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Colorado State Rep. KC Becker, D-Boulder, laughs at a jab at Governor John Hickenlooper as the Colorado House of Representatives convenes for the start of the 2018 session Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018, in the State Capitol in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

As a New Legislative Session Begins, Democrats Weigh Their Power

Colorado leaders talked to 5280 about diversity, their hopes for bipartisanship, and the key issues they'll be focusing on in 2019.

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On Friday, the Colorado General Assembly kicks off its 72nd legislative session, ushering in a new era of progressive politics in the Centennial State. Democrats are set to take control of the trifecta of state government—with Jared Polis as governor, and a majority in the House and Senate—with the most diverse set of representatives to date. But just because Democrats have the power doesn’t mean you won’t see plenty of compromise in 2019. As Polis pushes for bipartisanship and voters clearly signal that they prefer Colorado’s purple hue, Republican leaders are still poised to have an impact on the session’s legislative priorities.

While division rages on in Washington, our local leaders talked to 5280 about diversity, their hopes for bipartisanship, and the key issues they’ll be debating this year.

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Diversity Under the Gold Dome

Speaker-designate KC Becker (D-Boulder), an environmental lawyer who previously worked in the Department of the Interior, becomes the fourth woman to lead the Colorado House on Friday, after serving as majority leader in the previous session. Women in the House currently hold a majority of seats for the first time in either chamber. The House also has record numbers of both Latino and LGBT representatives in the new session, says Becker, as well as its first transgender lawmaker.

With an influx of new members, Becker created a new position for a “first year representative to leadership” and appointed several freshman representatives to serve as committee vice chairs. “It’s pretty unprecedented to have freshmen as vice chairs,” says Becker, “But it’s such a diverse incoming class and I wanted that diversity to be represented.”

In the Colorado Senate, where every Democrat win was by double digits, president-designate Leroy Garcia of Pueblo, who took over as minority leader in 2018, will be the first Latino to lead the chamber. Garcia, who served six years in the U.S. Marine Corps, pledges to bring honor and decorum to the chamber, which was plagued by harassment allegations during the previous session. “To be the Senate president and set the tone means that you have to have a higher regard for how you want the institution to run,” he says. “I have to make sure that the work that we’re doing day in and day out reflects that.”

Leading the Republican caucuses are Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert and House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, both from Douglas County. In the Senate, Holbert is a pragmatic legislator with a deep respect for the state constitution and a willingness to engage in healthy debate. Because he’s dyslexic and learns by watching and listening, one of Holbert’s favorite spots in the Capitol is to stand on the third floor overlooking an open square with a view of interactions taking place between the House and Senate chambers on the second level, and executive branch activity on the floor below. “This building was intentionally designed in the 1890s for transparency,” he says. “It’s fascinating to see things from different perspectives.”

Neville, a survivor of the 1999 Columbine high school shooting and former U.S. Army officer who served in Iraq, says Colorado voters championed Republican ideas (if not candidates) during the last election. “Coloradans actually voted down any new taxes for education and roads,” says Neville, who held the same post in 2018. “Our job in all this will be explaining that we are the party of those ideas—limited government and individual freedom.”

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A Focus on Bipartisanship

Although they represent different constituencies, the four leaders—who all served in last session’s split legislature that passed over 60 percent of introduced bills—have more in common than one might expect. They proffer a strong respect for bipartisan collaboration, agree on prioritizing transportation, education, and healthcare (albeit with different solutions), and say legislators need to get outside the Gold Dome more often to connect with constituents—and stay centered. “It’s so easy to get consumed in this building because everyone wants a piece of your time,” says Neville. “And it’s easy to start believing in your own ego.”

In Colorado, where legislation is passed with a simple majority, Democrats have the power to push through a progressive agenda with no help from Republicans. But party leaders say conservatives shouldn’t be counted out. “There are two legitimate perspectives and we’re one of the two,” Holbert says, pointing out that about 46 percent of Senate districts aligned with Republicans in the midterm election. “Those people deserve to be heard and we are here to be their voice.”

Ultimately, bipartisanship may be as important for Democrats as it is for the Republicans. The last time Democrats held a trifecta in 2012, the leaders were accused of overreach. Two Democratic lawmakers were recalled in 2013 (one from the seat now held by Garcia) and voters then handed the State Senate to Republicans in 2014.

According to Holbert, Democratic Governor-elect Jared Polis has told legislative leaders that he prefers to see bipartisan bills cross his desk, and both Becker and Garcia have committed to reaching across the aisle in the new session. Garcia emphasizes collegiality and says all bills will get a fair hearing in Senate. “One of the things that we will come back to is the Senate being the deliberative body that allows conversations,” he says. “Our greatest strength is in collaboration.”

All four leaders also recognize the still evolving allegiance of Colorado’s unaffiliated voters, who recorded historical participation in the midterm elections and could play an outsized role in 2020. “Most unaffiliated voters don’t want to be affiliated with a political brand, whether it’s red or blue,” says Holbert. “We are going to be trying to connect with those voters on issues and not expecting them to embrace or reject our brand.”

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Shaping the Legislative Agenda

In 2019, expect to see the new legislature tackle issues like healthcare, education, and transportation, which are also priorities for Governor-elect Polis, who pledged to establish universal access to preschool and full-day kindergarten, create a single-payer healthcare system, and lead Colorado to renewable energy by 2040. “One of the things that we’re committed to doing is helping to make healthcare more affordable,” says Garcia.

In fact, after a lunch with Polis at a pho restaurant in Denver, Republicans also see potential to collaborate on reducing healthcare costs by increasing pricing transparency. “He was open to listening to us, and I was actually impressed with how open he was with what he wanted to accomplish,” says Neville. “He’s definitely going to be much more involved in the legislative process.”

Colorado voters rejected ballot measures to increase income taxes for schools and fund transportation projects through bonds and tax increases, but legislative leaders say they’re also looking for new solutions in these areas. “Passing taxes at the ballot is challenging, but that doesn’t mean that the need is not there,” says Becker. “It just means we have to be a little more innovative and creative and thoughtful.”

Holbert says there are indications that the state will have a $1.2 billion increase in revenue this year, and that any new transportation solutions should rely on existing revenue. “What we want to look at as Republicans is how can we address the needs the most critical asks and expectations of the people in Colorado without raising taxes,” he says.

Republicans say they see synergy with Democrats on prioritizing education, especially given Polis’ charter school background. “We have talked about choice in education and I think we’re going to find some allies on the other side of the aisle on that issue,” says Neville.

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Voters should expect less cooperation, however, on issues like climate change, which Becker identified as a top priority for her caucus. In creating a new House Energy and Environment Committee, Becker says Colorado has a big opportunity to address issues such as climate change that have stalled at a national level. “The states are the testing grounds and the opportunity that people have to really advance policy goals,” she says. “It’s an exciting place to be.”

Democratic leaders also plan to resurrect bills that died in previous sessions, including red flag laws that allow the temporary removal of firearms from people who may be dangerous to themselves or others, and legislation to create paid family leave, which Becker says lawmakers are already working on. “The business community is absolutely at the table,” she says. “It’s workable and I think it’s going to make a real difference for everyday Coloradans.”

And of course, Becker and Garcia want to continue the work started in the previous session to address workplace harassment in the Capitol. Sen. Randy Baumgardner (R-Hot Sulphur Springs), who survived an expulsion vote in 2018, resigned in December after Democrats took charge of the Senate. Democratic Sen. Daniel Kagan (Arapahoe County) also resigned after an investigation found he likely used the wrong bathroom multiple times. “The minority leader and I have been talking about establishing harassment training right away and making sure that we get back to a reset,” says Garcia.

For his part, Holbert says he’s more aware of how the perception of power can contribute to harassment. “The disparity between the public perception of my role, and my understanding of how limited my power actually is, was precarious,” he says.

Over in the House, Becker agrees there’s more work to be done. “We have to keep thinking about how we change the culture of the Capitol,” she says. “We want to make sure everyone in the building, Republican or Democrat, man or woman, feels like it’s a safe space to work and the processes are fair.”

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