The Legislature’s Top Leaders Mourn Loss Of Transpo Tax Bill, Praise Session’s Productivity

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Photo: Colorado Capitol Jan 2017 1 | Duran, Grantham
House Speaker Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, left, and Senate President Kevin Grantham, R-Cañon City, inside the Colorado state Capitol on Monday, Jan. 9, 2017.

The Colorado legislature’s top leaders -- Republican Senate President Kevin Granthan and Democratic House Speaker Crisanta Duran – may have lost a $3.5 billion tax proposal they co-sponsored, but the session wasn’t a wash. Both praised bipartisan agreements to approve other measures that have divided lawmakers for years.

Duran said the session was the most productive she'd seen in her experience at the legislature, an assessment shared by the governor.

The transportation bill, which would have asked voters for a $3.5 billion sales tax increase for roads and transit, died at the hands of three conservative state senators in Grantham’s own caucus. Grantham argued that voters should be allowed to decide, but “a lot of our folks don’t believe that any tax measure is worthwhile as long as we still have some waste, fraud and abuse in government.”

While the tax bill failed, an omnibus bill approved in the last hours of the session will provide $1.8 billion for transportation. Both lawmakers praised the bill which also saved hospitals from $528 million in budget cuts, added money for education and gave small businesses a tax break.

Lawmakers also ended a longstanding dispute between the parties with approval of a bill that would increase the number of homeowners in a condo association needed to approve any lawsuit for construction defects. Supporters have long argued that it was needed to encourage construction and lower housing costs.

House Speaker Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, and Senate President Kevin Grantham, R- Canon City, spoke with Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner and CPR political reporter Vic Vela. Highlights from the conversation are below, you can listen to the entire conversation by clicking "listen" above.

Conversation Highlights

Grantham on the failed bill asking voters for a $3.5 billion transportation tax increase:

“I told [fellow Republicans] we need to let the voters decide. It’s not something we want to do every session, we don’t want the taxpayers constantly having to fend off a tax measure on the ballot at every single election, every single November, but if we’re going to do it ever then we should do it for something that is what most of us, even Republicans, would consider a valid reason, a core governmental function like transportation.”

Grantham on whether his intra-party struggles make him feel for U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan:

“Who? No, just kidding … We all get to deal with our internal dynamics and wrangling those within our own parties and it’s a chore and it’s part of the job and I -- for anybody I’ve ever criticized in the past, I apologize.”

Duran on the legislature’s bipartisanship in a toxic national environment:

“We were able to have tough conversations and work together to be able to have one of the most productive legislative sessions that many of us have seen for a long time.

On a bill dealing with construction defects to encourage developers and generate more affordable housing:

Duran: “I think it was good policy and I’m very thankful to all the legislators who worked on that but we have to continue to think about the high cost of housing and how we’re going to address it.”

Grantham: “I think I would agree that I would hope that this does. This was not the magic bullet that I think a lot of folks in the legislature were looking for, were hoping for, but it does move the ball.”

Read The Transcript:

Ryan Warner: This is Colorado Matters from CPR News. I'm Ryan Warner. Less than 24 hours after the Colorado Legislature adjourned Wednesday, and after they'd agreed major issues that had split the parties for years, the governor announced he might call a special session. But what did Coloradans get out of the last four months of the regular session? I'm joined today by Democratic House Speaker Crisanta Duran and Republic Senate President Kevin Grantham to talk about the session that just wrapped, and for further perspective, I'm joined as well by my colleague Vic Vela, who covered the legislature this year. Nice to have you all on the program.

And, Vic, first, the governor called this the most productive session he's seen, and he's seen quite a few of them, and also said he might call a special session. Square those two things for us.

Vic Vela: Yeah. Hey, Ryan. Well, first, let's say that talk of special sessions is something that often comes up at the end of each session, but they're rare, and the governor has never called for one. But Hickenlooper did tell people at a post-session party not to make any vacation plans this month. Is this a serious contemplation for a special session? Who knows? But the governor is serious about two issues in particular that suffered defeats: providing more money for transportation through a sales tax increase; and a legislative packaging bid addressing healthcare costs. He said he would take the weekend to think about whether to call for a special session.

RW: Right, and we should know by Monday. Well, Senator Grantham, President of the Colorado Senate, I wonder if the governor's announcement took you by surprise?

Kevin Grantham: Not at all. He's been threatening special session during every legislation interim since he became governor. And to correct Vic on at least one point, he actually has called a special session after the, was it the 2012 session, he did have a special session. So he did have one back then, that was around the civil union's issue, and I think there was another issue that he wrapped up in that. But he's been talking about this for at least the last two years as well, and a little bit more vigorously when it came to the Hospital Provider Fee. And we have seen some progress on that one at least with Senate Bill 267 and credit a lot of the work to some of our colleagues as I sit here with the Speaker. Some of the great work by Representative Becker and Senator Sonnenberg to get that accomplished and get that done, as well as the Speaker's leadership on that, and so plenty of things that did get done, but to answer your question, no, not surprised, because this is what happens every May. If he does it, that'll be the surprise.

RW: I see. And do you think if he does it at any of the outcomes that were not arrived at at the regular session, particularly on transportation and healthcare, that those might change?

KG: Well, it's tough to say. We're gonna have to look at, if he calls it really soon, then there'll have to be some dynamic, changes in the dynamics that would warrant a call for a special session so that we could actually get something done. We'll have to look at whether, how much of this is actually emergency, stuff that needs to be done in the special session, or things that can be done if we wait for the next regular session in January. So we have some options ahead of us; we can look at some of the different issues, and if the governor wants to talk about those things, it's great. I wish maybe he'd have been a little bit more engaged with the Speaker and I possibly on some of these things before the 120 days were up. But if he wants to seriously consider these things, he needs to make the case to us and to the legislature and to the people of Colorado, that these things have to be done before next January.

RW: Yeah, and so, Speaker Duran, I'm wondering if you think the governor ought to have been more engaged in the session?

Crisanta Duran: Well, I think the governor was engaged during the legislative session. I think particularly when it comes to the negotiations around freeing up additional dollars for education and transportation, he was involved with that, and I do think that we still have work to do. It has been the most productive legislative session that I have ever been part of. I'm very thankful and proud that Republicans and Democrats came around key issues like educational equity. We came together on the budget changes as it relates to the Hospital Provider Fee. And we also came together on construction defects reform. All three of those issues have been major challenges for previous legislatures,. And I think moving forward, though, we also have to be thinking about what kind of state do we want in the next ten years, the next twenty years, the next thirty years? When you imagine Colorado, what do you see? How do we continue to have tough conversations, like the tough conversations that we had this legislative session, to build a state where businesses can succeed, where everyone who wants to be able to work hard has an opportunity to get access to good-paying jobs, and how do we invest in roads and bridges and organize our roads not just to move cars, but to be focused on moving people?
I am so thankful for the leadership that rose to the top this legislative session, but we have more work to do, and if something can change to take on those tough issues, going to a special session may be time that is well spent. But I think the question remains, is for the Republicans who voted no on House Bill 1242, which was the transportation referred measure, how do we get them to engage in a productive conversation of what conversation is going to look like for the next generation.

RW: Yeah, I'd like to put a finer point on that question in particular about the transportation tax possibly going to the ballot. That was the idea here, is to refer a measure from the legislature to the ballot and to ask voters for a hike in the sales tax to pay for transportation. And Vic Vela, that was defeated despite support from leaders in both parties.

VV: Yeah, you had, obviously, the Senate President Grantham and House Speaker Duran backing that bill, and it was really killed by three Republicans in the Senate, in the Senate finance committee, led by very conservative Republic Senator Tim Neville. So this had a lot of folks behind it in the House; it passed through the House; it got to the Senate; and despite Senator Grantham's name behind the bill, it just fell apart. That's where it stopped, was the committee in the Senate process.

RW: Right, and so we have heard several references thus far to the Hospital Provider Fee. This is an accounting change that, in the end will have freed up a little over $2 billion for transportation, versus $3.5 billion that this referred measure might have raised. Senator Grantham, what do you think happened here? When I talked to the governor earlier this week, he said, "I'm not sure why the legislature wouldn't just let us ask the question of voters. This wasn't passing a tax hike; it was passing a question about a tax hike."

KG: Well, certainly, that's the point I made to my own colleagues in my caucus, that I think, at least at this point, it's not something that we want to do every session. We don't want the taxpayers constantly having to fend off the, a tax measure at the ballot at every single election, every single November. But if we're going to do it, ever, then we should do it for something that is what most of us, even Republicans, would consider a valid reason, a core governmental function, like transportation infrastructure. And that's the case that I tried to make to my colleagues. And a lot of our folks don't believe that any tax measure is worthwhile, as long as we still have some waste, fraud, and abuse in government. And we want to continue to try to find ways to re-prioritize money, and I think we actually did accomplish that to some extent in 1242 with re-prioritization and asking the people if they wanted to do a new tax measure in order to cycle that money specifically for bonding, for transportation. I think it was a great measure.

RW: You think that there was an accountability.

KG: And [unclear] the opportunity to do that. Yeah, and you know, there is accountability there with the new money and with existing money, and I think the speaker and I came to some terms on some good policy. And I'm not sure what it would take to convince some of those folks to get over the finish line on that. But you know it's one of those things. There was some major success with the bonded, or the Certificate Of Participation money that's within 267 for nearly $2 billion worth of projects.

RW: So, that's another bill, let me just say, a sort of "kitchen sink" bill that includes some transportation money and this Hospital Provider Fee.

KG: Sure.

VV: And, Senator, let me kind of pick up on that. You mentioned some of the folks in your own party. Again, as I mentioned, this [transportation] bill was basically killed by three Republican senators.  When you see, I'm very curious, when you see US House Speaker Paul Ryan on TV and see how much he struggles to wrangle his own party, do you say to yourself, "Yeah, I know exactly how that guy feels"?

KG: Who? Just kidding. TV. Like I have time to watch TV.

VV: Or listen to radio.

KG: You know, I appreciate anybody that's in leadership, whether it's the Speaker of the House in DC or the Majority Leader or the Speaker of the House sitting right across the table from me here.  We all get to deal with our internal dynamics and wrangling those within our own parties, and it's a chore and it's part of the job.  And I, for anybody I've ever criticized in the past, I apologize.

CD: And let me just add to that. You know, in a time where so many people are watching what is going on in Washington, DC, and the Trump Administration and the time we're there, it's so much divisiveness and, where people feel very anxious about politics and government. We should all be proud that, in the state of Colorado, we have done things this session like we have always done, which is focusing on those issues that bind us together rather than those that divide us and that we were able to have tough conversations and work together to be able to have one of the most productive legislative sessions that many of us have seen for a long time.  That said, we still have work to do and we're up for the challenge and willing to talk with anybody who's willing to have conversations to figure out how we continue to move forward.

RW: You talk about issues that bind the parties together. I want to say that this accounting change, this Hospital Provider Fee, for the longest time did not bind the parties together. In fact, it was quite the wedge and Republicans saw this accounting change that would free up more money in the budget as unconstitutional flat out. President Grantham, did you think that going into this?

KG: The proposals that we saw for the last couple or three years, I would say "yes". One of the major problems that we had was some of the language within TABOR itself, in Article 10 of the Constitution, that require a base reset. And what that actually means functionally: it's down in the weeds. But it was something that I think many of us saw as a necessity for even having the conversation. And, what that translated into was a $209 million base reset. I don't know how much detail you want to go into on the radio.

RW: Not huge amounts. Constitutional finance in Colorado is one of the most head-turning things, but there was a concession in a way that Democrats had to make for you to support this.

KG: Certainly. And I certainly appreciate their ability to move on that and our ability to move on some of these things as well when it comes to $200 versus $670 million. I think some of our members would have voted for it if it had been up in the $670 million range, but it got negotiated down to a $200 million base reset and many of us were still able to support that because of the other things that happened within it and what we were able to do with it with transportation, with rural schools, with business personal property taxes. There's some other things that we were able to accomplish with this that I think were wins for our side and wins for the other side. So, I think, at the heart of it, we're able to stay within constitutional limitations and get things done for the benefit of all of Colorado

RW: For those who don't follow the legislature enough to even perhaps know what a reset is, I just want to go back to the big idea here. So this accounting change, this Hospital Provider Fee, and the bill associated with it, Vic, you have called the "kitchen sink bill" because it not only addresses transportation, which is really what we've been focusing on right now, but about a thousand other things, right? What's in the kitchen sink? And, again, this was a critical negotiation between the parties.

VV: The better question is "what's not in the sink?", Ryan. Look, there's $1.8 billion for roads and transit, more money for schools, a tax break for small business, and $528 million for hospitals. It even touches marijuana money because it raises pot sales taxes from 13% to 15% to pay for some of the school funding.  And this is where we get to that wonky phrase we asked you guys not to use earlier. The Hospital Provider Fee that hospitals pay to support medical costs for poor people. The bill, as you mentioned, does make an accounting change that takes the fee out from under the state's constitutional revenue limit and Democrats argued for that change for years; Republicans opposed it. And Senator Grantham, we talked about this change and how you supported it, but it had to morph over time for it get to get to the point where you could support it, right?

KG: Oh, certainly. I think from the beginning of the session, actually even from the, after the election last November, the constant questions are "where are we at on the Hospital Provider Fee?" And more than once I used the term "non-starter". But the fact of the matter is we let Senator Sonnenberg have these discussions with the House members and with the governor's office. And turns out that there was some, the ability for them to move as well as us, and so we found that happy place, so to speak. And it took a little while. Took nearly 120 days of session to find it, but we found it.

RW: I'd like to ask you, Speaker Duran, in particular about the money that will go to rural and safety net hospitals as a result of this. Many of them said that they face the threat of closure if this change wasn't made. But the Denver Post reported this week that despite this fee, which helps hospitals meet the costs of uncompensated care, that is, in a way, helps poor people pay for health care, despite that, the cost shift appears to still exist. That is, that people with insurance are still paying really high rates and have not seen a benefit from the Hospital Provider Fee. Shouldn't Coloradans who are insured and go to the hospital, shouldn't their bills be going down because the state is supporting rural and safety net hospitals through this fee?

CD: Well, I had the great opportunity to travel out to Hugo, Colorado, and meet with health care providers, doctors, and also patients, at the Lincoln Community Hospital, and talking with the people there and understanding how important some of these rural hospitals are, it is paramount because if the hospital was not there, there would be no access to health care for people who live in the area or people who may be driving by on I-70 and, God forbid, get into an accident.  And so, it is a very meaningful part of our health care system that we have access. That said…

RW: Shouldn't other Coloradans be benefiting from that support, though?

CD: Well, and I think you raise a very good question as it relates to how do we continue to look at cost drivers in health care. And this legislative session, in collaboration with legislators, the lieutenant governor worked on a variety of bills that would address the issue of transparency and trying to dig deeper in looking at some of those cost drivers.  This is another area where I think we have work to do. Unfortunately, the bills that were brought forward on the health care front were not able to pass the Senate. But, I think, in future legislative sessions, just like we saw this year, where the House passed out many of these bills, it's a conversation worth having and we have a foundation of access to affordable health care in the state, but it doesn't mean that it's perfect. It doesn't mean that there isn't more work to do to make sure that we're driving down those high costs and ensure that there's transparency.

RW: But is the Hospital Provider Fee fulfilling its mission? Shouldn't it be lowering people's bills who are ensured?

CD: I think that overall it's absolutely providing a meaningful solution to some of these issues, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't continue to evaluate it and make sure that every dollar that is utilized is a dollar that is invested well.

RW: I want to reflect just a little bit on what we have called the "Kitchen Sink Bill". This is a bill, a change in an accounting maneuver that frees up money for transportation and does a lot more. Vic, this really was negotiated in the final days of session. It, as we have said, achieves a lot, and I wonder what you make of that.

VV: Well, the bill's a monster. It's 76 pages, and again, we've talked about this being a Kitchen Sink Bill because it has everything in it, but the final passage in the bill or, excuse me, the final language in the bill wasn't available to the public until just days before the legislature adjourned. And I gotta tell you, I sat in both chambers and I heard the debate and I listened to a lot of lawmakers say things like, "I don't know what's in this bill," or even, "I don't like this bill, but I'm gonna vote for it anyway." And this, my question is to Senator Grantham and House Speaker Duran, is it responsible to drop major pieces of legislation super late in the session when there's little time for public comment and lawmakers may be voting without understanding all the details?

KG: Well, at least, for my part, I think I've been one of those outspoken critics in the past on a legislation that's dropped late in the session, especially major pieces of legislation that have had absolutely zero vetting, and they've been held in the background, they've been talked about with small groups, and then they're dropped and expected by everyone to just pass. I think 267 doesn't really fall into that category. This is something that's been talked about for years. This is something that's been well-vetted; 267 was dropped not at the end of the session. The amendment that was dropped had a few changes in it, but those changes were easily explained from what was originally in 267. And so I think a lot of this was well vetted before we ever got to the last few days of session.

RW: I'm just gonna say, 267 is the bill number, and this is the "Kitchen Sink Bill" that we've been talking about. So you think that there has been an evolution of this legislation over time, and briefly, Speaker, what do you think? Was this crammed in at the end?

CD: You know, in Colorado, if a member introduces a piece of legislation, there is always a hearing on it. We're unlike some other states in that there's always an opportunity for the public to weigh in. That was the case in this particular situation, and I think the value of being able to find common ground was tremendous before the end of the legislative session, and there was a lot going on in the final week and final days, but it was a time worth spent, and at the end of the day, the people of Colorado will benefit from that.

VV: And you mentioned a lot going on in those final days, Madame Speaker, and this is to both of you, and I'm being serious here. Do you think more work can get done in 120 days if you guys didn't spend so much time talking about resolutions? There were a ton of feel-good resolutions honoring highways and libraries and national monuments that are non-binding, and I've sat through partisan resolutions on immigration and equal pay that are really just, if you think about it, tax-funded campaign speeches from the House or Senate well. Do you think these things take away time from actual governing, and do you think they're often the reason why so many things are left to deal with in the final hours?

CD: No, not at all. I think that they're time well spent. There's a variety of different issues that the people of Colorado face on a daily basis, and we work with them to be able to listen to concerns and to be able to have meaningful conversations about issues that matter. I think, also, that sometimes there will be ideas that will be communicated in the form of a resolution, but ultimately, that can lead to the legislation. I'll give you an example of that. We've had resolutions on equal pay in this legislative session. It was great to see Republicans and Democrats come together to be able to come up with legislation that will prohibit employers from punishing employees for sharing wage information, to stop up practice that we know that is challenging for women to be able to receive equal pay for equal work. And so sometimes the work that goes into the resolutions is not only listening to constituents, and the people of Colorado about the issues that they care about, but sometimes it can actually lead to meaningful policy.

RW: Do you think that, President Grantham, this is time well spent?

KG: Well, I think it's another part of the process. We get the chance as well as the other side, whether it's the minority caucuses or the majority caucuses in both chambers, to highlight larger issues. The speaker brought up that one issue, and we've had our own issues that we get to elevate through the use of a resolution, to talk about larger issues, whether it's on a national level, international level, or even something local here at the state or at home. It's an opportunity to highlight those things, and we do it within the process and within the 120 days, and it's just part of what we do, and I think it's a valuable part of what we do.

RW: So I hear you saying that ...

KG: Certainly there's gonna be stuff that's brought up, but ...

RW: I hear you saying that this can start as symbol and wind up as substance, and that's why you think that these resolutions are important. I want to move on to another topic. There's a lot of code in legislative speak so, so far, we've heard Hospital Provider Fee, and in that you're actually supposed to think about transportation and the future of rural hospitals, and another piece of code at the legislature is construction defects as a stand-in for affordable housing. So this is an issue that has been really in a log jam in previous sessions. The parties could not come to agreement. And the idea is that if you make it harder to sue over construction defects and easier to negotiate if the construction of a building is shoddy, that developers will be more inclined to build condos. There hasn't been a lot of condo construction in Colorado, and if there's more housing on the market, then the cost of housing will go down commensurately. There was this session agreement reached on this construction defects reform, and I want to go to the heart of the matter. Speaker Duran, do you think that we will start to see then, changes to the markets, a lowering of prices, a lowering of what housing costs as a result of this, or is that a false promise?

CD: I sure hope so. The issue of housing is one that is on the forefront of many Coloradans' minds, and for years the idea of having construction defects reform was a very challenging concept. In this legislative session, we saw Republicans and Democrats come together to empower consumers and empower homeowners so that there is a greater threshold if they're going to engage in litigation, but also that they know what they're getting into, so there's an informed consent when they decide to go forward with a lawsuit. I think it was good policy, and I'm very thankful for all the legislators who worked on that.  
But we have to continue to think about the high cost of housing and how we're going to address it. This session, we saw meaningful investments into that issue. We also worked on proposals to address some of the issues that renters face. Prior to legislation passing this legislative session, for renters across the state of Colorado, if their rent was going to increase, they only had to get a seven-day notice from their landlord, which is simply not enough. And so we increase the amount of time that landlords have to give notice to families if their rent is going to increase. We saw several proposals come forward on the housing issue, and I think that we still have work to do to address that as well, the high cost, and also access for a lot of working families who are doing everything that they are supposed to, but it's still challenging for them to be able to buy their first home.

RW: And President Grantham, on the same question, you heard the Speaker say that she sure hopes that this has an effect on affordable housing. Can you say that you do more than hope? Can you transmit to voters that this will result in more affordable housing?

KG: Well time will tell on that. I think I would agree that I would hope that this does. This was not the magic bullet that I think a lot of folks within the legislature were looking for, were hoping for but it does move the ball. We're actually pleased that for the first time in, five, six, seven years that we've actually been able to move the ball down the road, which prior legislatures have not been able to do. So I think we take a little bit of pride in the fact that we were able to accomplish that. The group of legislators that was working on this, they were, a lot of blood, sweat and tears went into a lot of negotiations and there was a multitude of bills, and 1279 was the one that passed. It moves the ball a little bit. We are going to see how that plays out and how that functions over the next year or so. If there's other supplemental legislation that can compliment that, in the next session, we're going to continue to look at that because I don't think we got to the finish line. I think we are moving in the right direction though.

RW: Hmm. In the last few minutes that we have, I'd like to talk about the home explosion in Weld County and Firestone Colorado, the result of gas that leaked into the home from a flow line in a nearby well. Vic, in the final, well, gosh days, literally two days of session, there was legislation proposed about mapping wells and flow lines with concern that they are awfully close to new housing developments. I'd like to ask each of you, speaker Duran if you'd begin, do you think the legislature needs to act in any regard in reaction to the Firestone situation, I guess, in a future session at this point?

CD: I think we do, and we did this last legislative session Representative Foote came forward with a bill in response to the Firestone tragedy to look at flow lines and mapping. We've seen other pieces of legislation, this session as well to make sure…

RW: Which were not successful.

CD: Which were not successful, however, they started a meaningful conversation. This is an issue that doesn't fall down on party lines, or it shouldn't at least. It shouldn't just be a Republican verse Democratic issue.  When I've had the opportunity to be in different areas of the state, I've heard from Republican mayors who are concerned about some of the issues as it relates to oil and gas. I think we need to continue to work together to make sure that we have good policy, that we empower local governments, that there is transparency around the development that is going on, and that we work together to address some of the concerns of Coloradans.

RW: President Grantham, we have less than a minute, I'll give you the last word on this issue.

KG: I think it is something that we should be definitely be looking very carefully at over this interim. Anyone of us, Republican or Democrat, if we were living up there and we had the potential for these flow lines underneath our house or within our neighborhood, we'd want to know. We'd want to know where they were at.  We're gonna look at that very carefully. We're going to see with the governor's agencies have the authority to do and what we can empower them to do in the next legislative session if they need more. We want to make sure that our local governments have access to that mapping if necessary, and to the extent that it's possible. We're making, try to make sure we can do everything that we can to prevent further tragedies like this.

CD: We have to put at the forefront the safety of Colorado families. It has been challenging throughout this process, I think, to be able to find good policy and we have work to do.

RW: Grateful to both of you and to our own Vic Vela. So you heard there from Kevin Grantham, Republican from Canon City, President of the Colorado Senate and Democrat Crisanta Duran. She is from Denver, and Speaker of the Colorado House. Our own Vic Vela covered the legislative session for CPR.