A 2018 legislative session marked by financial challenges amid revenue surplus, sexual harassment scandals
Hard-fought compromise over pension reform, transportation funding and Civil Rights Commission as lawmakers grapple with sexual harassment
It was a sprint finish to the 2018 legislative session; as lawmakers on the House floor played jeopardy and tossed yo-yos, others were pacing between committee rooms trying to close deals on policy.
When lawmakers adjourned on Wednesday, they had ticked off most key agenda items of the legislative session, sending a balanced budget to the governor and passing about 60 percent of the 721 bills introduced this year.
Among the key bipartisan achievements: reforming the state’s public pension plan, spending $645 million on roads and other transportation projects over the next two years, paying down the state’s debt to K-12 schools by about $150 million, and reauthorizing the Colorado Civil Rights Commission.
None of these compromises came without struggle, however, with some drawing opposition from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. And even after lawmakers wrestled over how to spend a $1.3 billion revenue surplus this year, some of these programs are still far from fully funded.
“Even though (this year’s spending) is historic and significant, it’s not enough,” said Scott Wasserman, president of the Bell Policy Center. “Even our best doesn’t get us across the finish line.”
Hanging over the session from start to finish was the issue of sexual harassment by lawmakers of fellow lawmakers, lobbyists and aides. The 120 days of the legislative session were marked by the historic expulsion of one lawmaker accused of serial sexual harassment of multiple women, and the attempted ouster of another.
Below are some of the key accomplishments of the session as well as unfinished business.
The Colorado Department of Transportation has a list of highway projects, including adding lanes to Interstate 25 south of Denver and Interstate 70 through the mountains, that is expected to cost about $9 billion.
And this year, lawmakers approved a plan that could pay $2.4 billion toward these projects through the sale of bonds, which would be paid off over 20 years. The plan is the best lawmakers could come up with in a divided legislature. Democrats don’t want future bond payments to compete with other state programs like education. Republicans don’t want new taxes because they say it could slow the economy.
“We will continue to have revenues,” said Rep. Paul Lundeen, a Republican from Monument. “You don’t have to raise the tax rates on people in order to raise more revenue if you let the economy grow.”
The agreement to use bonds to pay off some of the state transportation was a concession from Democrats, who in return, secured changes to state law to allow a greater percentage of state transportation funding to go toward multimodal projects, like bus lines, sidewalks and bike lanes.
But still, Democrats long have said new taxes are needed if the state wants to actually patch up all potholes and ease traffic congestion along major highway corridors. The bonding measure would cover about a third of the estimated project list. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expect to have this conversation again in future years.
“You eat this elephant one bite at a time,” former CDOT Executive Director Shailen Bhatt told The Colorado Independent.
Voters will have a chance to change this in November. At least two competing ballot measures will likely land on the ballot. One, backed by the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, would raise the sales tax by up to a penny on the dollar to generate about $1 billion per year. Another, backed by the libertarian-leaning Independence Institute, would ask voters for permission to bond, raising about $3.5 billion in one-time money.
After the Great Recession, lawmakers issued schools an IOU for money owed them under the state Constitution. Today, that debt, known as the budget stabilization factor, is about $822 million. This has put stress on school districts struggling to hire needed staff and give teachers pay raises. Brighton-based School District 27J recently announced it was going to a four-day workweek to save money.
Lawmakers this session paid off about $150 million of the debt — about as much as they could do, they said, given other priorities in the budget.
A proposed ballot measure aims to generate more money for K-12 schools by changing a fiscal amendment in the state’s constitution known as Gallagher, which has the effect of driving down property taxes unless residents vote to raise their taxes. This has led to less property tax revenue for schools.
Prior to the 1982 Gallagher amendment, residential properties were assessed at around 30 percent. The residential assessment rate is now 7.2, and expected to drop to about 6.1 in 2019, according to the December forecast by the Legislative Council.
The ballot measure would change this amendment by freezing the residential property taxes at seven percent, among other changes.
Lawmakers passed a pension reform plan to shore up the underfunded state pension that about 185,000 public employees rely on for their retirement in lieu of Social Security. Lawmakers agreed to spend about $225 million per year on this pension plan. The pension currently has a $32 billion to $50 billion unfunded liability, meaning it doesn’t have enough money to pay out retirement benefits to current and future retirees.
Teachers, who make up the largest share of the pension, as well as other state workers, will have to contribute another two percent of their paychecks into this pension as well under the reform package passed by lawmakers this year. Cost-of-living increases will be frozen for the next two years.
This did not make teachers happy. And the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teacher union, opposed the reforms.
“So now as a retired teacher I get zero cost of living raises. I don’t know how many times I got the same raise, zero, when I taught,” said one retired teacher on The Colorado Independent’s Facebook page. “If you don’t want to pay professional teachers perhaps high school grads would fit the needs of our state to hire as teachers.”
And still, it will take about three decades before this pension, which is managed by Public Employees’ Retirement Association, or PERA, will be fully funded. In the meantime, any crash in the market could risk the pension’s financial footing.
The plan approved by lawmakers this year was significant, says Senate President Kevin Grantham, but the fiscal cliff was only pushed out.
“This is a moving target,” Grantham told reporters on Thursday.
The issue of sexual harassment rocked the state Capitol in early March when lawmakers held back tears on the House floor as they shared their own personal stories during debate to expel Steve Lebsock from the House of Representatives. Lebsock faced multiple allegations that he sexually harassed a lawmaker, Rep. Faith Winter, and other workers at the Capitol. The Democrat-turned-Republican was later ousted in the first expulsion vote in 103 years at the Colorado Capitol.
“It was the most honest and raw conversation I’ve ever seen on the House floor,” said Becky Long, a lobbyist with Siegel Public Affairs.
In the Senate, three Republicans have been accused of butt grabbing, flirting and making sexually charged comments. None have faced any consequences besides Sen. Randy Baumgardner, who was stripped of his committee positions this month.
When Republicans blocked a resolution on April 2 to expel Baumgardner, they questioned the credibility of an investigator’s report that found the allegations to be credible. A few days earlier, on March 30, a subsequent investigation into additional allegations validated two additional complaints of sexual misconduct against Baumgardner. Lawmakers did not know about this report, and Senate leadership says they were not aware of these findings when they scheduled the resolution vote about three days later.
Baumgardner was later stripped of his committee positions. But this was not enough for some critics; advocates from the Colorado Working Families Party and NARAL Pro-Choice Colorado delivered petitions to Senate President Grantham calling for additional action.
Despite pledges throughout the legislative session to make changes to the state’s sexual harassment policy, the subject has been sidelined until the summer when lawmakers hope to take a deeper dive into the issue and consider policy reforms.
“I think we’ve opened the door to start talking about it,” said Rep. Daneya Esgar, a Democrat from Pueblo. “People are more cognizant of how we treat each other.”
Case in point: When Senate President Kevin Grantham was describing how lawmakers are learning about the Capitol’s harassment policy, he said it was like “groping in the dark.” He later acknowledged this was not the best word choice.
“It changes vocabulary,” he said of the cultural change.
Photo of Colorado state Capitol by John Herrick
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