Sine Die Scene: Testing reform and consumer protection survive zombie-bill horde

Gavels were slamming last night as the two parties arm wrestled through the final, defining issues of the session.

Sine Die is the last night of drama for Colorado lawmakers who have spent the past 120 days proposing zombie bills doomed to die in the split-party chambers. Through most of the session, large, lumbering issues from gun control to birth control didn’t make it out of the Statehouse alive. But in the waning hours, lawmakers put their remaining brains together and kept two widely debated bills from becoming two more zombies.

Standardized-testing reform and consumer protection were saved.

The way lawmakers did it serves as a microcosm of this hot-headed, sometimes gridlocked session as a whole.

The Grand Bargain

Hours before the session finally concluded, Governor John Hickenlooper paced up and down the back stairs to the House floor as lawmakers there debated a last-minute grand compromise to slash standardized tests.

In the well, Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Denver, made a final pitch for the deal, which will end PARCC after ninth grade and give districts more time before they too are judged by the standardized tests. Soon, districts can start experimenting with possible PARCC alternatives. 

“All of this was accomplished in the context of a very contentious issue with very deep opinions and emotions,” said Hamner. “At the end of the day, literally the last day of our session, we did it with bipartisan support, agreement between the Senate, House and Governor’s office and no conference committee.” 

Then, having spotted one of Hickenlooper’s staffers in the doorway, Rep. Patrick Neville, R-Castle Rock, went to the floor to argue the governor’s staff’s presence was against the rules. He accused the Governor of exerting undue influence, suggesting the bill should be tossed for that reason alone. Ultimately, Neville wanted the state out of Common Core this year or nothing at all.

“I, for one, wasn’t elected to beg for table scraps from the Governor,” Neville boomed into the mic. 

Wham! Speaker Dicky-Lee Hullinghorst, D-Boulder, brought the gavel down. 

“Representative Neville, you are out of order,” she said, sounding as exhausted as she did angry. “Sit down.” 

Rep. Jim Wilson, a former superintendent and Salida Republican, co-sponsored the compromise with Hamner. After Wilson’s colleague was booted from the well, he took the mic to argue for compromise.

When you pull hard on the reins of a runaway mule, like excessive standardized testing, Wilson said, it turns little by little, not right away. 

“I’m proud to have made a difference and not just a point,” said Wilson. “I can look all those kids in the eye and say, ‘You will have fewer assessments this year.” 

“This was the one thing I would have called a special session on — if we hadn’t gotten a reduction on testing,” Hickenlooper said, eavesdropped from the wings. “Both sides wanted it. They were dickering over things at the end there that were not huge issues. For a while it looked like it wasn’t going to happen, as late as yesterday.”

“You know, the most important thing in situations like these is that you listen hard and you don’t quit,” said Hickenlooper. “That’s what they did.”

The reforms passed, 55-8. 

The Grand Shootout 

Meanwhile, the Senators hadn’t quit either. At the exact same moment, another session-long debate landed in their laps at the final hour: the last-minute fight about preserving the Office of Consumer Council, the consumer advocate that represents the public in fights against utility and telecommunication companies.

Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, led his caucus in refusing to continue the Office of Consumer Counsel unless the advocate gave up oversight of phone-rate issues including services like 9-1-1.

“Can someone explain to me what the problem is? Maybe the telecom industry doesn’t want someone pushing back on them. I don’t know. I just don’t know. I’m left to speculate, because I have been given no good reason,” fumed Minority Leader Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Denver.

She stood in the well addressing the senators as a whole, but her questions were aimed at Sonnenberg.

“There is no good reason to do this and it will hurt people,” Carroll said. “When their service goes down and their rates go up, it will be a stain on this chamber and this session and one with permanent consequences.”

Sonnenberg maintained that because lawmakers deregulated telecom last year, consumers no longer need someone to fight for them on telecom issues. He pointed to the fact that the office’s advocacy on telecom had naturally dropped from 40 percent of its work to 5 percent over the last decade. His caucus agreed.

But Democrats continued to be baffled by this logic. Why force consumers out of phone-rate debates if the free market is already inviting them out of their own accord? Dems also pointed out that the OCC is still actively fighting seven telecom cases, that rural communities pay close to triple what urban ones do for 9-1-1, that the whole concept of telecom deregulation is scheduled to come up for a massive performance review in 2018, and that consumers should have a say when it does.

As a final vote neared, Carroll’s caucus began to march off the floor altogether. When they returned, they staged a time-constrained filibuster of the bill.

“I’m disappointed that about an hour ago, at this well, at this microphone, a parade of our leadership from both sides of the aisle … came up to talk about a collaborative process where everyone worked together,” said Sen. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood.

With Sen. Chris Holbert, R-Parker, Kerr co-sponsored the testing-reform grand bargain that the Senate had just sent to the House with whopping bipartisan support.

“Now we have this 11th-hour-and-59th-minute manufactured crisis,” Kerr said. “We know how to do this. We did it just an hour ago—”

Clack! Senate President Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, brought down the gavel. Kerr was out of time to explain his vote, which he and ten other Democrats refused to take in protest.

But Cadman didn’t need those votes to get the bill through and a few Democrats even voted for it. The measure passed with 19 in favor, 5 against and 11 protesting.