The Colorado General Assembly will convene Wednesday for the 2022 session, during which lawmakers will find themselves in a rare position: The state is flush with cash.
Thanks to the $1.7 billion leaders set aside for this session from the nearly $3.8 billion in federal relief money provided to the General Assembly by the American Rescue Plan Act, as well as an unexpected tax revenue surplus, Governor Jared Polis’ proposed state budget for the 2022-23 fiscal year is a record-high $40 billion. Lawmakers, however, get the final say on how funds are doled out. And with Democrats in control of both legislative chambers, they will likely drive much of the agenda. Here are four legislative issues they are expected to push.
Democratic leaders in both chambers say they want to ease the financial pressures Coloradans are facing, and they plan to tackle affordability from multiple angles, with initiatives that range from more housing for low-and-middle income residents to smaller but largely symbolic measures, like eliminating taxes on tampons and diapers.
State Representative Leslie Herod, a Democrat from Denver and a member of the Joint Budget Committee, says the extra money provides a unique opportunity to have conversations about pervasive problems such as wealth inequality and the root causes of crime. The budget excess also gives Colorado a chance to better fund mental health care and affordable housing.
One of Herod’s first bills will seek to remove the state’s 2.9 percent sales tax imposed on tampons and diapers, often referred to as “pink taxes.” This is a measure, she says, that can reduce taxes for everyday Coloradans, as well as show the state’s values by eliminating bias in taxing.
Senate Majority Leader Stephen Fenberg also indicated the approach to affordability will be broad this session. One priority, he says, will be investing $500 million in affordable housing, largely in building more homes along the Front Range and throughout Colorado. While recommendations are coming later this month from a housing task force, the goal is likely to not have housing costs exceed one third of people’s income. Investments in more affordable rental units and down payment assistance programs for buyers are also in the pipeline.
Big investments in K-12 education will also be a priority this legislative session. While Governor Jared Polis’ budget proposal lists an eight percent increase in K-12 funding, Fenberg thinks the legislature will be interested in going even further as an “IOU to public education.” At the very least, each classroom will be infused with an extra $13,000. This will be prepaid for several years to make sure it’s a sustainable investment, Fenberg says.
Last year, Fenberg sponsored a bill for universal preschool, which was signed into law and expands on the state’s universal kindergarten program. This year, leaders will iron out the details for the 2023 roll out of publicly funded early childhood education, acting on recommendations for how the program should operate.
“We know early childhood education is important for a young person’s success, and we know it’s a way to equalize some of the disproportionate learning gaps,” Fenberg says. “It shouldn’t be something that some families can’t afford and others can.”
Lawmakers also plan to invest $100 million in workforce training to help prepare adults for an increase in jobs that require college training.
Law and Order
An original 110-year prison sentence given to a truck driver who killed four people in 2019 when his brakes went out on I-70 has reignited criticism of Colorado’s mandatory-minimum sentencing laws. (Governor Polis recently reduced Rogel Aguilera-Mederos’ sentence to 10 years).
While there will likely be several bills to address mandatory-minimum sentencing laws, Fenberg says legislative leaders will be cautious to not change an entire law based on one situation in which an individual was, in his opinion, overcharged.
Every year, Fenberg says, laws are passed regarding sentencing, which has led to a patchwork of measures. This year, the priority will be more large-scale sentencing reform, including conferring with a bipartisan board comprised of individuals, like district attorneys and victim’s advocates, to ensure sentences that better fit for crimes.
Speaker of the House Alec Garnett says Democrats will also focus on public safety investments.“I think the pandemic has increased crime across the state,” Garnett says. “We want to invest resources into models that we know work.” That will include things like grants to police departments for co-responder programs, where mental health officials arrive at scenes alongside law enforcement officers, Garnett says.
Lawmakers even want to give a $200 million boost to address homelessness, which could mean providing more money for addiction recovery centers, Fenberg says.
Health Care Costs
The Colorado legislature has focused its past few sessions on reducing health care costs on a broader scale, and this year, leaders plan to zero in on specific hurdles, such as prescription drug rebates.
For example, say you pay $100 right now for a prescription at the pharmacy. There’s a chance that the drug company then kicks a rebate to your insurance company for the prescription.
“We think that’s wrong, and the rebate should go to the individual,” Fenberg says. Currently, about one in three Colorados struggle to afford their prescription drugs, according to the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative, leading them to cut up their pills or not fill their prescriptions.
Last year, legislators signed several bills to create more affordable health insurance options and to create a prescription drug review board. The board, which will be appointed this year, will be tasked with reviewing the cost of medications and putting caps on some drugs. Research suggests the board could save Coloradans up to 73 percent on the most expensive drugs.
“We’re laser-focused on affordability issues,” says Garnett. “You see this with health care, where we are building on what we have done in the past.”