DENVER– If you can measure anything by opening day speeches, the ones given in the House here today suggest the 2014 legislative session is playing out along the narrative line most observers have been passing back and forth for at least a few weeks.
Roughly: The majority Democrats are looking to run a low-drama session featuring what one staffer called “low-bore bills.” Caucus members are still smarting from the slings and arrows of conservative passion driven by gun laws passed last year, which bled into lawmaker recall election efforts, which lasted from the close of the session in May until nearly Thanksgiving.
Republicans will not play along. The minority caucus feels the wind at its back. The gun laws may have passed, but the debate they engendered acted like rocket fuel for the conservative base. Gun lovers and fellow travelers swarmed the capitol for weeks. Talk radio blazed at record-high temperatures. And three Democratic senators were rode out of office. Senate President John Morse was recalled and replaced. Senator Angela Giron from Democratic Pueblo was recalled and replaced. And Senator Evie Hudak from a key suburban Denver swing district stepped down rather than face recall in order to ensure her Democratic colleagues could appoint her replacement. Now the session has started and an election year has dawned. From January in Colorado, November has never looked so close.
In his speech, Denver Democratic Speaker of the House Mark Ferrandino treaded a path through the Forest of Agreement. (Read the speech here.)
“Now is not the time to take a step backward, to re-litigate the fights of the past, to descend into Washington-style impasse and dysfunction,” he said. “Now is the time to continue moving Colorado forward, and to build for Colorado’s future.”
He congratulated the state on this year’s remarkable flood and fire relief-and-recovery efforts. He lauded bipartisan efforts that led to gains made in expanding education resources. His goals for the session, he said, were to increase “economic security of all Coloradans,” “strengthen the education system” and continue the work of natural disaster recovery.
When he celebrated post-recession revenue gains and proposed they should be directed this year to bolster education, he won tepid applause from the Republican side of the aisle, even though Republicans have emphasized the need to delay any education budget increase while launching reforms that would likely translate as a way to further integrate private charter schools in the mix of publicly funded options.
“Let me say this: reforms will not work and our schools will not get better if they are not adequately funded. Period,” said Ferrandino.
When it was his turn at the podium, Loveland Republican Minority Leader Brian DelGrosso was less afraid to offend. (Read the speech here.) He too began by celebrating the Colorado mettle that helped the state pull through the disasters but, as in much of the rest of the speech, the celebration came with a scolding subtext. He was clearly OK with at least dredging the past if not quite re-litigating it.
“There is no bill we can pass that will prevent wildfires, floods or an individual intent on doing harm,” he said, clearly referring to the theater and school shooters that spurred Democrats last year to bring the flash-point suite of gun-control bills. “We cannot control tragedy, but we can control how we react to it. Rather than respond with ineffectual legislation, let’s work together to help rebuild our communities and heal Colorado.”
And, please, no more regulations, he said, doing a riff that sounded like a rural Colorado stump speech.
“Outside the Front Range, we have communities stricken with stagnant or in many cases declining economies. We saw the loss of over 300 jobs at the Oxbow Coal Mine in the North Fork Valley. This may not sound like a lot to you, but this will have devastating effects on those small communities in that area…
“When meeting with the business community, almost all of them said that the number one thing that we could do to help them is to leave them alone. New regulations, even with the best intentions, take an enormous amount of time and resources to navigate. Businesses do not need another competitor in the form of government getting in their way and erecting barriers to success… In just two years, there have been more than 14,000 pages of new rules and regulations enacted on businesses in Colorado. While I, like every other business owner, try to stay compliant, it is difficult to stay current with the many changes.”
In fact, the House likely won’t see much action action this year. Ferrandino’s caucus enjoys a nine-seat advantage and controls all the committees. Controversial bills will die quickly and quietly. In the Senate, however, Democrats enjoy a mere one-seat majority. That’s not a large margin to play with. Votes can peel off. Understandings can go awry. Pressure can be applied. Strategies can misfire.
Ask former Republican House Speaker Frank McNulty from Highlands Ranch, now a backbencher who has become a poster boy for legislative miscalculation. In 2012 he presided over a one-seat majority. A gay-rights civil union bill somehow slipped through one Republican-dominated committee after another. He had sent it to the wrong committees. He miscounted votes. And there he was on the last day of the session without a plan, supporters of the bill waiting on both sides of the aisle to cast their votes and send it to the governor to be signed. McNulty gave up. He walked out of the chamber and ran out the clock, leaving a raft of important bills to die and observers aghast. Voters were unimpressed.
Ferrandino and the Democrats took over the next year and passed the bill.
It is a cautionary tale that both Republican and Democrat lawmakers in the Senate are sure to be holding in their minds until the very end of the last vote on the final day of the session.