What did lawmakers do for Jane Coloradan and her family this year?

What did lawmakers do for Jane Coloradan and her family this year?

 

Hi, I’m Jane. I’m a 34-year-old married mom of two living in a Denver suburb. Like the typical Colorado family, my husband and I make about $61,000 a year. Most years I don’t pay much attention to what goes on at the Statehouse. Are you kidding? I don’t pay attention AT ALL. Bor-ing. But what happens there affects me. Or at least it should, right?

So this year I looked into it.

What did I get out of the 2016 legislative session that lasted 120 days between January and May? Whoa-ho, well, not much!

The only thing the 100 lawmakers were legally obligated to do was pass a budget. And they did — to the tune of a balanced $27 billion.

Sure, they did other stuff too. They tried to pass more than 600 new laws and repealed some I bet you didn’t even know existed. I sure didn’t.

As for the big stuff… Let me think…

Well, dad can now collect rain in a barrel when it runs off his roof. Ha. I doubt he’s running to the nearest Home Depot. My cousin can now wear pink instead of orange when she’s deer hunting. (She’s actually psyched about this, though. Seriously. I have the email.) Oh, and if it’s cold outside, I‘ll be allowed to start my car with a remote starter so it warms up unattended on the street. “Puffer cars” with remote starters used to be illegal, but not anymore.

As for outlawing things in Colorado? Well, if you find a dead body in the woods, now you have tell the authorities. And you’d better not tamper with it. Call it the Stand By Me law. There goes my Sunday!

Um, some other big things that happened this year… I’m thinking here …

…Still thinking…

See, here’s the problem: When it comes to this year’s legislature, I just can’t even. They really didn’t do much under that big gold dome.

One reason is because (drum roll, please) it’s an election year. The whole House and half the Senate is up for re-election. These folks really like their lawmaker gigs and want to keep them. For some, that means, you know, better not say or do anything controversial. For others, it means let your freak flag fly. Be as edgy and quotable and bombastic as possible, because the base loves it and it looks good on a campaign flyer.

Take this guy Tim Neville, a JeffCo Republican. He sponsored three gun bills this year he knew weren’t going to pass in the Democratic House, because he wants us all to know he supports the Second Amendment big time. It’s about principle. Especially when you’re up for re-election.

Or take Crisanta Duran. She’s a Democrat in Denver up for re-election, too. She introduced a bill super late in the session called the Corporate Responsibility Act. It would have let the state fine large corporations who don’t pay healthcare costs for their low-paid workers. And that was going to make it through the Republican-controlled Senate? Not.

But I guess we kind of should have seen this coming in January when the whole thing started. We knew 2016 would be yet another year of divided government. Republicans control the Senate, Democrats control the House, yadda, yadda, yadda. Republicans in the Senate pass bills they like, Dems in the House knock ’em down. Dems put up bills they want in the House, Republicans in the Senate brush ‘em away.

Get this: On one day this winter a Democratic House committee passed an expensive education bill to fund full-day statewide kindergarten. Then, like, an hour later, a Republican Senate committee killed a bill that would have asked voters to support the same thing.

Apparently, pundits (those TV talking heads who gas on about politics) call these kinds of years “messaging sessions.” Lawmakers drum up bills they can brag about in their campaigns, whether or not the proposals are viable.

Some lawmakers gave up on passing bipartisan legislation that would make a real difference.

Sound familiar? Hashtag America.

So I got to thinking: What if they just skipped the whole dance and didn’t even bother to have a legislature this year? How much money would we save? When I called up the Legislative Council and asked if they ever tried to compute how much an average session costs, the guy on the phone said just thinking about it made his brain hurt.

We do know 100 lawmakers earn $30,000 each. Plus, they get per-diems for travel and some expenses. Legislative staffers and lawyers for the House and Senate are paid. Security, supplies, printing and computer costs add up. Running the legislature from 2016 to 2017 will cost taxpayers at least $40 million. Expensive though it is, I guess we’re stuck with this representational government thing— at least for now. (But as my neighbor always says, Just wait ‘til Donald Trump is president.)

So what can an average Jane like me do to hold this gang of 100 at the Capitol accountable? We can compare what they say to what they actually do – and don’t do. That’s why I went back and looked at what both parties’ leaders said they wanted to achieve at the beginning of the session — priorities, they said, priorities — and I found some. How’d they work out?

Not so well.

House Democrats wanted men, women and people of color to be paid equally. They wanted to end corporate overseas tax havens. Were they able? NOPE! House Republicans wanted to make it harder for people to sue construction companies for building homes that fall apart. Did they? BZZZZ! No. Not even close.

Senate Democrats wanted to expand access to broadband, and make student loan borrowing more transparent. Think that happened? Think again. Senate Republican leaders wanted a bonds measure for roads, and a “fetal homicide” bill that would make it easier to bring murder charges against someone who kills an unborn baby. Aaaaand? Didn’t happen.

Here’s an example of just how wavy gravy things started out in January, and how topsy-turvy they ended up in May. On opening day of the session, leaders in both parties talked — and talked and talked some more — about the importance of cooperation. It’s customary that at the start of each session the first bills introduced are measures that are likely to pass with both parties’ support. It’s supposed to set a warm, fuzzy, collaborative tone.

But alas: This year, there was SB1, the first bill in the Senate, which would have expanded income tax deductions for military retirees, and HB1, the first bill in the House, which would have required businesses that do state work to pay men and women equally. Welp, by the end of March, the Senate had put the kibosh on HB1, and at the beginning of May the House had smacked down SB1.

So much for cooperation!

Now, meet my family. What did they get?

OK, so it wasn’t the most cooperative four months in Denver. But along the way, these people we elect to represent us must have done something meaningful, right?

As of Wednesday, May 11, the last day of the session, Gov. John Hickenlooper had signed close to 200 new bills into law. His writing hand must get tired. All those pens! And he still has 30 days to sign (or not sign!) more.

What’s the guv getting carpal tunnel over? Technical tweaks from lawmakers tinkering around the edges of state law, supplementing the budgets of certain state departments, sunsetting special task forces and boards, that kind of thing. Yawn, amirite? Try this. Here are a few of the bills he signed: “Repeal DOR Revenue Impact Accounting Requirements,” “Rural Electric Cooperative Election Procedures” and “State Bank Meeting Frequency.”

Unless you’re a state bank director with a busy Rotary Club schedule, there’s nothing much there to get too excited about.

I am psyched to report there was one bill signed into law this year that affects my family in a big way, even though it’s not something I’m totally happy about, given the circumstances. My 12-year-old nephew has a medical condition, and medical marijuana helps keep him from having seizures. Until this year, he couldn’t be treated at school. Now, thanks to both parties actually cooperating for once, he can. That makes Colorado one of only two states in the nation where my sister can live if she wants to keep her son from having seizures in the classroom.

Speaking of my nephew and school, here’s something else that affects him. Lawmakers passed a law that makes educational software, like apps used in schools, disclose how much personal data they collect from students. My sister was pretty stressed about what her son’s Minecraft habit might mean, years down the line, in the hands of some college admissions office. Now she’ll know just how worried she needs to be.

My family’s always yacking (and sometimes bickering) about these issues over Easter supper and graduation potlucks. Especially Uncle Bart, who’s wasting his retirement flip-flopping between the legislature’s live stream and “Duck Dynasty” reruns. You should hear him rant about state politics. (If you live within three blocks you probably have heard him. Ugh!)

When I asked over Sunday dinner at our house what he got out of this year’s session, he said I asked the wrong question.

“It’s what I didn’t get,” he hollered and pounded the table. A fork fell to the floor. Mom’s eyes rolled.

“You didn’t get a ban on conversion therapy, dad?” my cousin Nikki asked, winking. (That, of course, was an effort that failed again this year to ban licensed psychologists from the practice of so-called “pray the gay away” therapy.)

Uncle Bart acted like he didn’t hear. Instead he went off about the 2013 gun-control bills and how he couldn’t believe “those bastards in Denver” couldn’t repeal the magazine limits on his AR-15.

Then there’s Uncle Bart’s son Bobby. He has this weird hobby called “rolling coal.” He and his buddies drive around in souped-up diesel pickup trucks, blowing black smoke out of their exhaust pipes at pedestrians. I know. Cops have a hard time busting them for it, though, so Bobby’s pretty glad Republicans killed a bill to make it easier to enforce laws against rolling coal.

Over dessert on Sunday, Uncle Bart lost his mind about this thing called the hospital provider fee. He said he hit the ceiling when he heard Democrats and the governor were trying to reclassify the near billion-dollar program into a Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights-exempt enterprise like the state lottery.

“We have TABOR for a reason,” he hollered.

Uncle Bart beamed about how Republicans stood up to the governor, Democrats and pretty much the entire business community to keep the hospital provider fee where it is. The government doesn’t need more money, he said. It just needs to spend what it has better.

He told me to quit bellyaching about what lawmakers didn’t do this year. “Hell, sometimes the less they do up there the better,” he said.

Dad mumbled something about John Suthers, and Uncle Bart just glared. Mom went to get my uncle some antacid.

He needed it, because after his little tirade, my sister Janet started in. She was actually wearing those little IUD birth control spirals as earrings. At the table. No joke.

She’s been going on about women’s reproductive health issues long before that crazed-looking guy in Colorado Springs killed three people at the Planned Parenthood clinic. So her head looked like it was going to pop as she told us how some lawmakers this year tried to outlaw abortion, mimic a Texas anti-abortion law, and then slow down the budget debate with an anti-abortion stunt. One lawmaker even said Planned Parenthood was the “real culprit” in the November shooting. Janet whipped out her iPhone and made a quick donation to NARAL just talking about it.

That’s when Seth spoke up. He’s cousin Nikki’s husband, a public defender who, of course, is still feeling the Bern. When things get heated between him and uncle Bart, one of them always says, “Well, at least we can agree on civil liberties,” and that usually ends it.

Seth was disappointed by how little has been done about criminal justice reform this year. In January, he said, everyone was all hot about this session being the one in which Colorado would abolish the death penalty. (At this, Uncle Bart gobbled a whole handful of the antacid.) But abolition never got a foothold in the legislature. Instead, Seth said, 2016 was the year Colorado hit the snooze button on the issue. Why? Election year politics, plain and simple, he said. What frustrated him the most was how conservative lawmakers took advantage of the inaction and tried to make capital punishment even easier in Colorado by allowing prosecutors a second chance with a jury or trying to change it so verdicts no longer have to be unanimous. Thankfully, he told us, those efforts failed, like most of the controversial legislation this year.

But the session wasn’t all bad for Seth. He has this kind of guilty vice when it comes to fantasy sports betting. Being a do-gooder lawyer and all, he feels a lot safer gambling online now that he knows there’s going to be an official state Office of Fantasy Contests to regulate the business. An Official Office of Fantasy Contests? Gotta love Colorado!

As we were clearing the table Sunday night, my daughter started tugging on my sleeve. She said she’d been hearing me complain all night about these politicians.

“Mom,” she said, “if they let you down so badly this year, why don’t you run for the legislature?”

I patted her head and told her I was one of Colorado’s million-plus unaffiliated voters, and if I wanted to do that, I’d have to — ugh — join a party. After all, there are 100 lawmakers, and not one of them is an independent like me.

Then I started in about the difference between caucuses and primaries and how lawmakers promised they’d update our laws about that this year, too, to try and bring unaffiliated voters into the early nominating contests. But on the second-to-last day of the legislative session, following one argument after another, they decided they couldn’t do that, either.

It was, all told, a pretty depressing Sunday dinner conversation, even for our family. As the last relatives left (and uncle Bart and Seth were still squabbling over school mascot names), I looked down at my little girl and sighed about the tangled mess of our square, swing state.

“Sweetie,” I told her, “at least we have the Broncos.”

 

 

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About the Author

Corey Hutchins

is a journalist in Colorado, and Columbia Journalism Review's Rocky Mountain correspondent for the United States Project. Follow him on Twitter @CoreyHutchins and email him at CoreyHutchins [at] gmail [dot] com.

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