Things Fall Apart: November Ballot Could Hold Legislative Leftovers

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Photo: The Colorado Capitol's gold dome, viewed from the west
The gold dome on the Capitol in Denver.

When the final gavel struck for the 2016 legislative session Wednesday night, Colorado lawmakers had defeated more major bills than they passed.

As a result, many of the issues they debated may continue through November, when voters make their decisions at the ballot box.

Voters may even find themselves something issue the legislature approved, a bill allowing grocery stores to phase in sales of wine and full-strength beer. Gov. John Hickenlooper says he is considering vetoing the bill, and some of the grocery chains have hinted they may go forward with a ballot measure more favorable to their interests.

Among the bills lawmakers defeated that could end up on the November ballot is a proposal to create a presidential primary. That measure was introduced after Colorado's caucuses in April, which were criticized by members of both political parties.

Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner spoke with CPR reporter Vic Vela and legislative reporter Megan Schrader of the Colorado Springs Gazette. Click on the audio link above to hear the conversation. An edited transcript is below.

Ryan Warner: This is Colorado Matters from CPR News. I'm Ryan Warner. The Colorado legislature adjourned Wednesday night. But, after months of debate, lawmakers left really big issues unresolved. Voters may be asked to decide some of them come November. We are joined now by two reporters who've spent a lot of late hours at the statehouse recently. Vic Vela is CPR's Capitol Reporter. Megan Schrader is legislative reporter for the Colorado Springs Gazette. They are at the state Capitol. Nice to have you both with us. And, Vic, in just a few words, how would you describe the 2016 session?

Vic Vela: Things fall apart. 

Warner: Things fall apart. Okay. And do you care to put a little meat on those bones and say why?

Vela: We'll be getting into the issues, but basically, the legislature knew that we had these major issues that we had to deal with this year, and they didn't get a lot done on those big issues that really impact Colorado.

Warner: Indeed. We will dive in, but Megan, in just a few words, how would you describe the session?

Megan Schrader: I would have to say anti-climactic and a house divided.

Warner: Anti-climactic and a house divided. Indeed the House and Senate are under different parties' control. Let's dive in to specific legislation then. The governor has at least hinted at a veto of a bill that allows grocery stores to sell booze. Vic, it would be a phased-in process under this bill. Can you give us the skinny on it?

Vela: Yeah, that turned out to be a really big deal at the end of the session. That bill was as good as dead just a few days before the session ended. The sponsor on that, Democratic senator Pat Steadman, booked a room at the Capitol specifically for negotiations between major stakeholders on that to try and get something done. And, basically, you know, it was one of the things that lawmakers agreed on, on the last minute, as part of a compromise to allow grocery stores to sell full-strength beer and wine. And the compromise attempts to allow, you know, these major chains to purchase more liquor licenses, because they're only allowed one now, gradually over time, as you said, while also trying to protect these mom-and-pop liquor stores from fighting sort of a David and Goliath battle fight that they think would really hurt them and put a lot of them out of business immediately.

Warner: So, the speaker of the House, Democrat Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, expressed frustration at how much lobbying there was on this bill. 

Dickey Lee Hullinghorst: I mean, they were, they, just about everybody in the lobbying corps was hired to work on that issue, by the time we were done. I don't think that serves the state of Colorado very well. We're down here trying to represent the people of the state.

Warner: Megan, you saw a lot of that lobbying, didn't you?

Schrader: Yeah, so there are glass windows that look into the chambers of the House and Senate, and when this bill was up in particular, the room, the antechamber behind those glass windows, was packed with people wanting to, who'd spent time lobbying on this issue and wanted to see the outcome. And that's one indication of the lobbying. The other indication is the lobbyist disclosure forms that we see, where lobbyists have to disclose to the secretary of state what they are paid. And from January to March, people spent $150,000 on this issue. And that's not even -- the bill was introduced April 22nd, so that was before the bill was even introduced they had dropped that money.

Warner: So, we mentioned that there's the possibility at least of a veto. Governor Hickenlooper is mulling that over. Is there also, then, a possibility, if the veto happens, that this goes to the ballot, Megan?

Schrader: So, yes. And, even if the bill is signed, this could go to voters. There was, they are gathering signatures right now to ask voters, in November, if these large, chain grocery stores should be able to have multiple liquor licenses. Pat Steadman said that he thinks that that's a bit of a bluff, that if the governor does sign this bill, that that will go away. But other people are not so convinced that King Soopers and Safeway would walk away from the possibility of having liquor stores in all of their grocery stores across the state.

Warner: Pat Steadman, the Democratic lawmaker. Vic, another bill that got a lot of attention, and seemed at one point near a deal, would've created presidential primaries. Update us on that.

Vela: Oh, gosh. That really was an epic failure. Back in March, Democrats and Republican voters railed against caucuses, right? Democrats faced long lines and some were turned away from voting. Republicans didn't even hold a presidential preference poll. And just a few weeks ago, bipartisan lawmakers, with the Republican secretary of state, held a press conference at the Capitol, touting a new bill to create a presidential primary. And then another bipartisan bill emerged. And so now we have two shots at getting something passed. One of them passed the House with good support. Then, things fell apart. There was a big divide over how to handle unaffiliated voters. There was an outside group, there still is an outside group pushing a ballot measure that would create an open primary, where unaffiliated voters can just vote however they wish. It really was baffling, considering how much bipartisan support, how much political might there was behind this effort, and even Hickenlooper, who -- it left him wondering what happened. It sort of reminds of the line from the Talking Heads song, "Once In A Lifetime." You know, how did we get here? 

Warner: I'll say that there are still supporters of caucuses who do not see this, I'm sure, as disappointing news that a presidential primary was not passed through the legislature.

You're listening to Colorado Matters. I'm Ryan Warner and we are taking stock of the session that was at the state capitol with two capitol reporters, that's our own Vic Vela, and Megan Schrader of the Colorado Springs Gazette.

Megan, one of Governor Hickenlooper's priorities was a change to the hospital provider fee. Boy, that's a word that we've heard and said a lot this session. Hospitals pay the state to help cover the uninsured and to draw federal matching money for Medicaid. The issue is that when the state takes in that money, it exceeds the tax and spending limits that are in place and could trigger, thus, refunds to taxpayers under TABOR. Democrats tried to make a change. Republicans opposed it. What was the result?

Schrader: Nothing happened. The Republicans were able to kill the bill when it came to the Republican-held Senate, much to the chagrin of the governor and the speaker of the House who had worked for a year trying to convince Senate President, Bill Cadman that this was something the state needed. It, there was a compromise of sorts, though. The budget does include a reduction of the hospital provider fee by about $75 million, which means that taxpayers will not get refunds they otherwise would have received this fiscal year. So, there was, while the Republicans did kill the big bill, there was a short-term fix that they found middle ground on and got through the chambers. 

Warner: So does that mean that this fight carries over into the next session, do you think? Or that this, too, could appear--

Schrader: Definitely.

Warner: Definitely. All right. 

Schrader: We're definitely seeing this next year, and the big question will be, who holds the power next year? Is there going to be a Democrat-controlled Senate? If that's the case, then, without a doubt, I think next year the hospital provider fee will be taken out of the state coffers and that will mean no TABOR refunds in the foreseeable future. If Republicans hold the Senate, we'll have another fight, another showdown, to the bitter end.

Warner: It seemed, Megan, that conversations and negotiations were really going on all session long, related to the hospital provider fee, because each month that we spoke to Governor Hickenlooper, during session, he seemed to hold out some hope that there could be compromise. Is that your sense that the conversations were going until the final days?

Schrader: They were. You know, Speaker Hullinghorst said she didn't know until her bill was assigned to the finance committee that it was going to go down. And I think that those conversations happened largely behind closed doors. The bill was introduced late. They kept waiting to see if they could introduce a version that would be more appealing to Republicans, and nothing ever came to fruition of those conversations.

Warner: All right, if there's a theme here, it's that a lot was left undone. And here's how the governor responded to whether this is a failure of House and Senate leaders.

Governor Hickenlooper: I don't think it's a failure of leadership. It just, it's hard. I mean, it's hard when people have such firmly held convictions and are so kind of set in their ways.

Warner: Vic, you've reported that a special session is at least a possibility and I think that special sessions have to focus on a single topic. And you heard that from the governor, is that right?

Vela: Yeah, he was talking to reporters in his end-of-session wrap-up and he kept it pretty general, in terms of he didn't highlight exactly which area he would focus on if he were to call a special session. You know, he said he just, he's going to take a careful look at it. He says he's received half a dozen calls for a special session. He's going to give it some thought.

I mean, look, going into this session, we knew this was going to be, what this was going to be look like. We have a split, you know, General Assembly, and it's an election year. So I think much of what we saw this session was lawmakers introducing bills they knew weren't going to pass, but were aimed at speaking to their constituents heading into the November election. Now, they also, as we talked about, had an agreement on some of these big issues and we talked about some of those already. But there was no consensus on how to deal with any of those issues.

The question is, and this is a question Hickenlooper's asking himself right now, will a second session matter? Can these guys agree on these things that they knew were coming a long time ago? And, by the way, a lot of these issues are not new. Hospital provider fee is not new. Presidential primary, you know, everything hit the fan during the March caucuses, but there was a bill that was introduced last year on this issue. So, it's not like these things are coming out of the woodwork that surprised lawmakers. They knew these things were coming. The question is, will another session even matter?

Warner: Alright, what do the parties say they accomplished at the state legislature? Let's start with the Democrats, and, Megan, what would they say is an achievement?

Schrader: You know, I think that both parties point to the budget, but Democrats particularly with that budget are going to point to the short-term reduction of the hospital provider fee that enabled the state to retain refunds that otherwise would've gone to taxpayers and invest that money in things like higher education. You know, I really think Democrats are going to point to that one as their number one victory.

Warner: And, Vic, for Republicans?

Vela: Really it was fighting off a lot of what Democrats tried to do. I spoke with House minority leader, Brian DelGrosso, and he said, you know, he, obviously his party's in the minority in that chamber, so he said a lot of his role there was playing defense, pushing back against what he said was ìa liberal agenda aimed at making it harder for small businesses to do what they do.î You know, DelGrosso says the economy is working just fine and he didn't want to see any bills messing with that. He did say, though, that he was pleased to see the parties come together to try to stave off a lot of major cuts that the budget could've resulted in. Other than that, I mean, and I even asked this of Dickey Lee Hullinghorst the other day, it just seems like, in this particular session, in this particular political climate, lawmakers are claiming victory for simply avoiding disaster.

Warner: Hullinghorst, again, the speaker of the Democratically controlled House. So, both parties went into this session with one priority in common and that was affordable housing, though they approach it differently. So, Republicans wanted to pass a construction defects bill. That's kind of the shorthand of it. But basically it makes it harder to sue builders for defects, and the idea is that this will lead to more condo construction, in particular, and that more housing on the market, more units, will reduce the cost of it, especially in the metro area. Vic, what became of construction defects, which is perennial, right? I mean, that's been brought up in many sessions. 

Vela: Yeah, you could put that on the heap pile of things that did not get accomplished. But, actually, on this one, of all the things this session, I think lawmakers truly thought they could break the stalemate on this issue. And, apparently, they were really close to a person. Every party leader I spoke with, Hickenlooper, House Speaker Hullinghorst, (Senate) Majority Leader Mark Scheffel, on the Republican side, said they were really close. But apparently it came down to just one issue, how much influence condo developers could have before homeowners vote on whether to file a lawsuit over building defects.

So, the homeowners associations wanted this clause, in whatever the bill that would look like, that when homeowners are considering suing developers, that they can't, that business groups, developers, cannot be in their heads, while they contemplate those lawsuits. Businesses said, that's a deal-breaker. And Speaker Hullinghorst said she and Senate Majority Leader Scheffel put a lot of work into this, and that they really could've crafted a bill together, but for that one issue. But that, like the liquor bill, really just had a lot of interests out of, out of this building moving parts that were really hard for them to come together one.

Warner: So, Megan, were there any affordable housing bills? Because I think Democrats wanted to create like a special savings account?

Schrader: Yeah, so that became law. Well, it will, I guess, if the governor signs it. And, so, first-time home buyers will be able to save money in a savings account, tax-free, and declare that as a tax deduction on their taxes, which it might seem like a small benefit, but it is a small benefit for, you know, lower-income individuals who are trying to scrape together money to buy that first home. Additionally, oh, sorry...

Warner: So that could be money that you use for a down payment or something like that.

Schrader: Yeah. yeah, your down payment, your closing costs. Yeah, and then additionally, they were able to put together about $6.5 million in tax credits that will go to builders developing affordable housing.

Warner: Well, we've grappled with the big headline issues. Can you each name a bill that passed maybe under the radar that will make a difference in people's daily lives? Vic, what would you say?

Vela: Well, you know, we talked about so many big issues, like affordable housing and presidential primaries. For all you fantasy sports players out there, I know that's important to a lot of folks, a bill to regulate fantasy sports games is on its way to the governor's desk. And look, this is a multi-billion dollar industry worldwide. Leagues like Draft Kings and Fan Duel leading the way, and there's a big push nationally to put some sort of regulations of the industry, so that some 14-year-old kid isn't blowing thousands of dollars online in hopes that Aaron Rodgers throws three touchdowns. So, if, the bill requires background checks for game operators and independent audits every year.

Warner: Interesting, because when we've spoken with some Republicans, they've thought that the idea of government regulating fantasy sports is not, shouldn't be a priority for government. But this passed the Republican-controlled Senate.

Vela: Yeah, and I think this was one that, I think it had, it was one of those under-the-radar ones that came kind of midway or toward the end of the session that took some folks by surprise, that they were actually able to come together. Some of these issues were really interesting, and we talked about the booze sales at grocery stores bills, about how some of these issues really blurred political lines, really blurred party lines, and this was one of them. 

Warner: Very briefly, Megan, a bill that flew under the radar?

Schrader: So, I would have to draw attention to a bill that is going is to strictly limit the use of solitary confinement in the state's juvenile corrections facilities. This was an issue that I had done a special investigation on in October and found that the state was, had been extensively putting juveniles in solitary confinement as a form of punishment, something that was prohibited by state law, and this law just goes a step further, and says, you can't even put them in there for four hours without getting the supervisor of the facility's permission. And then, beyond that, you know, after eight hours, you need a court order. I think that's a big deal.

Warner: Megan Schrader, legislative reporter for the Colorado Springs Gazette, and our own Vic Vela, joining us from the state Capitol.