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The Colorado General Assembly kicks off its 2020 legislative session on Wednedsay with a full agenda of issues ranging from healthcare to transportation to gun safety. Although it’s a presidential election year, and the Centennial State has a U.S. Senate seat in play, legislative leaders expect to keep the focus largely on Colorado politics. After all, with a short four-month session and a constitutional mandate to balance the state budget each year (no deficit spending allowed), state lawmakers have little time to waste on national disputes. “Whatever happens on the presidential campaign trail, we’ve only got 120 days to get through our work,” says Republican Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert.
The 2019 session ushered in a Democratic trifecta in state government and a push for progressive policies that brought tensions to a boiling point in the state Senate. This year, legislative leaders say they’ve learned important lessons about how to better work together while effectively advocating for their caucuses. Colorado’s top legislators talked to 5280 about their strategies for the upcoming session and the top issues they expect to debate in 2020.
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Democrats are focusing on three high-level goals in 2020, which House Speaker KC Becker (D-Boulder) describes as protecting the Colorado way of life, investing in the state’s future, and building an economy that works for all. Paid family leave is a top economic priority this year after Democrats agreed in 2018 to create a task force to study the issue. “It needed more time to bake, to have stakeholder input, and to test some ideas,” says Becker.
According to Senate President Leroy Garcia (D-Pueblo), “Democrats will continue to lead on bread-and-butter issues that impact everyday Coloradans and build on successes that we had from the last legislative session.”
Republican House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, however, says 2019 legislation like a contentious oil and gas reform bill are actually hurting the state’s economy. He says Republicans will be playing defense in the next session as Democrats push “really radical policies around social issues and economic issues.”
In the Senate, Holbert hopes to keep spending to a minimum as state revenue is projected to slow over the next few years. “Right now less is more,” he says. “Our caucus is focused on how we can make better use of the dollars that the taxpayers are sending to us.”
A Looming Healthcare Battle
Healthcare is likely to be an especially contentious issue in the new session, as Democrats build on work done in 2019 to create a reinsurance program to reduce healthcare premiums and address prescription drug pricing and transparency.
New in 2020 is a legislative debate on a public healthcare option proposed by Gov. Jared Polis that would be available to Coloradans who buy individual health insurance. The state option would be administered by private insurance companies with rates set by the state. Democrats were noncommittal on what a state option might look like. “We’ll see where it goes,” says Becker, who adds that there are important conversations to have with stakeholders before making any final decisions.
Neville says the plan is not profitable for hospitals and would likely increase prices on other private insurance plans, ultimately leading to a single-payer system in just a few years. “The state option might be the most controversial issue this year,” he says. Republicans see more room for bipartisanship on pricing transparency, Neville says, which leverages market forces to reduce healthcare costs rather than involving government. “I’ve been an advocate for getting government out of the doctor–patient relationship and not further into it,” adds Holbert. “I really think that’s going to be a battle.”
Garcia, who served for six years in the U.S. Marine Corps, says mental health will also be an area of focus in 2020, including an initiative to address high suicide rates among veterans. “I see that veterans come back with challenges and their solution should not be suicide,” he says. “We want to make sure that what we propose for Colorado is unique in leading this nation and addressing this epidemic.”
Debating the Role of Government
Democrats are looking to address gun violence again in 2020, following the 2019 passage of the controversial red flag bill, which allows guns to be temporarily removed from people who pose an extreme risk to themselves or others. On the agenda for 2020 are bills to address safe storage of guns and guns that are lost or stolen, Becker says. An interim School Safety Committee has also created five bipartisan bills that will be introduced to tackle the impacts of gun violence in schools.
Neville, a survivor of the 1999 Columbine shooting, strongly opposes what he calls “nannyist policies,” including gun-control legislation. “I think Colorado is a pretty libertarian state, so most people just want to be left alone,” he says. Criminal justice reform that allows nonviolent offenders who pay their debt to society to live a normal life, however, offers more room for bipartisan support, he adds
Conservatives also advocate for government making better use of tax dollars. After Colorado voters rejected Proposition CC in 2019, which would have allowed the state to keep tax revenue exceeding limits set by Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR), lawmakers need to find new solutions to fund education and transportation in 2020. In his 2020–21 budget proposal, Gov. Jared Polis requested some $605 million for transportation, which primarily includes $555 million authorized by the legislature in 2017. Holbert wants additional funds to address a significant backlog of projects, he says.
On education, Holbert plans to focus on ways to better inform parents and students about opportunities that already exist, including a bill to raise awareness of an existing concurrent enrollment program enabling high school students to graduate high school with associate degrees.
Meanwhile, Democrats continue to make a long-term case for eliminating some of TABOR’s spending restrictions to allow public spending to keep up with Colorado’s fast growth. “We have seen that unlike any other state in the nation, Colorado is constrained by TABOR,” Garcia says.
All four leaders say they learned important lessons last session about how to better work together. Garcia says he and Holbert had lunch during the holidays. “We do not want to see the Colorado legislature act and look like Washington, D.C.,” Garcia says. “We’ve got to make sure that we stay out of the fray and stay focused on policy.”
Holbert is optimistic that can happen: “I think we’ve got enough stepping stones in this learning path that we’re on every two years as majorities change…to talk through situations rather than doing battle on the Senate floor,” he says.
While House leaders may disagree on policy issues, Neville says he appreciated an open line of communication with the Democratic leadership in 2019 that he hopes will continue this year. Neville advises his caucus members to stick together to create a more powerful minority voice—and to have a short memory after legislative battles. “We can’t let personalities get in the way of policies,” he says
For her part, Becker advocates for clear communication and a respectful legislative process. “Democrats have to do a better job of trying to include Republicans as much as we can,” she says. “When you have a trifecta and you have a lot of power, it’s just our responsibility to do even more due diligence and be even more inclusive so that others aren’t feeling left out.”