Bigfooting, boozing, tweeting: A progressive Colorado legislative scorecard

DENVER — Colorado’s 2012 Legislature may not have achieved greatness. It may not have risen above partisan divide to solve complex problems and unify a state. It may not have addressed the state’s economic malaise or found a way to reliably fund education for the long term.

But no one can say House Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, did not prove once and for all how much power the Speaker can wield. If the session had a theme, that was it.

House Speaker Frank McNulty holding forth on the House floor. (Tomasic)

When Colorado progressives look back on this legislature, they see both success and failure, heroes and villains.

“This was the definition of failed leadership,” said ProgressNow Colorado Executive Director Joanne Kron about McNulty’s time as Speaker.

“This year, progressives in the Colorado legislature had many successes fighting for Colorado jobs, our public health and environment, and advancing equality that we can all be proud of,” said Kron. “Unfortunately, right-wing extremists in both chambers obstructed progressive jobs and equality goals whenever they could, and a lot of good bills died as needless political fodder.”

ProgressNow was one of several Colorado organizations to issue legislative report cards or similar end-of-session commentary.

Ellen Dumm, executive director of Campaign for a Strong Colorado, was equally blunt in her assessment of McNulty.

“Obviously, the failure of leadership is the big take home. The failure of leadership in the House is the story. They just lost control of their caucus. When was the last time in Colorado that an issue that had broad bipartisan support didn’t reach the floor for a vote?

“It bodes ill for Republicans. Not only did they get outmaneuvered on reapportionment, but leadership proved completely out of touch with Colorado. It would be quite the come down for McNulty to sit in the minority next year. I’m not sure his own caucus would vote him minority leader. It’s going to be a tough year for Frank,” she said.

State Democratic Party Chair Rick Palacio said the product of lots of good work and cooperation was big-footed by McNulty’s end-of-session bad faith.

“2012 was a tale of two sessions, and not just because Governor Hickenlooper had to call a second one to complete unfinished business,” he said. “Many hardworking legislators did a lot to jump start Colorado’s economy. Linda Newell’s film incentives bill is a great example of creative ideas that can bring new activity to our state. Betty Boyd, Pat Steadman, and Claire Levy did a remarkable job of advocating for diverse needs while respecting a bipartisan process in writing our state budget. Our legislators deserve a lot of credit for their hard work.

“Unfortunately, much of this work was obscured by the extreme lengths Frank McNulty went to in order to block civil unions. His willingness to inflict so much collateral damage to the state for the sake of his political base is a dark mark on public service. With hard work, Democrats will make sure that Frank McNulty never has another chance to manipulate the legislative process to stop important progress for Colorado.”

Jobs and the economy

At the kick-off of the session, pols from both parties and both chambers said this legislature would be all about jobs. It didn’t turn out that way, dominated as it was by the civil unions showdown, but some progress was made.

the Skills for Jobs Act, sponsored by Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton, and Rep. Daniel Kagan, D-Greenwood Village, will set up a new collaborative relationship between the state’s Departments of Labor and Higher Education to help ensure that skills being taught in Colorado colleges line up with the needs of Colorado employers.

HB12-1272, sponsored by Rep. Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, and Rep. Robert Ramirez, R-Westminster, provides $8 million for additional unemployment benefits for people interested in acquiring new job skills.

Other passed jobs bills include one to encourage space travel and one to encourage filming in Colorado.

Other jobs bills, though, went nowhere. One bill, HB12-1129, which would have provided $300,000 to leverage matching funds and strengthen Colorado’s existing network of Small Business Development Centers made it through one House committee before being killed by another.

Crime and punishment

Hickenlooper last month signed legislation that limits the ability of Colorado prosecutors to charge juveniles as adults.

“This legislation will save some kids who make a bad choice in their youth from a lifetime of ostracism and limited opportunity. [Gov. Hickenlooper] was under pressure to veto this bill, but progressives are grateful he didn’t,” said Kron.

Another bill, sponsored by Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, makes automobile hit-and-runs a Class 4 felony, which carries the same penalties as DUI. Prior to this, impaired drivers actually had an incentive not to stop after causing as accident. No longer.

Health Care

If you have health insurance and you’ve ever had a major procedure or spent extended time in the hospital, you may have received mathematically baffling statements that read something like this:

Cost: $10,000
Amount paid by insurance: $2,000
Amount due from patient: $200

Fact is, insurance companies negotiate much lower prices for procedures than they actually cost and much lower than an individual uninsured consumer ever could.

A bill passed this year will change that for at least some patients.

SB12-134 would limit the amount that low-income uninsured patients (250 percent of Federal Poverty Level or below) would be required to pay hospitals not more than the lowest-negotiated rate paid by private insurers for the same services.

The bill would also require hospitals to notify patients about discount programs and charity that may be available and to help patients determine if they qualify.

A statement issued by The Colorado Center on Law and Policy was succinct:

The Colorado Center on Law and Policy, while fundamentally disappointed in the political gamesmanship that closed the 2012 regular legislative session, still regards the session as one with more advances for policies supporting the health, economic security and well being of low-income Coloradans than might have been expected in this election year.

In the realm of health care, Hillary Jorgensen, director of Colorado Progressive Action, said much of the good news came in the form of bills that were defeated.

“We were able to kill a number of bills that would have impacted Medicaid. SB12-085, Concerning Reduction of General Fund Expenditures, would have made deep cuts to state spending in Medicaid and SB12-032 would have forced the governor to ask for a Medicaid waiver, which would have thrown the program, and by extension the state’s entire health care system, into chaos. While these two bills were started in the Senate and had little hope of passing, it’s both disappointing and frustrating that in a session when the GOP caucus pledged to focus on jobs and the economy, they wasted their time with meaningless bills that would have caused a very real health care crisis for the state.

We were also able to kill HB12-1175, Concerning the Encouragement of State Agencies to Pursue Colorado Solutions in Lieu of Federal Regulations. While this bill’s impact would not have been limited to health care and the Colorado Health Benefits Exchange, it would have had a huge impact on both of those things and very well could have resulted in the end of federal funding for both the exchange and several health care programs. It’s just another disappointing example of time wasted playing partisan politics,” she wrote in an email.

The People

While the drama around civil unions was writ large, even that story was one told by the people involved as much as by the issue itself.

ProgressNow highlighted a number of winners and losers among legislators. If you’re a conservative, you might be able to just flip this list on its head.

Yet support for civil unions defied easy categorization: Sure liberals support more rights for more people, but so do many conservatives, who were motivated to support civil unions in the service of personal liberty and small government.

ProgressNow cited House Minority Leader and civil unions sponsor Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, as its No. 1 winner:

Minority Leader Mark Ferrandino had perhaps the hardest job at the Colorado Capitol this year, but he managed his caucus, and relations with the conservative one-seat majority, with patience and determination. Ferrandino drove the pro-jobs agenda from the House as the majority’s leadership faltered… Ferrandino’s tireless efforts are one reason why the state’s budget passed this year with near-unanimous approval–a truly rare event.

Dumm called out OneColorado for praise. “It’s just amazing how far they have taken civil unions and how quickly they’ve done it,” she said. “They have become a force to be reckoned with,” she said.

It may have been a handful of Republican women who stood the tallest in the eyes of Colorado progressives, though, by supporting civil unions even in the face of hard pressure from Speaker McNulty and other social-right warriors.

Rep. B.J. Nikkel, R-Loveland, cast the deciding vote in the House Judiciary Committee, sending civil unions on toward–but not quite to–the floor where the bill almost certainly would have passed had McNulty not pulled out all the stops to keep it from coming to a vote in regular session.

On every leg of its way not quite through the legislature, it was Republican women who stepped up to keep the civil unions bill moving. Of course, the bill also had unanimous Democratic support. From ProgressNow:

For the second year in a row, three brave Republican women in the Colorado Senate — Sens. Ellen Roberts, Nancy Spence, and Jean White — stood with their progressive colleagues to pass civil unions legislation for Colorado’s committed same-sex couples … someday it will be remembered that a few Republican women Senators were on the right side of history.

In the end, it all came down to Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, one of five Republicans on the “kill committee” that took a party line vote to keep the civil unions bill from reaching the floor for a full vote during special session. Coram was only one of five Republicans who could have broken ranks but he acknowledged having a gay son he was proud of and for whom he had every hope of success and equality.

After the vote, Coram’s son, Dee, did not sound so proud of his dad, whom he said missed an opportunity to be a leader.

Coram was hardly the only legislator this year to open himself to criticism. Republicans Greg Brophy, R-Wray, and Spencer Swalm, R-Centennial, tweeted themselves into trouble.

Brophy jumped on the short-lived anti-Sandra Fluke bandwagon just as it was crashing hard.

From ProgressNow:

This spring, Sen. Greg Brophy brought the “war on women” to our state, after publicly defending radio host Rush Limbaugh’s disparaging remarks about a law student who testified on Capitol Hill in Washington about contraceptive insurance coverage. Sen. Brophy actually told followers on Twitter that he too did not want to pay for “booze,” “spring break,” or birth control for the college student, Sandra Fluke of Georgetown University. Sen. Brophy’s antics had the opposite of their intended effect, motivating women to organize a large rally at the Capitol, and to get more politically involved in general to protect their basic rights.

Then, after ProgressNow had already issued its legislative wrap-up, Swalm made a late bid for the Twitter Hall of Shame, tweeting the writings of a man — Steve Sailer — who thinks all the GOP needs to do to be successful is get more votes from white men.

The Sailer essay had been posted at VDARE.com, a site run by Peter Brimelow. The Southern Poverty Law Center considers VDARE to be a white nationalist hate group.

Rep. Laura Bradford’s, R-Collbran, also grabbed the spotlight for an evening run-in with Denver’s Finest. ProgressNow:

Rep. Laura Bradford’s brush with the law after a “legislative happy hour,” and avoidance of arrest via an obscure law preventing the arrest of legislators during the session, turned into a major public embarrassment for the entire Colorado General Assembly. Although Rep. Bradford was subsequently “cleared” by Denver Police of asking for special treatment, the public was left to reconcile major questions about accountability for public officials with the fact that she was never charged or properly investigated. Lingering questions about what really happened that night were too much for Rep. Bradford’s constituents, and she is no longer running for reelection.

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About the Author

Scot Kersgaard

Scot Kersgaard has been managing editor of a political newspaper, editor and co-owner of a ski town newspaper, executive editor of eight high-tech magazines (where he worked with current Apple CEO Tim Cook), deputy press secretary to a U.S. Senator, and an outdoors columnist at the Rocky Mountain News. He has an English degree from the University of Washington. He was awarded a fellowship to study internet journalism at the University of Maryland's Knight Center for Specialized Journalism. He was student body president in college. He spends his free time hiking and skiing.

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