the defeat of some of their goals, especially on renters’ rights and criminal justice, the legislature also failed to pass Gov. Polis’ top priority for the session, a land use overhaul he’d hoped would reshape development for decades to come. 

“That which does not kill us, makes us stronger,” Polis tweeted, quoting Nietzche, not long after the bill’s demise.

One of the last bills to make it through the session was met with unusual protest. It will put a measure on the November ballot to reduce property tax collections for the next decade, while also allowing the government to hold on to billions it would otherwise have to refund to taxpayers.

In the House, the tax plan’s final vote came in a partially empty chamber after Republican representatives walked out in protest over how swiftly Democrats moved the policy through the process. 

“We’ve had enough,” said  House Minority Leader Mike Lynch as he stood outside the capitol with his caucus behind him. “Our votes don’t matter. They're not missing out on anything.” Republicans were marked absent for final votes of the session. 

For House Democrats, the night ended with an emotional meeting that exposed long-brewing tensions. Some members directly criticized the House Speaker, saying she failed to take strong action against racist and inappropriate comments on the chamber floor or to defend Black female lawmakers from attacks.

“When we don't stand up for people, they keep coming for the next person,” said Democratic Rep. Leslie Herod. 

Large policies stall in final hours

Going into the final day of session, the biggest items remaining on the calendar were the land use bill and the property tax plan.

The House and Senate were on course for a showdown over land use. Each chamber had passed very different versions of the bill. Either one chamber would have to accept the other’s version, or hand it off to a conference committee to try to negotiate a compromise.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
State Sen. Dominick Moreno The last day of the legislative session. May 8, 2023.

But as the hours ticked by, the bill just seemed to stall. Finally, just after 7 p.m., the bill’s sponsor, Senate Majority Leader Dominick Moreno, confirmed that it would be allowed to die.

In a statement, the governor’s office said he was “deeply disappointed that politics and special interests continue to delay delivering real results” for Coloradans in search of housing and businesses who need workers.

It was an unusual blow for a governor who in the past has shown himself adept at pushing his own priorities through the legislature while getting allies to block those he opposes.

“I think they wanted to do something bold and sweeping because we have a problem with affordable housing and I think they wanted to address that. Unfortunately, I think that you need to have all the people at the table if you want the solution to actually work,” said Democratic Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, who opposed the biggest parts of the bill.

In the House, an ending marked by divisions between, and within, the caucuses

Publicly, much of the final day of session was marked by giddy silliness, as lawmakers counted down their final hours after four months of grueling work. Legislators performed musical numbers and TP’d each other’s desks. Paper airplanes sailed through the House chamber and crowds gathered for the traditional dropping of a rubber band ball from the Capitol dome.

Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
State Rep. Matthew Martinez plays Black Sabbath on a bass during the last day of the legislative session. May 8, 2023.

But the session ended on a bitter note for many House Democrats after the unexpected and emotional caucus meeting that brought long standing concerns out into the open

Speaker Julie McCluskie said she was a bit overwhelmed by the entire situation and didn’t yet have concrete next steps on how to address it, but said she’s willing and ready to talk to colleagues unhappy with how she has led the caucus. 

“I truly believe in this institution and what it means to work through a democratic process that is messy and hard and difficult for everyone,” she said. 

Meanwhile some members, including Rep. Elisabeth Epps, said they want to see intense changes in how the caucus is run between now and the start of the next session in January. 

McCluskie is in her first year of leading the largest and most diverse Democratic caucus in state history, and some members said there was a lack of transparency and communication in how the chamber was led. It’s unclear how these divisions could shape how Democrats approach their work next session.