Taking Stock Of The 2017 Colorado Legislative Session At The Halfway Point

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Photo: Capitol Jan 11 2017 1 | Outside Dome Looking West
The golden dome of the Colorado state Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017.

The first 60 days of the legislative session produced many partisan battles that resulted in a lot of legislation that’s now dead. At the midway point of the session, can lawmakers find common ground on major issues - or is now the time to cue the Grateful Dead’s “Casey Jones?”

Whether it’s “trouble ahead” or “trouble behind," here’s a look at where key legislation sits, halfway through the session:

The Message Bills Are On Message

Lawmakers - working from a split legislature where Democrats control the House and Republicans the Senate, lawmakers killed several partisan bills that were introduced in the first half of the session. Some of these so-called message bills included Republican efforts to expand gun access; restrict abortion access; repeal the state’s health exchange; and another that went after so-called sanctuary cities that protect undocumented immigrants.

Democrats were at it too, with a bill to end the death penalty, and House resolutions aimed at reinforcing their support for women’s reproductive rights and for refugees, after President Trump’s initial travel ban on people from certain countries.

Meanwhile, the pro-life Neville sponsors a bill that would place new regulations on abortion clinics. #coleg #copolitics https://t.co/iIVo8XmH8N

Still, lawmakers see value in introducing bills that are dead on arrival.

“If you want to begin that progress forward you gotta first send out that message and begin that conversation,” said Democratic Rep. Jovan Melton of Aurora. “Sure, you may not get it passed the first, second or third year. Eventually you can move the ball down the field.”

The Road To Transportation Funding

Even Billy Ocean must’ve thought a deal on transportation funding at the Capitol would be nothing more than a dream. But, after several months of trying to find a solution to Colorado’s road woes, legislative leaders introduced a major bipartisan effort that would ask voters to fund a sales increase for roads and transit funding.

So far the biggest hurdles are being put up by Republicans. Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert does not support the bill and neither does House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, who said he would “aggressively oppose” it. Why? Because conservatives are railing against the bill as a tax increase that does not offer enough cuts (either tax cuts or budget cuts) in return.

The Only Thing They Have To Do Is The Budget

Colorado’s economy is performing well, but a multitude of budget complexities unique to the state will cause headaches for lawmakers in the second half of the session.

Last year, budget writers were able to come up with innovative solutions to avoid a lot of steep cuts. This year’s a different story as lawmakers face an even bigger budget shortfall.

“This year, that half billion dollar hole is growing, not getting smaller as things begin to happen,” said Democratic Rep. Dave Young of Greeley, who sits on the Joint Budget Committee. “And that little magic hat with the rabbits in there, there no rabbits in it anymore.”

Instead of magic rabbits, budget writers pulled a monkey wrench out of that hat earlier in the session. That’s thanks to an obscure constitutional provision called the Gallagher Amendment, which triggered a statewide residential property tax cut. That money would have gone toward schools. Instead, budget writers are scrambling to fill a $170 shortfall for K-12 during an already tough budget year for schools.

There’s also a big X-Factor facing budget writers: How will actions in Washington impact Colorado’s budget? That’s especially true of changes to health care laws, which could have a big impact on how much Medicaid funding comes from the federal government.

“Where do we come up with the money if the federal government is not sending us the kind of financing that they had been?” said Rep. Young. “Where are we going to come up with that to ensure that people are taken care of? Big questions that we don’t have answers to.”

Then there’s Gov. John Hickenlooper’s own budget request to use money from the Marijuana Cash Fund to launch a housing program for the homeless. The money would also be used for affordable housing for low-income residents and those with behavioral health issues.

It’s not just the governor, a lot of lawmakers are trying to dip into that money to fund things like drug treatment programs, but there isn’t enough to go around with the Marijuana Cash Fund.

“...Of course makes a lot of sense if we had money to do it,” Rep. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale, a JBC member, said of Hickenlooper’s housing proposal. “But do we use that money to balance the general fund or do we start new programs with it? In my mind that’s very much on the table right now. We haven’t made that decision.”

Rankin actually went as far as to predict the governor won’t get what he wants from marijuana money. He’s also expressing doubt about the governor’s idea to raise marijuana taxes to address some of the budget issues.

Speaking Of Marijuana…

Hickenlooper has suggested he may veto a bill that permits marijuana clubs. That bill, which has passed the Senate, allows local governments to make their own rules on how clubs operate. But the governor said he wants the bill to ban marijuana from being smoked indoors.

He also expressed concern over separate legislation to allow medical marijuana home delivery. He’s worried about Colorado taking to many big steps around pot under a Trump administration’s potential crackdown on marijuana.

“...given the uncertainty in Washington, this isn’t the time, this isn’t the year to be out reaching out to carve off new turf, and expand markets and make dramatic statements about marijuana,” Hickenlooper said.

Everyone’s Favorite Legislative Topic Is Construction Defects Reform

This eternal fight over whether to change construction liability laws to encourage condo construction is back - again. There was a big bipartisan push from legislative leaders at the start of the session to get something done. But it’s proven to be difficult - again.

There’s a lot of attention right now on a bill that would force homeowners go to arbitration or mediation, instead of the courts, if requested by the builder. It got bipartisan support in the Senate, but House Speaker Crisanta Duran remains skeptical. She worries it makes it too hard for homeowners to get relief from shoddy construction.

So it’s fate, as well as a few other efforts around this issue, is uncertain.