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Setting The Stage For Dysfunction

Upcoming Legislative Session Likely To Be A Wild Ride

The legislative session begins Jan. 10 and the stage has been set with a range of recent, surreal political events. I cannot recall the beginning of a session more defined by the upheaval and dissonance in the system and society at large.

The venomous and dysfunctional tone has been set by national politics in Washington D.C. and the pall it has cast over the rest of the nation. The hotly contested Alabama U.S. Senate race is over. Doug Jones has beaten Judge Roy Moore, the first Democrat elected to the U.S. Senate from Alabama in 25 years. Moore’s campaign was rocked by scandals of his involvement with underaged girls over the years. Though Donald Trump endorsed Moore, some Republican members of congress urged him to drop out of the race. Then they publicly expressed relief when he lost.

For reasons confounding many, Colorado U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner responded by encouraging Jones to vote with the Republicans – insinuating that his election with overwhelming African-American support was an anomaly and Alabamians really wanted a Republican in the seat, just not Roy Moore. We will see how Jones performs, but if his words on election night are any indication, the Democratic opposition in the U.S. Senate just got stronger, and the Republican advantage shrinks further.

Locally, the Colorado General Assembly continues to be rocked by allegations against four lawmakers who have publically been accused of inappropriate behavior with other legislators, with lobbyists, and in one instance, a political activist. The leadership intends to adopt new policies related to reporting, investigating and punishing inappropriate behavior by legislators.

Last month we talked about the resulting tone that will likely serve as the backdrop for the legislative session. But just when you think things couldn’t get any worse, they do.

Reyher makes a splash

Take Rep. Lori Saine, a Republican from Weld County. Last month Saine was arrested for attempting to take a loaded firearm through a security checkpoint and onto a plane at Denver International Airport. Although originally charged, they were dropped and the matter is closed. A concealed carry permit holder, the lawmaker has not publicly said why she took the weapon into the airport.

Complete details of the incident have not been released at the time we went to press, but it will be interesting to see whether the General Assembly addresses this instance of gun-toting at the airport by one of its members.

Also falling into the category of you can’t make this stuff up, is the splash made by newly appointed state Rep. Judy Reyher, a Republican from Dacono. Reyher was appointed by a vacancy committee on a secret 6 to 5 vote, to replace former Rep. Clarice Navarro, who has taken an appointment in the Trump administration.

No sooner than she was picked when Reyher made headlines with a series of comments and Facebook posts reminiscent of 1840s America. She posted the long discredited claim that “it’s never been proven” that President Obama was born in the United States. Then, attempting to clarify that she is not a racist, Reyher told the local press that “the black community and the Democrats are the most racist group of people that exists.” She also said that black people “hate white people with a passion.”

Reyher’s offensive and astounding statements were so over the top that state Republican Party Chairman Jeff Hayes and House Minority Leader Cole Wist denounced the new lawmaker. They also said racism and hatred has no place in the GOP.

Doubling down, Reyher then shared more of her brand of wisdom, advising us that Muslims “hate pork, beer, bikinis, Jesus and freedom of speech” and that “if they hate everything we stand for, what the hell (are) they doing here other than to destroy us as a country?”

Like I said, you just can’t make this stuff up.

Hickenlooper’s swan song

Moving along, this session will also be remarkable as the final one for Gov. John Hickenlooper. The Governor wants to finish what he calls “Colorado the Beautiful,” a plan to get people outside and to make sure there is a green space within a 10-minute walk of every kid, with an interactive personalized database of trails. This is something that the Governor has been pushing for years.

Similarly, Hickenlooper hopes to gain approval for his program to expand opportunities for apprenticeships for high school graduates in Colorado. Sharing the belief of many that people don’t need a college degree to get a high-paying job, the Governor is hoping that his program will enable high school students to work in banking, insurance, cyber security, advanced manufacturing or other fields. By the time students in the program graduate, they would have high school diplomas, college credit, and real life work experience.

He has raised pledges of $25 million to support the effort but must obtain legislative support.

The Governor has lamented that he was not successful in establishing a sliding scale of scholarships for low-income students that would enable more students from working class families to attend college. He has however expressed pride about being a pro-business governor who is now leading a state out of the 2008-2009 recession into a top-five state for job growth.

I think Hickenlooper’s legacy will not come down to specific legislative successes of bold individual initiatives. Instead, it will be as a governor who emphasized job creation with small businesses, entrepreneurs and big businesses that create the opportunity for more employment in Colorado.

Dueling TV commercials

Recent press reports hint at what will be included in the legislative agenda. As we have discussed before, legislation to address the Colorado Public Employees Retirement Association (PERA) funding situation are certain to be presented. PERA’s board has proposed a fix, which Hickenlooper has criticized.

It is well known that state Treasurer Walker Stapleton has long been a critic of PERA. It is suspected that Republican legislators, at his instigation, will propose other options. All of this will be impacted by the sudden and sad passing last month of Executive Director Greg Smith, who was known as the driving force of change and innovation and working to improve PERA’s financial position.

The ongoing battle between the environmental community and the oil and gas industry continues. Rumors persist that we may see additional legislation dealing with fracking and/or the ability of municipalities to regulate oil and gas exploration within their boundaries. Expect to see more TV commercials from both sides.

Transportation funding will certainly be on the agenda as Republican legislators have already begun to challenge the governor’s legacy – indicating that his failure to get transportation funding approved is among his most significant shortcomings. Current talk is that we will see competing ballot measures proposing sales or gas tax increases.

Felonies are up. Why?

Several Colorado prosecutors have expressed their concerns about a spike in felony crimes.

Felony criminal filings across the state have increased by almost 50 percent in the past five years. Although data is currently being gathered, senators Kevin Lundberg (R) and Daniel Kagan (D) have discussed proposals to overhaul the state’s sex offender and habitual offender statutes to provide more flexibility in sentencing to judges.

This effort appears to be a disconnect from several prosecutors, who attribute the rise in felony filings to more lenient drug sentencing since 2013, as well as efforts to place more offenders on parole and probation rather than in jail. Others blame the 2012 legalization of personal use of marijuana for an increase in crime. The Governor’s office has expressed an interest in continuing to talk, but reluctance to commit to a particular course of action until data can more clearly identify the causes of the spike.

Happy New Year. At the Colorado Capitol, get ready for a bumpy ride.

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 2003, 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.

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