State Republicans talk challenges and opportunities heading into 2024 legislative session

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Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Republican House Minority Leader Mike Lynch interviewed by Colorado Matters host Chandra Thomas Whitfield at the Capitol, Thursday, Jan. 4, 2024. Lynch recently announced he’s a candidate for Congress in District 4.

Republicans, vastly outnumbered in both houses of the Colorado Legislature, say Democrats muscled them out of almost every meaningful debate last year.

GOP leaders say they hope for better treatment in the legislative session that opens Wednesday.

“I'm in constant conversation with the majority. I hope, sincerely hope, that they're sensitive to those sorts of tactics being applied towards the citizens,” said House Minority Leader Mike Lynch of Wellington. 

“We don't look at it as a personal attack as a legislator. We are thick-skinned to be around here,” he said. “But what really gets to us is when I've got an email that was sent from somebody in my district and I no longer can read that –  I cannot let that be entered into the record,” he added.

“It inhibits my ability to represent and to bring those voices down to the Capitol, so I am optimistic that they are going to be sensitive to that and really to the voices that I represent and we can reduce the amount of silencing of voices in this next session”

While they try to negotiate with Democrats on major issues like land use and tax policy, Lynch and Senate Minority Leader Paul Lundeen of Monument said they’ve set their own priorities.

Lynch said the House GOP will focus on public safety, including efforts to crack down on the fentanyl trade.

Lundeen said Senate Republicans will push for reform of the state’s construction defects law, which sets builder liability for condominium construction. The rules have pushed insurance companies out of the market and forced condo prices out of reach for most first-time homebuyers, he said.

Lundeen and Lynch spoke with Colorado Matters host Chandra Thomas Whitfield.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Chandra Thomas Whitfield: Representative Lynch, as leader of the House Republicans, let's start with you. Your fellow members stood up as a group and walked out of the chambers on the last day of the 2023 session in protest of what you said were tactics from the Democrats to silence debate. Has that anger you expressed then dissipated, and how are you feeling now at the start of this new year?

Rep. Mike Lynch: I don't know if anger is the right way to put it. We were at a dead stop in not being able to have voices be heard, and the usefulness for us on that floor had left the building, and so we joined it out front. It was frustrating that rules that had not been in play, at least in my existence down here, and really for anybody that can remember, were pushed upon us, and we just didn't think that was fair.

I mean, we still represent a large majority of the rural parts of this state. Those voices weren't being heard, and we took that very seriously and walked out. We weren't stomping out. We were frustrated, no doubt, but if that is the tactic that's going to be put on, and silencing the voices of the folks that we represent, then we needed to have some sort of visible protest, and that's what that was.

Have you met with leadership from Colorado's Democratic delegation to discuss any changes you think might help Republicans make their case?

Lynch: Absolutely. I'm in constant conversation with the majority. They are, I hope, sincerely hope, sensitive to those sorts of tactics being applied towards the citizens.

We don't look at it as a personal attack as a legislator. We're thick-skinned to be around here. What really gets to us is when I've got an email that was sent from somebody in my district and I no longer can read that. I cannot let that be entered into the record. 

It inhibits my ability to represent and to bring those voices down to the Capitol. I am optimistic that they are going to be sensitive to that, and really to the voices that I represent, and we can reduce the amount of silencing of voices in this next session.

Representative, some Democrats were angered by what they felt were inflammatory statements from a few Republicans regarding race, about transgender people, and those with physical disabilities. Do you feel any of your members overstepped boundaries there, and do you have any plans in mind to avoid a similar situation this session?

Lynch: Yeah, I am very excited by the fact that a lot of those sorts of remarks are not coming from my side of the aisle as we've seen during (the last) special session. We are always sensitive to the feelings of others, the concerns of others. Unfortunately, I see more of that from the other side moving forward. I don't think that we overstepped bounds in comparison to what we've seen, as that bar has been raised now from the other side.

Senator, things were definitely calmer in the Senate last year, but given the Democratic majority there as well, what leverage do you feel that you have to get your priorities accomplished this year? What's your plan for navigating that?

Sen. Paul Lundeen: I think the sense of some of the members of the House feeling that maybe their voices weren't being heard was an echo of what we saw happen in the election. The people of Colorado felt their voices weren't being heard.

Raw political power controlled by the Democrats rammed through in the last several days of the end of the previous session, the '23 session, a bill, Senate Bill 303, that became (Proposition) HH. It went to the ballot and was defeated in a landslide by the people of Colorado. When the people of Colorado had a chance for their voice to be heard, we saw what the political dynamic around that issue actually was. That, the voice of the people of Colorado, is what gives me, as a Republican leader, hope for authority inside this building. The reality that the Democrats have political control is out of step with the kitchen table issues and the things that the people of Colorado are feeling and dealing with. That is what gives Republicans hope for authority and engagement in this next session.

You mentioned Proposition HH. That's the property tax measure that was on the ballot and failed.

Lundeen: That's correct.

What do you see as the key legislative priority for Republicans in the Senate for the new session?

Lundeen: Relief. Relief from the economic challenges that we're confronted by which have been exacerbated by bad Democrat policies, by excessive Democrat regulation. Where's one of the places we want to go to provide relief? We want to provide relief with more affordable housing. 

We must reform the construction defects laws in Colorado. The way those laws are set up today, they've got insurance companies saying it's five or six times more expensive to build a condominium than it is to build an apartment of the same size. We're not getting homes that are affordable for people to buy. The first rung of the economic ladder, the first step of home ownership, is not available because the construction defects laws are making them uninsurable. Since they're uninsurable, the builders and developers are saying, we're not going to risk our capital. We can't even get affordable insurance to build these. We are going to bring construction defects litigation reform to this session, to actually address this in a direct, honest, meaningful way. 

Representative Lynch, is there anything that House Republicans would add to that list of priorities?

Lynch: Absolutely. Our word in the House is security. Whether that's financial security or security in your own home when you are out on the streets of wherever you live in Colorado. 

Security is our word this session, and some of that comes from making sure that we have not forgotten about the innocent people that are dying on our streets. Dying. This is an issue that is bigger than the inconvenience of not being able to buy a home. You can't do that if you're dead if you are the victim of a fentanyl overdose. We have to quit kicking the can down the road with getting good drug policies that come out of this state. That comes from a really tough thing for this building to do, which is to admit that it has been wrong in some of the legislation previously, legislation that was put forward in an effort to help people with a drug issue was taken from a perspective and a paradigm of a world that is without fentanyl.

That is a paramount concern, and the job of government is to at least keep people alive. We can worry about the creature comforts of their life after that, but security is what we are going to be focusing on this next session.

Senator Lundeen, let's drill down on property taxes. Rising home values mean a lot of homeowners are going to see their property tax rates rise by double digits this year. Democrats passed a tax relief package last fall, which Republicans opposed. You and others said it didn't go far enough. What will you push for in this session?

Lundeen: We had offered up language that would have given a deeper cut in taxes for residential property owners. We also offered up a reduction in property taxes for non-residential. The reality is businesses don't pay taxes. Businesses pass those taxes along to their consumers, to their clients, to the people they serve, and that's also a tax cut for the people. 

Now Democrats, because it was politically unpopular for them, chose to only make it about homeowners. Well, that's good, but it wasn't even half a loaf. It was a few slices of bread. The reality is we need to get deeper property tax relief. We'll offer up, for the conversation –  and there is a task force that will be reporting back, we'll see what they have to say – but Republicans will also be offering up echoes of some of the ideas we brought forth previously, which is property tax relief and income tax relief. People of Colorado need relief from taxes. 

Another issue on property tax is portability of the homestead exemption for seniors. Seniors in Colorado, after you've been in your home for 10 years, you get a tax advantage. Well, Republicans have said that should be portable, because someone who's lived in their home long enough to become a senior, and that value of that home has gone up and up when they decide to downsize, they should be able to take that exemption with them, but it's not so under the law currently. The efforts Republicans have brought to make that portable over the years has been batted down by our Democrat colleagues.

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Republican Senate Minority Leader Paul Lundeen interviewed by Colorado Matters host Chandra Thomas Whitfield at the Capitol, Thursday, Jan. 4, 2024.

Local governments actually collect and spend most of the property tax money. Should they have done more to lower rates, and take care of this problem?

Lynch: Absolutely, and that is the role of those governments to be responsible with that money. That is where the money is collected. That is where the citizens need to make sure that they realize that's where the money's being collected, and I want to make sure that we are not giving any sort of perceived notion that the state is discouraging municipalities from lowering the rates, and that is the role and responsibility of those local municipalities.

The cuts the legislature made in special session will only last a year. A statewide task force is meeting now, and will make recommendations this spring for more permanent reforms. Senator Lundeen, is there something specific you'd like to see that group propose?

Lundeen: Absolutely. You've correctly identified in this conversation that much of the property tax question is a local question, and that's good, but the state government does have a role in it. The state government sets the assessment ratio or the assessment rate, and for years we had what was known as the Gallagher Amendment. It was put in place to keep people from being taxed out of their homes. 

Well, we're right back in a spot where people may be, once again, being taxed right out of their homes. The thing that I want to see from that task force is predictability and manageability for the people who have homes. Also for the small businesses of Colorado, with regard to taxes.

Representative Lynch, is there something they could suggest that would be an absolute deal breaker for you?

Lynch: I hope that it is not similar to what we've seen before, which are committees that are put together, and really all they do is have a committee that creates a narrative that fits the already pre-baked plan. That is my biggest hope out of that commission, is that those voices that Republicans represent in these areas that are not in the Denver-Boulder corridor are heard and brought forward. I am not optimistic of that.

Another issue that's moving to the forefront in Colorado is immigration. In the last year, the city of Denver has seen more than 31.000 migrants arrive 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. Senator Lundeen, what, if anything, do you want to add to that?

Lundeen: Well, immigration policy starts at the borders between the United States of America and other countries. It's a federal issue. We need to actually solve the immigration laws. We need a functioning gate that allows the economy of the United States of America to function well with the labor that it needs, and we need secure borders where people can cross appropriately, and legally, but not a flood of unanticipated, unmanageable people, new people that just showed up unexpectedly that the public health apparatus was not lined up to take care of, that public safety wasn't lined up to take care of. It's a crisis for us to manage, but it's the responsibility of the federal government to deal with.

Representative Lynch. Your thoughts? 

Lynch: It's really simple to me. If you don't want somebody to come to your house, don't send them an invitation. The mayor clearly needs to change the sanctuary city status. If you don't create an environment where these folks are making assumptions that they're going to be taken care of by the government, then don't complain when you can't take care of them.

Now, what's happened out of this building as well, as a guy who hires and makes and manufactures stuff, I would be really excited if I could hire some of these folks, but the minimum wage now is so high, it's very hard to put some of those folks to work. Through legislation, and through invitation, we have created a really bad situation for Colorado with these folks that are coming in. 

Really, if you don't want them to come, then don't invite them to come. That is a Denver issue. Unfortunately, it's becoming a state issue because these folks need to go somewhere. They need to go outside of Denver because they ran out of services in Denver, and you're now burdening all of the cities around the front range with this.

If indeed the borders can be controlled, there are still tens of thousands of people already here. What do you propose doing with them?

Lynch: Yeah, the border can be closed. We just haven't done that. We haven't had the political will to do that. The folks that are here, we'll have to figure that out, and I believe that'll be a municipal issue. We have systems in place at the state level to deal with folks that need help. It'll just be a financial burden. It'll continue to be a burden. We'll have to make sure that that is funded, or not, or we reduce the expectations of these individuals of what they can get out of the state.

Lundeen: On a human level, you want to care for them. You need to care for them, but the reality is they are mostly here illegally. They've come in in a way that we are not set up as a society to support and sustain. It falls, I think, ultimately on the federal government to do its job. But on a human level, while they're here in the moment, you have no choice but to care for them. They are other human beings as well.

Finally, Representative Lynch, just a bit more on politics here. You've announced that you're a candidate for the Fourth Congressional District in Eastern Colorado. You join a really interesting list of contenders there, including Congresswoman Lauren Boebert, who currently represents the Western Slope, but recently announced she'll change districts for this race. Another candidate in the primary is your Republican colleague, State Representative Richard Holtorf. How will you balance your role in leadership with a congressional campaign against a colleague?

Lynch: Well, first of all, all 65 of the members of the House of Representatives in Colorado are up for re-election. I just happen to be up for a different seat. That's the way I look at it. 

Who's in the field, you know, it's unfortunate that we've had an addition to the race that creates political theater that only takes away from the voices of folks in that district, and what they want their representative in D.C. to bring back to the district. That's the only unfortunate part about that. I entered that race after Representative Boebert was already in it, and I am saddened by the fact that now this is a race that is going to not focus on the needs of our Colorado's Fourth Congressional District. Instead, it brings in some political theater that I think will be unfortunate.