Expect gridlock, election-year posturing and some cooperation this session

Once again, Republicans and Democrats are splitting control of Colorado’s General Assembly. Neither party is optimistic major policy changes can be pushed through.

Colorado’s 2016 legislative session is officially under way, although lawmakers from both parties admit they don’t expect much to get done.

After all, it’s an election year. And just like last year, the two major parties are splitting control of the General Assembly. Republicans hold a one-vote advantage in the Senate, and Democrats hold a three-vote advantage in the House.

About 700 bills are introduced most years and hundreds typically go to the Governor’s desk. Despite partisan divides, more than half the bills introduced last year had bipartisan sponsors and were signed into law.

But when it comes to big policy questions — whether a hospital provider fee should be used to ease state budget woes, who should pay for housing construction defects, how to pay for transportation and whether to help create more affordable housing — Democrats and Republicans have already staked out their positions. As in years past, gridlock likely will stymie much progress for either side.

The 120-day session opened Wednesday and starts slowly. Hundreds of bills are introduced in the first week, though little to no action likely will be taken on them for a few weeks, as lawmakers mull over their positions.

By month two, committee hearings will be well underway, focusing on everything from education, agriculture, law, health and human services and transportation. The Joint Budget Committee — long considered the most powerful — will begin to wrap up deciding how the state will spend money in 2016-2017. The budget bill, known as the Long Appropriations Bill, or Long Bill, is usually introduced in late March, and likely will dominate lawmakers’ calendars for about two weeks.

The last month of the session tends to be packed with late-night wrangling over controversial bills. Last year, that included measures on the hospital provider fee, construction defects and two bills about red light cameras that Gov. John Hickenlooper eventually vetoed.

Given that 2016 is an election year, with all 65 House seats and 18 in the Senate up for grabs, incumbent lawmakers will spend the session trying to position themselves to snag votes in the fall. Party brass will be watching for opportunities to help colleagues and candidates win tough races.

This will be the last year at the Capitol for eight senators, including several party leaders. Senate President Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, is the longest-serving of the term-limited senators. He will mark his 16th year at the Capitol in 2016, and is the only current senator to have served the full eight years in the House and eight years in the Senate.

Cadman’s right-hand man, Sen. Mark Scheffel, the Senate Majority Leader, also is term-limited in 2016. So is former Senate President Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, who’s vying to unseat U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman from Colorado’s 6th Congressional District. Senate Assistant Minority Leader Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, and Joint Budget Committee member Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, also are term-limited.

All those seats are in safe districts. But some held by term-limited lawmakers are not, and those are races to follow.

Those races include the seat currently held by Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton, whose District 26 in Arapahoe County is evenly split among Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters. Newell won her 2012 race with a 7 percent margin. State Rep. Dan Kagan, D-Cherry Hills Village, and Arapahoe County Commissioner and Republican Nancy Doty will be vying for her seat.

Another closely-watched open seat is held by Sen. Mary Hodge, D-Brighton. Hodge, who has sometimes served as her caucus’s moderator. She, too, is term-limited. Contenders for her seat include Rep. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, and former Rep. Jenise May, D-Commerce City.

Nine senators, five Republicans and four Democrats, are up for re-election in 2016. Who wins two GOP seats plus Hodge and Newell’s open seats will determine control of the Senate.

By far the most vulnerable Republican Senator is Laura Woods, R-Arvada. Her District 19, according to a 2011 redistricting map, is evenly split among Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters. Woods won the seat in 2014 by less than 2 percent of the vote. She has amassed a hefty campaign bankroll for 2016, when she will once again be challenged by Democrat Rachel Zenzinger, the Democratic incumbent Woods defeated in 2014. Woods’ record is being closely tracked by Democrats who aim to use her Tea Party credentials and conservative record on guns and abortion against her, arguing her right-wing views are extreme and out of touch with her district’s moderate values. 

Sen. Larry Crowder, R-Alamosa, holds an up-for-grabs District 35 seat where Democrats have a 41 percent to 36.7 percent advantage over Republicans in voter registration, with unaffiliated voters making up 21.7 percent of the district. Crowder won his 2012 race by less than 3 percent. He has largely avoided hot-button issues embraced by his conservative colleagues and instead focused on veterans’ issues, health care and support for the State Fair and the Southwest Chief rail line — a cause supported by Pueblo-area Democrats. Crowder’s Democratic opponent is Las Animas County Sheriff Jim Casias, who was one of 55 sheriffs who sued the state in 2013 to block new gun control measures.

The 2016 session won’t just be marked by tensions between the parties, but also by friction within them.

Republicans are likely to be divided over issues such as contraception and school finance.

Rep. Jon Becker, R-Fort Morgan, intends to push for a ballot measure to put a portion of lottery proceeds into K-12 education, primarily for rural schools. Sen. Chris Holbert, R-Parker, said that while he hasn’t seen Becker’s bill, he supports finding alternative ways to pay for K-12 education. But Holbert also pointed out that voters have rejected several efforts to put additional funding into K-12, both at the state level and in his own district in Douglas County. The most important factor in looking for more K-12 revenue is to talk to voters, he said, and help them understand just how much is available through the general fund (income and sales tax revenue), Holbert told The Colorado Independent.

“First and foremost, the General Assembly needs to avoid any attempt to go around TABOR and take that question to the boss — the voters,” he said.  

“There aren’t extra pots of money to draw from,” and unlike the federal government, the General Assembly can’t print money or raise taxes, and has to authorize a balanced budget, Holbert added.

School superintendents on Monday held a rally at the State Capitol, asking legislators to find a way to reduce a $900 million shortfall in K-12 funding.

The other issue sure to divide the Republican caucus is state funding for intrauterine contraceptive devices, known as the Long Acting Reversible Contraception program, which has been proven to reduce teen pregnancy and abortion. Success has been high in Colorado.

LARC funding was one of the most debated issues last year, and while the program currently gets its dollars from non-government sources, state funding has been supported in the past by Rep. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale, the only Republican on the Joint Budget Committee to take such a stance.

The most contentious issue among Democrats is likely to be construction defects reform, a policy that would make it more difficult for condo owners to sue construction companies for shoddy craftsmanship. This will be the fourth time sponsors have tried to push it through. Last year, the bill to change the state’s construction defects law, Senate Bill 15-177, had bipartisan support in the Senate and was thought to have enough Democratic support in the House to pass. In the Senate, SB 177 was supported by six Democrats along with the chamber’s 18 Republicans.

In the House, the bill ran into Speaker Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, D-Gunbarrel, who assigned it to the chamber’s “kill committee” — House State, Veterans and Military Affairs — where it died on a party-line vote. But it came within one vote of going to the House floor, where Republicans said it would have passed. Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton told The Denver Business Journal he was close to supporting it if sponsors could guarantee it would lead to more affordable housing.

Both parties say Salazar is among the most vulnerable Democrats for the 2016 election, based partly on his come-from-behind victory in 2014. 

In the past month, Hullinghorst pulled Salazar off the State Affairs Committee, where the most controversial Republican bills are sent to die. The decision is said to be a way to protect Salazar from casting votes on controversial issues that could be used against him in the election. 

Rep. JoAnn Windholz is by far the most vulnerable incumbent House Republican. She won the 2014 election for her House District 30 seat over then-Rep. Jenise May by just 106 votes in a district where Democrats hold a 10 percentage point advantage in voter registration over Republicans. But in November, Windholz became a target of national attention when she blamed Planned Parenthood for inciting the Nov. 27 attack on its Colorado Springs clinic. Her comments spurred a recall effort against her.

One key seat Democrats will be trying to keep is District 33, currently represented by term-limited Rep. Dianne Primavera, D-Broomfield. The seat has gone back and forth between Democrats and Republicans four times in the past decade. Republicans hold a one percent advantage in voter registration numbers over Democrats, but unaffiliated voters make up the largest number of registered voters in the district. As of this week, no Republican has announced an intention to run for the seat.

While the session is technically 120 days in length, don’t expect to see lawmakers at the Capitol for at least 36 of those 120 days. There are no legislative sessions held on weekends, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day or Good Friday.

Former Speaker of the House Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, spent his two years as House leader when Democrats controlled the Senate in 2011 and 2012.  He knows what it’s like to work under gridlock. As for impasses on major issues this year, McNulty told The Colorado Independent, “Both sides need to put the state of Colorado first and find common ground.” He hopes that on issues such as the budget and the hospital provider fee, Democrats will recognize the strong values held by Republicans, who want to “tighten the state belt.”

Democrats, for their part, decry Republican leaders for tightening the so-called belt so much that they’ll strangle the state budget. Dems had counted on an earnest discussion this session about classifying revenues from the state’s hospital provider fee as an enterprise fund and using them to fund transportation, infrastructure and other urgent state needs. Republicans are shutting down that debate, arguing that the plan is simply a way to circumvent the Taxpayer Bill of Rights and the state’s constitutional obligation to refund those revenues to taxpayers. 

“Without that fee, they’ll choke the state,” Senate Minority Leader Lucia Guzman told The Independent. “The hospital transfer fee is by far the most important action we needed to take this session, and they’re paralyzing things by refusing to have the discussion.”

Jeffrey Beall, Creative Commons, Flickr

has been a political journalist since 1998. She covered the state capitol for the Silver & Gold Record from 1998 to 2009 and for The Colorado Statesman in 2010-11 and 2013-14. Since 2010 she also has covered the General Assembly for newspapers in northeastern Colorado. She was recognized with awards from the Colorado Press Association for feature writing and informational graphics for her work with the Statesman in 2012.