On the last day of the spring legislative session, Senate President Morgan Carroll implored the Capitol press corps gathered in her office to note the bipartisan nature of the previous four months. Just the night before, Carroll had blasted the “press” on her Facebook page after one reporter, when asking her office for a list of bills that should have passed but didn’t, reportedly told a staffer, “I don’t want any of that bipartisan shit.”
“Great way to start,” Carroll said with a wry smile. “We’ve got a pissed off press corps!”
The testy press conference was a fitting metaphor for the session itself. It began acrimoniously, with Democrats and Republicans still harboring the hurt feelings and partisan wounds of 2013. But those quickly leveled off as lawmakers united on a number of important pieces of legislation, just as Carroll and House Speaker Mark Ferrandino emphasized in their wrap-up interviews. In short, there was actually a lot of “bipartisan shit” accomplished in the last four months.
After Democrats dominated the previous session with an aggressively progressive agenda and a bruising fight to pass new gun control laws, the party—chastened by the recall elections of two of its senators and the resignation of a third—entered the 2014 session intent on showing a more restrained, moderate side. But Republicans, determined to remind voters of last year’s fights, introduced several bills aimed at repealing the state’s new gun control measures.
After they’d sat idly by a year ago when gun owners stormed the Capitol to protest the new laws, and after they’d watched the sustained backlash lead to the removal of three of their colleagues, this time Democrats fought back. The party mobilized its own coalition—notably, some relatives of those killed in mass shootings, a group whose collective moral authority on the issue is hard to question—to demonstrate Democratic opposition to the GOP’s repeal efforts. Even though they had enough votes in both chambers to kill off the repeal bills quickly, Democrats instead packed hearing rooms in a show of support for expanded background checks and limits on high-capacity magazines. This time, the crowds of angry gun owners never materialized.
Once those bills fizzled, lawmakers got to work. They introduced bipartisan legislation around school financing and worked together to direct $300 million in additional funding to K-12 education. Some of the money will cover things such as literacy efforts, English-language learners, and charter school construction, and the rest will go to districts to offset recent recession-driven cuts. Lawmakers also quickly agreed to a bill that directed an extra $100 million to colleges and universities and capped tuition hikes at six percent for the coming year. Finally, late in the session, legislators from both sides united around relief packages for victims of last fall’s catastrophic floods and forged an agreement to spend about $18 million in state money to compensate victims of 2012’s state-set Lower North Fork Fire.
More than anything, it was the floods that set the tone for the 2014 session. The rains fell just as the recall elections were unfolding, and they offered a unifying moment. In his State of the State speech to open the 2014 session in January, Governor John Hickenlooper revisited the recent spate of fires, floods, and shootings, declaring that none of those tragedies defines the state. “Our story—and what we showed the world is: Colorado does not shut down. Colorado does not quit. Colorado does not break.”
On that optimistic note, lawmakers got to work; a bipartisan bill to forgive property taxes for flood owners was the first legislation introduced in the House. (Ironically, it later became the final bill of the session to pass.) Other legislation helped counties free up money for road and bridge repairs, expanded firefighter safety training, and improved water infrastructure. The focus on recovery also offered Democrats, from Hickenlooper to the party as a whole, to recover their political brand—measured, pragmatic progressivism—that got many of them elected. “There was a lot more noise last year on a few bills,” House Speaker Mark Ferrandino says. “There was a lot more heat in the building last year. One of the differences this session versus last was that we had a Biblical flood in our state between sessions. And a lot of people said let’s put the gamesmanship, the feigned indignation, and fighting that we do just for theater sometimes off to the side and just get the work done.”
This year’s tonal shift in the Senate was plain old strategy. After the September recalls, Democrats held a precarious 18-17 majority, meaning Republicans now had to turn just one Democrat to kill bills. “You saw the President of the Senate reach across and run bills with a lot of Republicans, to include new senators and those who are in targeted seats,” says Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, a Colorado Springs Republican. “She is really committed to policy, and I think we were able to set the politics of this place aside for a few really good opportunities.”
President Carroll joined with Republican Senator Steve King on his push to get Colorado to establish its own aerial firefighting fleet, which finally became a reality this year. She also joined with Senator Scott Renfroe, a Greeley Republican who’s running for Congress, in sponsoring an effort to ban red light cameras and photo radar vans that passed the Senate but died in the House. Carroll told reporters last week that 97 percent of the bills passed this year had bipartisan support, loosely defined as a vote from at least one member of each party. “I’m sorry, but that’s not happening in Washington, DC,” she said. “And it doesn’t happen by accident. It happens because we chose to make it a priority.”
Lawmakers also came together to provide broadband service to Colorado’s rural communities, an expansion of Amtrak rail service, and a first-of-its-kind state website to make the budget of every public school transparent. They passed a $24 billion state budget with money going toward reducing DMV wait times and establishing a personal property tax credit for businesses with $15,000 or less of equipment. They co-wrote new regulations for transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft, which demand insurance and background checks for drivers. They agreed on new safety requirements for edible marijuana and on a creative solution to the industry’s banking woes, a state-backed credit co-op for pot shops. They even found time to make the Claret Cup Cactus the state’s official cactus. (Sadly, a similar effort to establish the Palisade peach as the state’s official fruit failed when a lawmaker attempted to expand the designation to the beleaguered Rocky Ford cantaloupes.)
But if you think our state legislators have discovered some magical key to political cooperation and warmth, don’t forget the tactical calculations. With Hickenlooper up for reelection and control of the state Senate at stake this November, both sides have strong incentives to demonstrate their bipartisan bonafides. Moreover, after last year’s policy fights sparked a serious public backlash, especially from gun owners and rural Coloradans, lawmakers approached this year’s session with extreme caution, eager to appeal to voters beyond the Denver metro area and content to work on legislation not likely to generate much news coverage—or public outrage. (As his end-of-session press conference got underway last week, Hickenlooper’s communications director, Eric Brown, passed out a six-page handout to reporters titled “2014 Bills That Support Rural Colorado.”) “The appetite of the Democratic majority for any kind of significant or bold action was quite limited,” political analyst Eric Sondermann says. “The Democratic legislators who showed up at the Capitol this January were a somewhat chagrined and tempered bunch.”
Rest assured: the 2014 session, amicable as it was, still featured plenty of “partisan shit” too. Republicans opposed a childcare tax credit for the state’s poorest families, which Democrats were able to push through anyway. Democrats also passed a bill strengthening protections for workers from wage theft by their employers. Representative Mark Waller went ballistic in the final week when Senate Democrats killed off his bill to establish a felony for repeat DUIs, which passed the House 56-6 but didn’t even get a debate on the Senate floor. And there were plenty of hurt feelings over other bills that passed one chamber just to be killed in the other, including the red light camera ban and an effort to criminalize cyberbullying.
Democrats were quick to paint the GOP’s annual attempt to ban abortion as representative of the party’s anti-woman agenda; then Republicans flipped the script when Democrats overzealously tried to to show their commitment to choice by introducing a bill seeking to protect women’s reproductive rights from any future limitations. For once, abortion issue politics eluded Democrats, as conservatives, led by Denver’s archbishop, stormed the Capitol in protest and legal experts scoffed at the idea that passing a bill now could prevent other counteracting bills from being passed in the future. Senate Democrats soon decided to kill the bill, blaming Republicans for a potential filibuster that would have delayed debates on other bills and insisting that their point had been made. But to most Capitol observers, including one Democratic lobbyist who supports reproductive rights, Dems had made “an unforced error.”
That very few policy debates generated any reaction outside the dome is a good thing for lawmakers on both sides heading into November, even though shying away from difficult policy fights has left Democrats with one big piece of unfinished business: resolving local control issues around oil and gas drilling. Suddenly, with Boulder Congressman Jared Polis ready to throw his considerable wealth behind a ballot measure to allow Colorado cities and counties to ban fracking, a coalition of industry representatives, environmentalists, and Democrats worried about the torrent of out-of-state spending the ballot measure would unleash are scrambling to negotiate a legislative compromise that can hit those magic numbers: 33 (House votes), 18 (Senate votes) and one (the governor’s signature).
Republicans are scared enough about voters approving Polis’s initiative in November that they’re willing to come to the table to negotiate a bill now. Hickenlooper, who’s taken more of a lead role in the negotiations in the last few weeks, is willing to call lawmakers back to the Capitol for a special session in the weeks ahead—if there’s a deal in place that can pass both chambers. “The longer people stay at the table discussing, both sides generally become a little more flexible and more open to a compromise on something they weren’t originally okay with,” Hickenlooper said last week. “They see the other side giving and they tend to move a little bit too. We definitely saw that in the last week and a half.”
It’s unclear if sufficient progress can be made over the next few weeks to draw lawmakers back to the Capitol for a special session. Come November, Hickenlooper and Democrats may reap the benefits of this year’s “less is more” legislative strategy. (Although, with more than 400 bills passing this session, it’s more accurate to say less controversial is more). But, should Hickenlooper be campaigning for reelection amidst the noise of an expensive campaign for and against the oil and gas ballot measures, he may regret not having done just a bit more.
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