The Colorado General Assembly begins its 2017 session next week. Here’s what you can expect.
Quick — name the biggest accomplishment of the 2016 General Assembly. And no fair counting the budget — it’s the only thing lawmakers legally are required to pass.
Reclassifying the hospital provider fee, that bit of bookkeeping that could free up millions for roads or schools? Nope. Lawmakers couldn’t agree on that.
Figuring out another way to pay for crumbling roads and bridges? No, they couldn’t come to a compromise there, either.
Fixing the state’s construction defects law, which developers and builders claim keeps them from building badly needed affordable housing, especially for those who want to buy homes? Not that, either.
Finding a way to cover the nearly $1 billion shortfall in K-12 education funding? Nada there, either.
The biggest accomplishment in 2016? Most likely, rain barrels, with a new law allowing those of you in single-family homes to collect rainwater. It certainly got some of the biggest attention in 2016, given that Colorado is one of the few states that restricts rain barrel use.
The power dynamics for the 2017 session aren’t much different than they were in 2016. Republicans still hold a one-seat advantage in the Senate, though it’s a different seat. Democrats built on their advantage in the House, holding 37 out of 65 seats in 2017 versus 34 seats in 2016.
But there have been big changes in leadership, and with that, potentially a new direction on at least one major issue: road and bridge repairs.
The Republican-led Senate has a new president: Sen. Kevin Grantham, who spent the last several years on the Joint Budget Committee, where he helped craft the annual state budget.
The previous Senate President, Bill Cadman of Colorado Springs, was renowned for his biting sense of humor well before he took the reins of leadership. But he also was known as uncompromising on many issues — just ask the Democrats whose bills he assigned to the “kill” committee, the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee. (The House has a committee with the same name and virtually the same purpose.)
Grantham, 46, is a rural lawmaker and real estate appraiser from Cañon City. He’s the first rural lawmaker to lead the Senate since the days when the Lieutenant Governor was actually the Senate President. That goes back to 1973 and Lt. Gov. John Vanderhoof of Glenwood Springs.
Senators from both parties describe Grantham as fair and collaborative, with an open-door philosophy and a willingness to listen. He’s deeply conservative, but, as Sen. Chris Holbert of Parker, who will serve as Senate Majority Leader, puts it: There are 35 members of the Senate, not just two caucuses, and all will have input under Grantham.
“There is great talent on the other side of the aisle and we will work together when we can,” Holbert told The Colorado Independent.
But Grantham’s management style is also a bit of a mystery, since he has not served in a leadership position in the past.
The House has a new boss, too: the incoming Speaker is Rep. Crisanta Duran of Denver, the House Majority Leader for the past two years. Duran is the first Latina Speaker of the House.
Duran, 36, is in her fourth and final term in the House. She’s considered a rising star in the Democratic Party. In July, she spoke at the Democratic National Convention. She comes out of the labor movement, where her dad, Ernesto Duran, is a labor organizer and at one time led UFCW #7, the food and commercial workers union for local grocery stores.
In her role as majority leader, Duran focused the caucus on affordable housing and workforce development, winning collaboration with Senate Republicans on bills that, more often than not, ended up on the governor’s desk.
Duran also has brought in a new leadership team, including Rep. K.C. Becker as House Majority Leader, and Rep. Jessie Danielson of Wheat Ridge as Speaker Pro Tem.
Danielson replaces Rep. Dan Pabon of Denver in that position, which was not unexpected because of Pabon’s legal problems in 2016 (he was arrested on St. Patrick’s Day for DUI and later pleaded guilty, receiving one year’s probation).
Leading the House Republicans: Rep. Patrick Neville of Castle Rock, considered one of the most conservative members of that chamber. Neville’s win was something of a surprise, given that Rep. Polly Lawrence of Roxborough Park had been expected to become the next House Minority Leader. But Lawrence said she didn’t have the votes from the increasingly conservative caucus.
For 2017, House Republicans are likely to take on a more conservative agenda. In 2016, House Republicans backed bills to repeal the state’s 2013 gun control laws, tried to eliminate or severely restrict abortion, end mandatory membership in labor unions and to loosen gun restrictions. Those issues are all likely to come back in 2017.
House Democrats, on the other hand, are taking up the mantle of transportation funding, a fairly major switch from the 2016 session, in which their priorities focused on equal pay for equal work, affordable housing and reclassifying the hospital provider fee.
While business groups, such as the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, still want to see the General Assembly deal with the provider fee issue, House Democrats have signaled they may be moving on to transportation funding, with or without the funds that could be freed up by reclassifying the fee.
Gov. John Hickenlooper has yet to announce his 2017 agenda, but that will happen on Thursday, Jan. 12, when he gives his State of the State address to the General Assembly.
The governor has, however, hinted that he’s looking for a backup plan should the Affordable Care Act be repealed in 2017 by Congress. Hickenlooper commented shortly after the election that he is concerned that a repeal of Obamacare would leave people with pre-existing medical conditions without health insurance coverage. He also expressed concerns about rollbacks on environmental regulations and the possible sale of the state’s public lands. Colorado will continue to work on environmental regulations and protect its public lands, he said.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the hot issues from 2016 that lawmakers are likely to revisit in 2017.
Hospital provider fee
The fee is charged to hospitals for each overnight stay by a patient, or for outpatient visits. That money is then pooled, matched with federal dollars and redistributed to the hospitals to pay for Medicaid and for uninsured medical coverage.
Reclassifying the fee is a bit of a bookkeeping hodge-podge, but basically it means that the money wouldn’t be counted against the state’s revenue limit under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights. That could free up about $300 million annually for priorities such as roads and bridges and K-12 education.
Grantham told The Denver Business Journal in November that reclassifying the fee was a non-starter, arguing that the state should take a closer look at its priorities and cut spending first. He hasn’t changed his position since then, and did not respond to a request for an interview.
Business leaders and organizations, regardless of political leanings, are in favor of the change. But many Republican lawmakers and Americans for Prosperity, a conservative organization funded by the Koch Brothers, are opposed.
A few House Republicans favor making the switch, and at least one Republican in the Senate, Sen. Larry Crowder of Alamosa, has said in the past he would vote for it. Crowder sponsored the House bill in 2016 that would have made the change, but the bill died on the last day of the 2016 session without ever making it to the Senate floor, where it likely would have passed by at least one vote.
Democrats are giving mixed signals on whether they’re willing to take another whack at the provider fee in 2017.
Senate Minority Leader Lucia Guzman, a Denver Democrat, told The Independent that the support for changing the fee outside the Capitol hasn’t changed since the legislature adjourned last May. Guzman is hopeful Democrats can find a way to talk to Republicans (particularly those in the Senate) that will help them see the light, although she noted she has not yet spoken to Grantham about it.
Incoming House Majority Leader K.C. Becker, a Boulder Democrat, is less certain. She told The Independent that the provider fee, which Democrats have waved in front of Republicans as a source of transportation money, may have to go by the wayside.
The state has a wish list of around $3 billion in projects (as of 2015) to shore up Colorado’s roads and bridges, but so far, no way to pay for it.
Sandra Solin of Capitol Solutions heads up Fix Colorado Roads, a coalition of business groups working on a transportation package. She was optimistic at Wednesday’s ColoradoPolitics.com-sponsored legislative preview that lawmakers are more open to finding a solution.
No doors are closed on options for paying for those projects, Solin said. One option is to tap the money from a state annual payment of $167 million that pays for transportation bonds approved by voters in 1999. That bond payment is on its final year, Solin said, and that money now becomes available. The coalition still considers reclassification of the hospital provider fee an option, but at $300 million a year, she said it’s not enough to cover the costs of the projects.
Lawmakers have also considered asking voters to approve a tax or to sign off on state bonds that would finance the projects.
Grantham, in a Denver Business Journal interview in November, was open to the idea of asking voters to approve a tax or other form of funding. But he also indicated spending cuts could be a part of the solution, an idea that also has the backing of Jon Caldara of the Independence Institute. During the legislative preview, Caldara said lawmakers need to make tough spending decisions before going to the voters to ask for transportation bonds.
Becker sees transportation as part of the message voters sent to Colorado and Washington, D.C. last November. That message, as Becker sees it, is to “make sure folks don’t feel like they’re behind.” A comprehensive statewide transportation solution, Becker noted, has statewide support, she said, including from such groups as the Western Slope organization Club 20 and the Metro Mayors’ Caucus.
But it doesn’t necessarily mean holding firm on the hospital provider fee, or even seeking bonds for transportation projects, Becker said. Bonds don’t provide new money – they have to be repaid – and the state doesn’t have a way to do that, she said. It’s the primary reason the Senate Republicans’ effort to seek bonds have fallen short — that, and opposition from Hickenlooper and the Colorado Department of Transportation, which would be responsible for paying those bonds.
The provider fee is a separate issue, Becker said, noting that Grantham isn’t willing to consider reclassifying it. “We’ll take that [rejection] and accept it and find common ground where we can,” she said.
Other priorities and other voices
Guzman’s personal wish list includes continuing her efforts to help rural communities with broadband internet service, an issue she first took up in 2016. She wants to see the repeal of a state law that requires local towns and cities to hold elections when they want to seek broadband internet service. Guzman sees it as a waste of money, and points out that at least 90 communities have already had that vote and very one of them supported allowing local officials to seek broadband services.
Broadband has been one of two rural issues Guzman has taken on in recent years. She said that rural communities have been stymied in their efforts to bring in broadband, in part because small populations make it too expensive for broadband providers to set up shop.
She’s also interested in finding ways to help communities fighting the heroin and opioid epidemic, particularly in southern Colorado. Congresswoman Diana DeGette is on record as saying Colorado has the second worst rate of opioid abuse in the nation. Fighting that problem is a priority for House Democrats, too, according to Becker.
Lawmakers on the Democratic side of the House are also interested in working on rural health care and mental health issues.
Those outside the state Capitol say they are hopeful for a more productive 2017 than they saw in 2016.
Kelly Brough, president of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, said Tuesday that the group hopes that 2017 “serves as a lesson in compromise and collaboration. It’s on that middle ground where the best solutions are crafted.”
As Brough sees it, the two most urgent issues this year are transportation and housing. She advocates on behalf of a referred measure, which is crafted by the legislature, that would ask voters to back statewide transportation funding. Brough also wants the legislature to reclassify the provider fee, and she also hopes to see changes in the state’s construction defects laws, particularly those dealing with lawsuits by condo homeowners’ associations over construction defects. Builders and developers claim the law hampers their efforts to come up with badly-needed owner-occupied affordable housing. “These are important factors in our economic development strategy, and success with these legislative priorities would no doubt better position Colorado for the future,” she said in a statement to The Independent.
Tony Gagliardi, the head of the Colorado chapter of the National Federation of Independent Business, would love to see a mandatory cost-benefit analysis on any legislation that affects small business. Such an analysis would disclose what a law would cost small businesses to implement. It’s a popular idea among Republicans but one that hasn’t gained enough traction with Democrats to move forward.
Gagliardi believes what is more likely this year is legislation on regulatory reform that affects small business, but that may be a problem for House Democrats. Regulatory reform has been a priority for Gagliardi for six years, and he believes the governor is supportive. But Becker said any reform that shifts costs from the private sector to the public won’t work. And eEfforts to pass regulatory reform legislation, which would, for example, let small business owners off with a warning instead of a fine for non-public safety offenses, have stalled in the legislature, mainly the House, almost every year for the past five years.
The Colorado Oil and Gas Association doesn’t have any big plans for legislation in 2017, according to Dan Haley, the association’s president and CEO. Over the past six years, Haley said, the industry has had to deal with cities “illegally” banning fracking, anti-fracking ballot initiatives and major rules changes from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. What the industry wants most this year is to have a year free of uncertainty and time to adjust to new rules and regulations, he said.
Conservation Colorado, which is warily eying what may come from the Trump administration, says its “first priority will be to make sure that Colorado can still chart its own path forward on energy and the environment rather than waiting for Washington D.C. bureaucrats to tell us what to do,” spokesperson Jessica Goad said.
The organization want to see the General Assembly push forward with clean-energy jobs and with ensuring the clean energy sector continues to thrive. “We also want to help rural Colorado become economically diversified, especially those communities that have been dependent on natural resources,” such as coal, she said. The group will continue to stand strong on attacks from Republicans who tried last year to gut the budget of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s clean air program, as well as those lawmakers who may try to transfer Colorado’s federal public lands to state management.
And Conservation Colorado has jumped onto the bandwagon of transportation; Goad notes the organization is part of the coalition discussing a statewide transportation package that it hopes will also include public transportation improvements.
The new kids in town
There will be 10 new senators in the state Senate, but all but two have prior legislative experience. Five Democrats and one Republican had served in the House in 2016 and won election to the Senate in November. The only two newbies are Republican Sen. Jim Smallwood of Parker and Sen. Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat.
Making a return to the legislature: Sen. Bob Gardner, a Colorado Springs Republican who served in the House from 2007 to 2013. Gardner’s reputation in the past was as moderate who worked well with Democrats. However, to win his Senate bid, Gardner pointed out his bona fides on conservative issues such as the Second Amendment, Obamacare and abortion. Gardner replaces Senate President Bill Cadman.
The House will see 18 new faces and two more with past experience at the state Capitol. Fourteen are Democrats and six are Republicans. Among the returnees: Rep. Tony Exum, Sr., a Democrat from Colorado Springs, who served in the House in 2013 and 2014, returns for the 2017 session.
Republican Rep. Larry Liston of Colorado Springs, who served in the House from 2005 to 2013, was elected to the House in November and becomes the first lawmaker since term limits were adopted by voters in 1994 to come back to the chamber in which he previously served. While lawmakers are limited to eight years (two terms) in the Senate and eight years (four terms) in the House, once they’ve sat out at least four years, they can run again.
Liston is starting over in the House, but may be biding his time until Sen. Owen Hill, a Colorado Springs Republican, completes his second term. Liston lost to Hill in a 2012 primary for state Senate. In November, Hill won re-election to his second and final term in the Senate.
Rep. Tim Leonard
Finally, there’s the question about what to do about Rep. Tim Leonard, an Evergreen Republican.
Leonard spent two weeks in December in a Jefferson County jail for repeated violations of a court order related to his 2013 divorce. The court had granted his ex-wife sole authority to make educational decisions regarding the Leonards’ four minor children, but Leonard repeatedly ignored the order, according to the Jefferson County magistrate who sent him to jail.
At the time of his sentencing on Dec. 9, Minority Leader Neville had little to say other than to offer his support for the Leonard family. Neville was one of Leonard’s major backers when Leonard was appointed to his House seat a year ago; he replaced then-Rep. Jon Keyser of Morrison, who quit the General Assembly to pursue a failed bid for the U.S. Senate.
Leonard’s time in jail did not go unnoticed by House Democrats, who pointed out that Neville recently appointed Leonard to the House Education Committee. “It is absurd to imagine Rep. Leonard taking a seat on the House Education Committee…and making important decisions for Colorado’s students when a judge has prohibited Rep. Leonard from making educational decisions regarding his own children,” according to outgoing Speaker of the House Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, a Boulder Democrat.
Leonard is the first sitting lawmaker in at least four decades to be jailed. He has maintained in several interviews that he won’t step down from his seat.
That said, there are a handful of options that the House, primarily the majority Democrats, could take: they could do nothing, reprimand him or run a resolution of censure. The censure is the most severe of the three, because it is read aloud on the House floor.
Lawmakers have censured a member only once before, in 2008 when then-Rep. Doug Bruce of Colorado Springs kicked a Rocky Mountain News photographer on the floor of the House during morning prayer. The House voted 62-1 to censure Republican Bruce, citing him for bringing disrespect to the House and the state with his actions.
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