State Democrats talk about priorities, finding unity and decorum ahead of 2024 legislative session

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27min 32sec
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Democratic Senate President Steve Fenberg interviewed on Colorado Matters, Jan. 8, 2024.

After a 2023 session (along with a special session later in the fall) filled with rancor – not only between parties but internally amongst Democrats as well – Julie McCluskie promises things will be different when the legislature reconvenes Wednesday.

“I will speak to certainly the overarching goal, the dignity of the institution and the call for civility,” McCluskie, the Speaker for the House of Representatives, told Colorado Matters host Chandra Thomas Whitfield. “I will also be sharing with members our work to bring forward more specific guidance that will help them understand what is okay to say or do when in debate or engaging with others.”

When freshman representative Said Sharbini resigned from the House last month, he cited a “polarized and contentious atmosphere” as part of the reason, language that was similar to what another representative, Ruby Dickson, said when she also left the legislature. Since the end of the session, McCluskie, a Democrat from Dillon, has faced criticism from within the party, with a number of women of color in the House lamenting that she didn’t do enough to protect them from attacks from Republicans on the House floor.

While McCluskie says numerous conversations have been held with disruptive members and that when the 2024 session begins, she will challenge the body to “rise to be their best selves, to demonstrate a level of civility in performing their job and to perform their job with a level of dignity,” one of the first actions she’s taken this year was reprimanding another Democrat representative, Elisabeth Epps. In a formal letter sent Monday afternoon, McCluskie said Epps violated six House rules last session; the letter went on to warn Epps that any repeat of her behavior could lead to “further disciplinary action” by the House. 

Even if a reset is needed in terms of decorum, another Democratic leader, Senate President Steve Fenberg, told Colorado Matters that the squabbles shouldn’t overshadow the number of things the legislature accomplished in 2023 –  with more to come in the upcoming session.

“I think the Republicans would say we got way too much done and I'm proud of all the work that we did,” Fenberg said. “When you think about the work on renewable energy and climate issues, we have made so much progress in the last couple of years…whether it's universal pre-K, whether it's increased funding for K-12 education because of our smart budgeting that we've done at the Joint Budget Committee over the last few years. Whether it is the work that we've done on equal pay for equal work, so many issues have been delivered last session.”

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity:

Chandra Thomas Whitfield: There are a number of policy issues to get to, but we would be remiss, Speaker McCluskie if we didn't begin with you and the challenges you have been facing lately here at the State Capitol. Since the end of the last session, two Democratic representatives, Said Sharbini of Thornton and Ruby Dixon from Denver's south suburbs, both resigned after their first year in the House. Both cited their reason as the "polarized and contentious atmosphere in the chamber." Also, just last week, a Denver judge ruled your party violated open meeting laws. This after two other members of your caucus filed a lawsuit alleging similar violations of those laws. One of those lawmakers, Elisabeth Epps, was also among a group of representatives who argue you haven't done enough to support women of color against attacks from Republican members. Please address for us what's happening in this chamber that given the control held by Democrats, many would argue should have everything going its way.

Julie McCluskie: Well, thank you, Chandra, for the questions, they're important. I want to start by saying that I am deeply committed to the decorum of the House, to ensuring that we engage in civil and respectful debate, that we promote a culture that welcomes all to the conversation on any policy topic, and I remain committed to those values in upholding the dignity of our institution and the democratic process.

Let me address a couple of the things that you've raised. First, I want to lift up the performance and contributions of both Representatives Dixon and Sharbini. They were terrific first-term members and I think delivered on the promises they had made to their districts in carrying the values of their constituents in working on very good policy, and I think they both had great success. And in their conversations with me, certainly, they had expressed some of their concerns, and as represented in their resignation letters, their hopes for what they would see the House to be in the future.

The concerns about what has happened in the House may certainly go back to the end of our special session. There were behaviors and actions on the last two days of our special session that I think have concerned many of our members, and those are moments that I have grappled with and have addressed as best I can in this moment. But as we are called to the second session of the 74th General Assembly, my charge to members will be to rise to be their best selves, to demonstrate a level of civility in performing their job, and to perform their job with a level of dignity that honors every member.

For specific complaints that have arisen, we have addressed those. We have rules, we have enforced those rules. We have redirected members or gaveled members when their speech or references have been inappropriate. I will tell you that I have had many conversations with members in my office with minority leadership. When a member has stepped out of line, I have also tried to coach and direct in a way that will shape better engagement in the future.

It is one thing to call out the behavior when it occurs in the House. It is another to try and foster better relationships and better showing up and doing the job in the future, and I have been strongly committed to that. I will also say that we are in a moment where the national rhetoric, the disrespectful debate, the lack of civility and politics, the name-calling that we've seen from a past president, unacceptable behaviors that are now starting to show themselves here in Colorado. The level of vitriol we see on social media where people will engage with each other on social media but not face-to-face and have a conversation. My door is always open, and when members have brought concerns to me, I have addressed those. I am committed and will continue to do so in the future, and in this moment I am hopeful and excited and ready to get back to work. I call my fellow members to join me in that effort and do all that we can to deliver on the promises we've made to Coloradans.

Can you give us some insight into some of the things you'll say as you gavel in for this session to better ensure there is no repeat of the behaviors that you described last session?

McCluskie: I will speak to certainly the overarching goal, the dignity of the institution, and the call for civility. I will also be sharing with members our work to bring forward more specific guidance that will help them understand what is okay to say or do when in debate or engaging with others, that helps clarify rules that have been with us a long time. The rules are a part of our tradition, our history, our heritage. But society has evolved and I think helping to bring that clarity so that members are very clear on what specific behaviors are okay and are not. I think that will be one specific reference I make during my opening day remarks that I hope will help members in the work that we embark on now in the weeks ahead.

Speaking of Representative Epps, you removed her from her position on the House Judiciary Committee last month. Also, two representatives, Tom Sullivan and Chad Clifford have reportedly raised the idea of holding a vote of no confidence in your leadership. What's your response?

McCluskie: I made changes on our judiciary committee because I believe in order to achieve our progressive agenda, there were relationships on the committee and concerns I had about that committee's ability to function well. Representative Epps at the end of the special session behaved in a way that violated House rules, rules relating to decorum in numerous ways and at a level and severity that deserved action from myself as Speaker of the House. That included removing her from (the) judiciary (committee).

Senator, what are your thoughts about how we should move forward in this session to avoid the issues that were described in terms of decorum last session?

Steve Fenberg: Well, look, the House and the Senate are very different places, and we poke fun at each other all the time, whether it's the lower or the upper chamber. But at the end of the day, it all comes down to you have to treat people with respect. You have to honor the seat that you are elected to hold. And we are here to deliberate, to debate. Sometimes that looks like fighting about policies we care deeply about. It should never cross over into the space of name-calling or attacking or getting personal. And sometimes it does. We are here for 120 days, sometimes very late at night. Members could be in committee until three in the morning, have to drive home, get a wink of sleep, and come back to gavel in at 9:00. Some of them may have committees at 7:30. It can be a stressful environment. I don't think any of that is anything new.

There are times, and I agree with the speaker when we are seeing glimmers of the national political landscape land in these chambers. That is the part that we have to be concerned about in my opinion, because that is when you lose the ability to do what I think these legislative institutions were set up to do, to represent real people and to solve problems to improve people's lives. When it becomes about a performance or entertainment or yelling at your colleagues from the gallery, it quickly, I think means that all basic rules and how we interact to get to good solutions, it just starts to unravel.

Norms are contagious and the breakdown of norms are contagious as well. We need to hold ourselves to a higher standard than just individuals fighting over Twitter and think of ourselves as the legislative leaders of this institution and of our communities. I think there have been areas where we have slid into bad behaviors and maybe the norms have been reset a little bit, and we need to work on that. We need to identify those areas. I don't think it is a systemic problem, meaning that most of the 120 days, most of the committee hearings, most of the bills that are introduced and debated are done in a civil, respectful manner, and mostly done in [a] bipartisan manner.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Democratic House Speaker Julie McCluskie interviewed on Colorado Matters, Jan. 8, 2024.

Senator, we mentioned the supermajority that Democrats hold here in the Capitol. To be clear, it's really a trifecta with the party controlling the House, Senate, and the governor's mansion. And I mentioned it because, among veteran watchers, there's a sense that despite that control, 2023 wasn't a banner year in terms of getting things done. When we spoke with your Republican counterparts, they said they are the group best equipped to provide needed relief to Coloradans, not the Democrats. What's your response to that assertion, and from your perspective, how will the 2024 session differ from the last one?

Fenberg: We don't have a supermajority in the Senate. We often refer to it as Democrats have a supermajority. We don't. A super majority would be 24 members. You need a supermajority to do things like refer a constitutional amendment to the voters. We don't have that. The House does. The Senate does not. We aren't quite at a supermajority. We're pretty close. We need 18 votes to pass a bill. We have 23 Democrats. That means that if six Democrats disagree on something, the bill doesn't pass. That's a smaller bar. It's a smaller threshold than the House. The House has maybe more Democrats than they know what to do with sometimes, but the Senate is a different animal. We do approach the work differently, partially because of our rules, partially because of the culture. The House jokes that we're a nursing home and everyone's taking naps throughout the day, but we do engage in very deliberate and vociferous debates.

I would also push back a little bit on this narrative that not much got done last year. I think the Republicans would disagree with that. They would say we got way too much done, and I'm proud of all the work that we did. When you think about the work on renewable energy and climate issues, we have made so much progress in the last couple of years because of this trifecta. And I'm not saying everything that we've done in the last few years is purely partisan and thanks to the Democrats only, but these are bills that frankly were generally introduced in my first two years, but they always died in the Senate because the Senate was in charge by Republicans.

The trifecta is why I think we are able to deliver on so many issues right now, whether it's universal pre-K, whether it's increased funding for K-12 education because of our smart budgeting that we've done at the Joint Budget Committee over the last few years. Whether it is the work that we've done on equal pay for equal work. So many issues have been delivered last session, but the sessions before that because of the Democratic trifecta we've had the last few years.

Representative McCluskie, would you like to add to that?

McCluskie: I would. Thank you, Chandra. I'm sitting here reflecting on the successes of the last session and the special session. I would lift up certainly housing, a big topic last session. Some things were successful across the finish line and some things were not. But as you will hear me speak on opening day, over the past few years, our focused investments on affordable housing now has sticks in the ground. We're seeing projects all over the state, in urban and rural areas, 2,900 housing units coming online, all because of investments that this state has now made. And when we point to the special sessions, seven bills that provided property tax relief, rental assistance, additional benefits to hardworking families from lower incomes through the earned income tax credit, a flattening of TABOR refunds that will ensure that more than a million Coloradans will get more in their TABOR refund to help them during this difficult time.

I'm really proud of our efforts on that affordability front. And it's okay to note that not everything gets across the finish line. Not every bill succeeds. Sometimes those efforts take multiple years, and that's a good thing. It means we've started a conversation, we build on the conversation, we learn what different perspectives there may be. And I think this year, in particular, you'll see some of the land use conversation coming back. The time over the interim gave Democrats and Republicans chances to engage with one another and their constituents and learn and listen. And so I think legislation will come this year with that input and with those improvements in mind.

You mentioned the special session, which was held just before Thanksgiving, and it gave you both and Governor Jared Polis a chance to declare a win on property taxes, but ultimately that special session had to be called due to your party's original solution, Proposition HH being soundly rejected by voters. With 2020 hindsight, should you have taken a different approach from the start last year, Senator Fenberg?

Fenberg: 2020 hindsight is always very convenient to have, and obviously we didn't have it at the time, but look, I think there were many factors. For one, there was, at the time when we referred this to the voters, there was a different ballot measure that, based on the facts that we had at the time, was headed towards the ballot for 2023. And I think that would've been a devastating, so-called solution because it would've led to essentially defunding schools, libraries, our fire departments, etc. and we weren't willing to take that gamble.

We also knew that there is an issue where a lot of people are facing skyrocketing property tax increases that happened seemingly overnight. And we did want to be part of providing a solution to it, but we want to do it in a way that's equitable, that actually provides real relief to the people who need it and does it in a way that keeps funding at adequate levels for our local public services. That's what HH was about.

Of course, voters disagreed. And we could probably talk all day about the different reasons why. I think it was different for many different people. Part of it was the TABOR aspects. Part of it was it was just confusing. Part of it was that some people who don't own a home maybe don't want to provide property tax relief to people who own homes. So, a very diverse set of reasons.

We came back because the governor called us on that special session because we still needed to provide some relief to the people that we think needed it the most. Those are working families, those are seniors on fixed incomes. It does trickle down and impact renters as well. If you have property taxes increase overnight, you're probably going to see your landlord increase the rent. So we thought it was important to still come back and provide some relief.

But the difference is that relief is short-term. It's essentially a one-year basis. And we know we're sort of living in the perfect storm, so this isn't going to be the case forever. The need for housing after COVID, remote workers coming here, the lack of supply, all of these different factors came together and created this problem. Hopefully, that won't be the case moving forward. But we still need a long-term solution and to do something long-term that avoids us getting into this predicament in the future. And that's ongoing. We've put together a bipartisan, it's actually a majority Republican, commission to study this and provide recommendations to the legislature and I hope that we'll be able to implement something this year on that.

Representative McCluskie, what would you like to say about the property tax discussion?

McCluskie: The year that we were able to repeal (the) Gallagher (Amendment) was a bipartisan triumph. Particularly for those of us from rural Colorado, Gallagher was putting us on a path where that defunding of local services would've been imminent. We'd be there now. That would mean drastic cuts, whether it's to our schools, our county services, our fire departments.

But I believe the careful crafting of a property tax commission, which also was a bill that passed during the special session. That property tax commission has now met a couple of times and will be meeting every Friday until March. I hope that group of talented, smart people can come up with a long-term solution for Colorado that has bipartisan support, that protects those local services, as well as providing relief for our families, our small businesses so that Colorado remains an economy that thrives and isn't choked out by strangulating property taxes.

I want to talk about the governor's priorities for a moment. Last session, lawmakers, including many Democrats, rejected his effort to give the state new powers over land use decisions, with the goal of building more densely in the future. This year, Governor Polis is still pushing the same priority but is trying to take a somewhat different approach. He's calling it his Vision 2026 plan, outlining recommendations for the legislature to use in 2024 in areas like transportation and land use, and affordable housing. Speaker McCluskie, in looking at the 34-page document, in your view, what's specifically in there that makes it a better path forward heading into this new session?

McCluskie: The package includes and starts with a strategic statewide and regional perspective on housing needs, a housing assessment at a level that this state has never engaged in before. It's a part of the conversation we were having last year and the bill that came forward last year that I think had bipartisan support and support from local governments. That piece, that first big important step is critical for everything else that follows. And I am eager to see that bill move forward with, I hope bipartisan support and enthusiasm because the planning, thinking about, and understanding the need is really critical before we address everything else.

We don't have the luxury to wait for assessments and planning for years, and so I am excited to see that other components of last year's discussion that had broader support, that is where I think there will be additional movement, additional conversation. But at least out of the gate, we're going to do that planning work first.

I'd like to conclude by touching base on the impact that a couple of national and international issues are having on Colorado. The first is the conflict in the Middle East. Speaker McCluskie, a number of legislators took part in a rally last month asking Colorado's congressional delegation to push for a bilateral ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. During the special session, pro-Palestinian protesters entered the Capitol and were joined by Epps and another representative, Tim Hernandez, in decrying the situation. It was also mentioned by Sharbini as a factor in his resignation. Is there any specific measure you would be willing to entertain, perhaps a bill that could address any aspect of this here in Colorado?

McCluskie: It is our jobs as state representatives to carry the responsibility and the call for policymaking that is within our purview and that is our work. What happens for any elected official is that the vast issues that many of us care deeply about that impact our constituents, even though at a state level we may not have a clear and direct ability to influence those things happening on an international stage, we do have a bully pulpit, a microphone, to be able to share an opinion, a hope, a deep and maybe sad grief. And we have members in both chambers who represent our Jewish and our Palestinian communities, and I have looked to their leadership and invited their conversation in how we speak to these issues on a broader stage.

I don't know what policy may come forward that members would ask for or hope for. What I will ask of our members is that engagement on this topic must be deeply mindful of all Coloradans on both sides of the issue. We represent such diverse communities and our ability to represent those with heart and compassion is critical.

The other issue is immigration. In the last year, the city of Denver has absorbed more than 31,000 migrants from Venezuela. If the current pace continues, Mayor Mike Johnston says the city may have to spend more than $180 million to help them. Similar things are happening, to a much smaller extent, in other Colorado cities. So far, the state has given Denver about $8.5 million to deal with this, with Democrats in Washington asking the Biden administration for more money. Speaker McCluskie, what role, if any, should the legislature play in this situation?

McCluskie: Thank you. Such an important question, and we have seen migrants now in my part of the world up in the high country. Representative Velasco had made me aware of over a hundred migrants that were sleeping under a bridge in Carbondale in her district. And she had reached out; I really appreciate her leadership and trying to find resources for those individuals and families.

And just recently, our joint budget committee entertained an emergency supplemental at the request of our governor to better support and provide funding for migrants here in Denver and elsewhere in the state. I believe that was a $5 million request, and it did pass through our joint budget committee. And I'm pleased to say those dollars are now or will be on their way to help support.

At the end of the day, we're talking about human beings and I think Denver's efforts to support, provide compassionate response upon their arrival, help them transition into communities here or in other states, those efforts are certainly appreciated. And I want to give a nod to Denver's leadership on this front.

Senator Fenberg, should more money be made available to assist these Venezuelan migrants? And if so, where do you see that money coming from?

Fenberg: I think we have an obligation to do everything we can to ensure their safety and make sure that folks that are fleeing horrible situations are taken care of. Should the state provide more funding? Yes. How much? I can't say. I don't know the ins and outs of the programs and the need of what's going on at the city level, but I absolutely agree that we need more assistance from Congress, from Washington.

Obviously, immigration is a federal issue and is impacting our communities all over the country. But we also have to recognize that this isn't a sustainable approach and it's not an immigration system that makes any sense to be doing it this way, and we need to take a strong look at this from a federal perspective.

Obviously, cities and states should do absolutely everything they can to ensure basic safety and accommodations and rights are respected, but we do need to lean on our federal delegation in the White House and Congress to help communities like Denver.