Political Climate Ripe For Election Year Fireworks In Colorado
Happy New Year. The Colorado General Assembly is getting ready to convene on Jan. 8. Let the fun and games begin.
Every observer of the process believes that the political climate on the national level will infect our local legislative process. It is difficult for any state legislature to operate in a politically sterile environment, nor should it. But the backdrop – including the impeachment of Donald Trump, questioning of the credibility and integrity of federal law enforcement agencies, claims of election tampering in the 2020 presidential election, as well as the election itself – will frame much of what happens in our Capitol. And let’s not forget Colorado’s own high profile U.S. Senate campaign.
It may only be January, but it’s open election season. In 10 months, all 65 state representatives, as well as 18 of the 35 state senators, will stand for reelection. Democrats have a firm 41-24 hold on the House, but in the Senate the Democratic-controlled margin is 19-16. This will be the battleground.
For context, our 2018 midterm elections saw the first time that unaffiliated voters cast more votes than either Republicans or Democrats. The polling firm Magellan Strategies is predicting that unaffiliated voters this year may turn out at a record high level of 37 percent. Democrats think this bodes well for their senate candidates, since they swept all of their seats in 2018. Republicans think this signals a trend toward change, believing that unaffiliated voters are tired of the partisanship that they feel should be blamed on Democrats.
Efforts by Republicans last summer to gain ground with a series of recall efforts in Colorado met disastrous results. All five recall efforts failed, although one Democratic legislator stepped down for other reasons.
The effort to recall Senate President Leroy Garcia was particularly telling. Needing 13,506 signatures to get the recall on the ballot, only four – yes, four – valid signatures were turned in. Setting the tone for the session, competing bills to reform the recall process will be introduced by legislators on both sides of the aisle. One will focus on ethical standards and good government, while another will require cause to recall a legislator.
Last session saw the state Senate mired in process as Republicans, in an effort to frustrate legislation they hated, resorted to a procedural ploy of requiring that bills be read at length. This led to a lawsuit and will surely result in rules changes and reform.
This partisanship is seen most profoundly on the hot topics and high-profile issues – about 12 percent of all bills. These include guns, reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, and economic matters, where the need for change or to maintain current protections is the most profound.
On the overwhelming majority of matters that make minor changes in law, call for studies or continue current programs, the body is very bipartisan. On those bills, last year all but three house Republicans voted with Democrats at least 50 percent of the time and every senate Republican voted with Democrats over 59 percent of the time.
So, what are the hot topic issues that you will most hear about this session?
Guns. The legislature passed a red flag gun bill last year and Rep. Tom Sullivan, an Aurora Democrat, has vowed to carry more gun legislation this year. Sullivan’s son was killed in the 2012 Aurora theater shooting and that experience, and his crusade for tighter gun control laws, launched him into public office. Since several county sheriffs were opposed to the red flag law and have vowed not to enforce it, additional legislation on the topic may be introduced. Other possible bills include requiring stores to safely store firearms, a measure some states have now, and responsible gun ownership including reporting lost or stolen weapons. Interestingly, an interim committee on reducing school violence did not recommend a single bill for this session.
Rent control. Many have expressed concerns about explosive increase in the cost of housing in Colorado – for purchase and for rent. Studies show that many millennials and those in college now may never be homeowners, given rising costs compounded with college tuition debt. Since 1981 Colorado has had a law banning rent control. The 1981 ban was reinforced by the Colorado Supreme Court in 2000 in the “Telluride Case” when the court struck down Telluride’s plan to negotiate affordable rental units with developers. As a state senator I carried legislation in 2001 that was supported by the Colorado Municipal League to try and change the law in light of the Telluride Case, but could not get it through the Republican-controlled House. A proposal to address this issue was introduced last session and failed. Sen. Julie Gonzales of Denver will once again introduce her legislation to lift the state’s ban on rent-control ordinances by allowing municipalities to adopt their own programs. As previously drafted the bill allowed municipalities to adopt, or decline to adopt, measures that would allow binding agreements with developers for a percentage of residential developments to be affordable, as defined by the municipal ordinance. No standard of affordability was used nor was the type of permitted ordinance allowing each municipality to tailor a remedy for its community. This will be one facet of a fierce fight, as other legislation to stop the rising number of evictions will also be introduced again this session.
Prisons. The fight will continue between justice reform and crime and justice advocates. Expect to see more legislation on prison and sentencing reform as well as a potential ban on the state financing of private prison construction. A bill to repeal the death penalty may also once again make its way to the floor. Last year Democrats killed death penalty repeal legislation sponsored by one of their colleagues. It will be interesting to see if the work in the interim has addressed the concerns of moderate Democrats. The Prison Population Management Interim Study Committee, chaired by Rep. Leslie Herod, whose district includes Park Hill, recommended the drafting of three bills for 2020. They include sentencing nonviolent young adults with no prior convictions to probation instead of prison; studying the use of private prisons and reducing the population in those facilities; and, comprehensively evaluating how the Department of Corrections operates. This is an issue with a unique economic and state budget implication. When I served, the cost of incarceration of one male prisoner for a year was equal to a year of in-state tuition for four students at the University of Colorado!
Bullying. With Colorado’s record-setting teen suicide rate, expect to see new legislation designed to address bullying. Reports are that the efforts will be to focus on increased school accountability to intervene at an earlier stage in reported instances of bullying. Peer counseling and restorative justice components are also rumored to be components of proposed legislation. The interim School Safety Committee recommended the drafting of four bills and a resolution this year. They include requiring a school district’s attendance policies to allow for excused absences for behavioral health concerns; establishing a working group to examine the needs of districts regarding the availability of behavioral health treatment for students with severe behavioral or mental health disorders; additional training for district employees to improve school climate to promote behavioral and mental health among students; and, enhanced crisis reporting systems for students.
Higher Education. Likely of interest to many in Park Hill, the Making Higher Education Attainable Interim Study Committee approved the filing of bills to expand the College Opportunity Fund Scholarship program with an additional $5 million in funding; allow students to earn college credit for work experience; and, study and develop programs to increase student graduations rates. Hopefully in a four-year time horizon.
As always, there is plenty to watch and read about. Make a trip to the state Capitol and see how it works – or doesn’t – for yourselves.
Penfield W. Tate III is an attorney in Denver. He represented Park Hill in the Colorado House of Representatives from 1997 to 2000, and in the State Senate from 2001 to February 2003. His adult daughter was born and raised in Park Hill, and Tate and his wife Paulette remain in the neighborhood. After a hiatus from writing his award-winning political opinions in the Greater Park Hill News while he made a bid for mayor last year, Tate’s column returned last month.