Democrats may control the legislature, but the ‘Red Room of Doom’ put the brakes on some progressive priorities this session

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A man in a blue suit stands behind a desk in the Colorado Senate chamber, with two men seated at other desks beside him.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Democratic state Sens. Chris Hansen, Dylan Roberts and Kyle Mullica, from left, on the last day of the legislative session. May 8, 2023.

The Red Room of Doom. That’s the nickname one House Democrat gave the state Senate this past session. Others joked that the chamber — with its red wallpaper, carpet and ceiling — was where progressive bills went to die.

While Democrats held a near super majority at the Colorado legislature this session,  closely divided committees in the state Senate frequently blocked or watered down some of the progressive priorities.

And that inspired one supporter of some of those policies to wonder why — why didn’t such big Democratic majorities translate into bigger margins on Senate committees in particular?

Coming down to a single vote

Alex Nelson, a public school teacher in Denver, is passionate about affordable housing. He visited the state capitol this spring to back several Democratic housing bills and testify in committee. 

Nelson sees the impact that the lack of affordable housing has on schools, with students and families being priced out and having to move away, and also people choosing to have fewer children. 

“Housing costs, costs of living are so high that we see diminishing enrollment every single year, which is leading to closure, consolidation, all sorts of things like that.” 

The issue also affects teachers.

“Friends in the teaching profession have a hard time accessing affordable housing,” Nelson said. “A couple of my friends have left the state because of housing costs.” 

Given how many people are struggling with housing, Nelson said he was surprised when measures like a proposal to allow local communities to enact rent control narrowly died in a Senate committee. It failed on a 4-3 vote.

“I was thinking just about how many bills in the Colorado Senate came down to a single vote of either passage or failure,” said Nelson. The situation led him to wonder, “why those committees had only a single vote majority when the members on the floor held almost two thirds (of the seats)? … Is that a decision made by leadership?”

On seven out of the state Senate’s ten committees this year, Democrats only had a one-vote advantage. Those narrow margins made it possible for a single moderate member to side with Republicans to vote down a bill, or to demand significant changes in order to win passage.

Committee make-up more than a numbers game

Nelson was on the right track with his question about who decides the committee makeup; that power rests in the hands of Democratic Senate Majority Leader Dominick Moreno. He appoints lawmakers to committees and decides on each panel’s size and political split.

“The committee makeup is dictated by the political makeup of the chamber as a whole,” he said. “The rule says that the committee makeup has to be in rough proportion to the number of seats you occupy in the Senate chamber.”

But because it’s only a “rough proportion,” Moreno still has leeway on each committee. Moreno acknowledges he could have given Democrats a bigger advantage on some committees, but said he doesn’t have enough members to pad out all of them and that lawmakers’ individual expertise played a significant role in his choices.

The situation put a spotlight on several of the Senate’s more moderate members, like Democrat Dylan Roberts. Roberts, who was the key no vote on the rent control bill, was a swing vote on three different committees.

“I reminded bill sponsors who were frustrated at my position that I didn't make the committee assignments,” said Roberts. “I didn't make the makeup of the committees. I was assigned to those committees, and I'm just doing my job. I got sent here by my district, not by a political party and not by a political philosophy.”

Roberts lives in Avon and represents a mountain district where Democrats hold a less than seven point advantage, according to redistricting maps. He said he scrutinizes every piece of legislation.

“The goal is collaboration and trying to make bills better. But there were several policies where I just couldn't get there.”

Republican lawmakers said they were more than happy the Senate acted as a moderating force.  

“We haven't killed that many bills,” said GOP Sen. Perry Will in the final weeks of session, “But some of the bills that need to go away, it went away. I think it's great and I think it's much needed.”

On the House side, where committees were much more steeply tilted in Democrats’ favor, Republicans said they were grateful that the Senate at times blocked policies they lacked the power to stop.

“There were Democrats that destroyed bills that would not be good for Colorado. It's a teamwork effort here,” said Republican Rep. Ron Weinberg who passed many bipartisan bills this session.

Senate Minority Leader Paul Lundeen said even though the GOP is at a disadvantage he thinks they are “still punching above our weight to kill bad policy ideas. We are actually trying to hold the ideals of freedom for individuals to live the lives they want to live and the way they want to live them.”

Progressive frustrations

The narrow committee splits didn’t just result in more moderate Senators voting down progressive bills; in many cases, they were able to get concessions and amendments in exchange for their support.

For progressives, the Senate results were a source of frustration throughout the session. They argue that Democrats’ surprising success last November — the party picked up legislative seats in a year many analysts expected them to lose some — show that they have a mandate to make big moves.

“Voters are wanting something bigger and bolder. And we tried and that's not what's happening,” said Democratic Representative Lorena Garcia who is in her first year at the Capitol. Garcia believes voters elected Democrats to do more this year on housing and criminal justice, in particular. But several key bills on those topics were defeated.

However, Moreno defended the committee makeup as a good reflection of the Senate’s general views. He notes that even when progressive bills did get to the Senate floor, they still didn’t have the votes to pass. 

For instance, a bill to make it harder for landlords to evict people on month to month leases lingered on the calendar and ultimately ran out of time, in part because it lacked the support to move forward. The Senate also gutted a bill that would have prevented prosecutions of 10 to 12-year-olds, except in homicide cases. And when a proposal to allow local communities to set up supervised sites for safe drug use came up in a Senate committee, three Democrats joined Republicans in voting it down.

All of the policies managed to pass the House before hitting roadblocks in the Senate.  

And it wasn't always progressive policies that struggled in the Senate. The governor's Land Use bill, which was sponsored by Moreno, also died in that chamber. The Senate watered down the bill significantly, setting up a showdown with the House, which passed a more robust version. In the end, the bill was dropped in the final hours of session for lack of Senate votes.

“Yes, we have a historic majority,” said Moreno. “It doesn't mean that we have a super majority of progressive members. It means that everyone votes their own conscience in their own district.”

Senate defenders also note that some progressive bills didn’t even gain traction in the House. A proposed statewide assault weapons ban failed in its first committee after three Democrats joined Republicans to defeat it. The House also handily rejected a measure to mandate more predictable schedules for restaurant and retail workers. 

Progressive Democrats say they plan to try again with many of these ideas next session. 

 And as for Alex Nelson, the teacher who started us looking into this issue — he said he’s glad to learn more about how the legislature works, and is optimistic some of the housing proposals he supports will see more success down the road.

“I tried to remind myself that these things take time and that the first go isn't always gonna be the one that gets you exactly what you want,” he said,