Littwin: Colorado’s coming unpredictable pre-election post-recall legislative session
As the 2014 legislative session is about to begin, there are two things that you need to know: This is the pre-election session. And it’s the post-recall session.
And everything that happens — or doesn’t happen — will be defined by those two markers.
Last year’s rollicking session was about setting the terms for the election-year debate. And last summer’s jarring recall elections assured that this year’s session will be about replaying those same debates, over and over and over again.
Election years are always nervous times at the legislature. But we’ve never been quite at this intersection before.
Democrats got most of what they wanted last session. And then they had to pay a giant non-election-year penalty for it — with the twin losses in the recall elections and the 2-to-1 defeat of Amendment 66. What Republicans want this year is to do it all again. They want to force Democrats to defend everything they won last year — particularly the modest gun laws — and then pay for them again in November.
By the way, this is hardly a sure bet. Recall elections aren’t like general elections. They’re low-turnout affairs, perfect for a high-energy base. But it’s fair to say that these recalls — the first legislative recalls in Colorado history — have Republicans energized, Democrats demoralized and John Hickenlooper desperately looking to find his way home to the political center.
The Democrats, who have both houses of the legislature and the governor’s office, are facing a session in which they want to do … almost nothing. Nothing risky anyway. It’s all fixing flood damage and finding spare change for education and governing responsibly and making nice to rural Colorado and trying never to mention guns or Gordian knots.
And Republicans, in the minority everywhere, are daring Democrats to do … anything.
It’s the noise you’ll notice most. The gun laws were modest and they were necessary, but if you listen to the noise factor or to talk radio, you’d think they must really have been an assault on Coloradan liberty. The state’s future isn’t going to be determined by the size of a Magpul magazine, but you may have trouble telling that in the days ahead.
Certainly, the model for this session will look familiar. It will be based on the Republican U.S. House strategy on Obamacare. Just replace Obamacare with guns and you’ll see where we’re headed. In the House, that strategy led to approximately 47 futile votes to repeal the health care reform law and also led, of course, to one government shutdown. As I said, this is hardly risk-free. Republicans were guilty of overreach in Washington, and you can see that happening here.
There won’t be any shutdowns here in Colorado, but Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman does promise bills to “reform, rescind or revise” the gun laws. He didn’t mention “rehash,” but you get the idea. This isn’t about winning votes, but about chilling hearts. The Democrats will send the bills to kill committees, but it will add up to a lot of bills and a lot of committees and a lot of committee hearings.
Senate President Morgan Carroll knows what to expect. As she told me recently, “I expect a repealathon, and I expect to see it repeatedly.”
We won’t know who wins the debate until November. But we have an idea now about the early betting line. Hickenlooper, who for the first time in his career looks vulnerable, has already said he might agree to some tweaks in the new gun laws, which will only encourage gun-law opponents to try for more than tweakage.
The Republican leverage is obvious. In case you missed it, the summer of recalls cost Senate Democrats two seats, and they might have lost a third in the fall except that Evie Hudak resigned before a recall election could be held. The Democrats had a 20-15 majority in the Senate, which has now been reduced to 18-17. With a one-vote majority and some Democrats nervous about their own seats, Republicans will win some votes that they wouldn’t have won a year ago.
But you may remember the last time Republicans were in charge in the House and how then-Speaker Frank McNulty overplayed his hand on civil unions, and before you knew it, Democrats were in charge and they able to pass a modest set of gun laws. Of course, when they passed the modest set of gun laws, recalls happened. So there’s overreach and there’s overreach.
Morgan Carroll, who became Senate president because John Morse was beaten in a recall election, thinks Republicans will see some backlash.
“It’s one thing to do a little fear-mongering about a big package of gun bills and say that they’re going to take away your guns,” she said. “But if you take the bills one at a time, it looks a little different. If you ask, ‘Why is it a good idea for domestic abusers and convicted criminals to to be able to get guns without a background check?’ it looks very different. I don’t think that’s going to be received the way they think it will.”
Polling shows Coloradans overwhelmingly support background checks, so Democrats would love to make that the battle. Of course, these sessions never go quite the way anyone expects them to go. Unexpected issues emerge. Mistakes are inevitably made. New alliances form. Old knees weaken. Bills are vetoed (this year for sure).
And, remember, it’s all just a warmup for November.
[ Image of the Colorado capitol by Pam Broviak. ]
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