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Getting Ready To Rumble

Early Political Hijinks A Harbinger Of What’s To Come

It seems that everything is early this year. Our first snowfall in the neighborhood came on Oct. 9. Everybody knows that in Denver it waits to snow until Halloween night. The 2018 legislative session started early, sort of, with a two-day special session that yielded bupkis.

Just as the early snow may portend a harsh and snowy winter, so may the abbreviated special session also foreshadow what may be a difficult and unusual legislative session beginning in January. Typically, when governors exercise their authority to call for a special session of the Colorado legislature, they usually not only have the subject matter but also a range of proposed solutions in mind. Governors meet with legislative leadership on both sides of the aisle to discuss the issues and possible outcomes. This process is not required nor is it mandated by law. It is simply good business and political sense.

Governor Hickenlooper called the special session to address a fairly simple and straightforward drafting error in Senate Bill 267, passed earlier in the year, that left certain special districts like RTD and the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District (SCFD), unable to collect sales taxes on retail marijuana sales. The word around the Capitol is that Hickenlooper or his team conferred with Republican leaders, and that the legislative solution was identified. Then raw politics, with a bit of theater, got in the way.

Contrary to their prior understanding with the Governor, the Republican-led Senate killed two bills in committee. They announced that any solution could wait until January – shutting down the special session scarcely 48 hours after it began.

In light of this two-day mess, one has to ask if the legislature is too divided to get much done during the upcoming regular session and, how the legislature will work with the governor.

Hard right, hard left

Legislative sessions in election years, such as next year’s, are often difficult. Lawmakers from both political parties will introduce certain “message bills” designed to articulate that party’s position on issues – a woman’s right to choose, fiscal policy, transportation funding, education funding, the environment, and most certainly healthcare.

The vast majority of these message bills will meet with a swift demise in their first committee of consideration. However, passage is not the intent of the sponsor. The bills are instead intended to get legislators on record on issues that one side or another believes may make them vulnerable in the upcoming election.

In the past the vulnerability to be exposed was typically tied to the general election. However, we are in different and interesting political times. Next year expect to see a number of these message bills introduced by Republican members of the House and Senate purely designed to put the more moderate among them on the record – and on notice. The idea being, to create a path for a more conservative candidate to challenge the moderate, win, and build a more conservative Republican majority.

Similarly, Democratic legislators will introduce their own “message” bills designed to expose moderate or conservative Democrats and create a path for more liberal Democrats to mount a primary challenge and build a more progressive majority.

One-seat Senate swing

All of this posturing becomes more important given Colorado’s term limits. Control of the state Senate currently hinges on one vote, with Republicans having an 18-17 edge. However, next year seven of Colorado’s 35 senators will be term limited, meaning they cannot run for reelection. In all, three Republicans and four Democrats are term-limited. Other seats are also up for reelection. A one-seat swing would change control of the Senate.

A similar dynamic exists in the state House of Representatives, where all 65 members are up for reelection. Five of them – all Democrats – are term limited. Currently the margin in the House is 37 Democrats and 28 Republicans, so a significant number of incumbents will have to lose in order for control of that chamber to change hands. However the number of the House members who are currently running for Senate vacancies will likely create other opportunities for one of the parties to make gains in the election.

Consider also, the long shadow over the entire session: the election of a new governor. Look for some of the message bills of 2018 to be targeted at gubernatorial candidates – and don’t be surprised if one or more legislators starts making noise about mounting their own gubernatorial campaign.

Given this context, one may ask whether there will be any time for the thoughtful consideration of substantive legislation. The answer is yes.

Taxes, transportation and TABOR

Several key issues will be profiled. First, expect several bills to address this year’s SB 267 – the subject of the brief special session. The reality remains that special districts and other entities are losing sales tax revenues because of the drafting error in the bill. Expect to see considerable wrangling around this issue as divisions between the parties become more apparent. Also the pro-Taxpayers Bill of Rights (TABOR) crowd has begun to lay the groundwork that the error can only be corrected by a vote of the people since a fix is a “tax increase.”

The state’s budget and the money available to fund various programs will be a high point of the session. Based on a Sept. 20 Economic and Revenue Forecast by the Legislative Council staff, total funds available will grow approximately 4.6 percent for the next fiscal year to roughly $12.3 billion. However, this amount is approximately $549.1 million below the state’s spending limits, established by TABOR’s constitutional limitations as modified by Referendum C.

Transportation funding will also be a pivotal issue. Senate Bill 267 not only dealt with the marijuana sales tax but also authorized up to $1.88 billion of funding for transportation projects. While many feel this was an important first step, others are concerned that it did not include a needed additional revenue stream or identify other money to pay for future transportation needs. Expect competing proposals for additional funding for transportation projects.

The legislature may well refer a measure to the ballot for voters’ consideration. Independent efforts are also being considered by various interest groups to petition a proposal directly to the ballot.

Penfield W. Tate III is an attorney with Kutak Rock and serves on a number of nonprofit boards. He represented Park Hill in the Colorado House of Representatives from 1997 to 2000, and in the State Senate from 2001 to February 2013, when he resigned from the Senate to run for Mayor of Denver. Penfield’s adult daughter was born and raised in Park Hill, and he and his wife Paulette remain in the neighborhood.


SIDEBAR: Can’t Wait To Vote

Election Nov. 7 For School Board, Denver Bond and Green Roofs

Locally, this month Denver voters will elect four of seven members to the board of Denver Public Schools, and consider nine other measures.

Seven of them – Questions 2A through 2G – seek voter approval to issue bonds to fund a variety of needs: transportation and mobility; cultural facilities; health and hospital authority; public safety systems; library systems; parks and recreation systems; and, public facilities.

Totaling $937 million in capital costs, with a total repayment cost of approximately $1.7 billion, the bond election has been and will continue to be the subject of television ads, get out the vote efforts and some opposition. As in the past, Denver has structured a bond program that distributes the investment of money throughout the city for a variety of different needs with the anticipation that every neighborhood will be touched in some way by money.

Historically, Denver voters have been generous when it comes to the bond election packages.

Two other measures also on the ballot include the rather simple name change from the Department of Environmental Health to the Department of Public Health and Environment, and increasing its board from 5 to 9 members.

The final ballot question is a citizen initiative that would require every building and roof replacement of buildings with a gross floor area of 25,000 square feet or greater built after Jan. 1 to include a green roof or combination of green roof and solar energy collection component.

It will be surprising to see how Denver voters receive the “green roof” initiative.

— Penfield W. Tate III

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