Opening Day at the Colorado General Assembly: One day down, 119 to go

The 2017 session of the Colorado General Assembly already had distinguished itself before today’s Opening Day.

It includes the first Latina Speaker of the House, Democrat Crisanta Duran of Denver, who also happens to be the first millennial House speaker. (She’s 36.)

Patrick Neville
House Minority Leader, Republican Patrick Neville of Castle Rock.

It includes the first millennial House Minority Leader, 33-year-old Republican Rep. Patrick Neville of Castle Rock.

It is made up of more African Americans than in any year in history, according to Rep. Jovan Melton, an Aurora Democrat: Six in the House, up one from the last session, and two in the Senate, one more than last year.

The Senate will be led this session by a rural lawmaker, the first in 44 years — or since the days when the Lieutenant Governor served a dual role as President of the Senate.

For the first time, women outnumber men in the Senate Democratic caucus. There are more women than men in the House Democratic caucus, as well, although that was true last year, too.

And, for the first time in a long time — at least four decades by some counts — this 71st General Assembly must grapple with whether and how to admonish a lawmaker who served time in jail.

Related: State Rep. Tim Leonard hit with 14-day jail sentence on contempt charge

But that is a question for later in this four-month long session. Today was about celebrating.

Young children ran freely on the House floor as the 10 o’clock start of the session approached.

First-year Democratic Rep. Mike Weissman of Aurora takes the oath of office. His partner, former state Sen. Morgan Carroll, captures the moment.
First-year Democratic Rep. Mike Weissman of Aurora takes the oath of office. His partner, former state Sen. Morgan Carroll, captures the moment.

The House was, well, what the House often is: boisterous. There was lots of laughter, lots of standing ovations, lots of cheers and hugs and tears. That applied to all of the 65 members, 37 Democrats and 28 Republicans, as well as friends, family and dignitaries who joined them on the floor.

That joy carried over into the overflowing third-floor gallery overlooking the House floor. That’s where family and friends who couldn’t score seats on the House floor watched as their loved ones took the oath of office.

Mark Kalish flew in from Chicago and his parents, Allan and Sandy Kalish, came in from Philadelphia. Their mission: watch Democratic Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, sister to Mark and daughter to Allan and Sandy, take the oath of office for House District 30. Kalish describes himself as Jenet’s “younger but really older” brother. His sister’s political career is no surprise, he said, although it was not an interest she showed as a child. That was Mark’s wheelhouse. But he said Jenet was always interested in service to the community and he and his parents believe she has a bright future in the Democratic party.

Also watching from the gallery, former Rep. Fran Coleman of Denver, a Latina who served eight years in the state House, until 2007. She came to the Capitol to watch the first Latina Speaker of the House take the reins of office. As she watched Duran approach the podium, Coleman, sometimes overwhelmed by emotion and in tears, said she thought about “the soldiers, who fought for the flag, whether they were legal or not, and how much my family was always taught to honor this country. I felt like their spirit was with me.”

Seated next to Coleman, Denise Maes, director of public policy for Americans for Civil Liberties, was optimistic that lawmakers will do good work. She said she also believes House Republicans will be more conservative in their approach to public policy this year.

Duran, in her opening-day remarks, called for collaboration on issues such as funding a multi-billion transportation wish list for repairs to the state’s crumbling roads and bridges. She also announced a bill would be introduced today to partly address a fix to the state’s construction defects law, which builders and developers say prevents them from building affordable owner-occupied housing, mostly condos.

The Senate was more somber. That’s partly due to tradition:  It’s always been the more formal and deliberative body, forswearing, for example, electronic voting and other modern conveniences found in the House. The 35-member body, 18 Republicans and 17 Democrats, welcomed their new members with less pomp and circumstance and more of a “down to business” approach. The more formal Senate is also older: more than half of those in the Senate served in the House first, most of them the full eight years allowed under term limits before waiting their turn to run for the Senate.

Only a few children, some of them grandchildren, sat with family members on the Senate floor. Republican Sen. Kevin Priola of Henderson, who was elected to the Senate last November, arrived with his wife, Michelle, and their baby.  

Even the gallery overlooking the Senate was quieter, with empty seats, which led to complaints from people who wanted to watch the proceedings but were denied entrance by Senate sergeants.

Grantham Cadman
An emotional Republican Sen. Kevin Grantham of Cañon City (right) hugs outgoing Republican Senate President Bill Cadman of Colorado Springs. Grantham became the Senate President today. Grantham’s wife, Caroline, is to the right.

Grantham also spoke of the construction defects issue: the law makes it impossible for builders to build condos, he said. “We’ve inherited this problem. We must solve it and put petty politics behind us to do it.” But he also stood firm on past Republican vows to protect taxpayers, which means no possibility this year of reclassifying the hospital provider fee, a piece of bookkeeping that would free up millions of dollars for K-12 education, transportation and financial assistance to rural hospitals.

Related: What you need to know about Colorado’s biggest political battle

He also announced the first few bills that will come from the Senate, which usually highlights the majority party’s agenda. That includes a bill on regulatory reform, to allow small businesses a little leeway when they violate state rules, especially new ones, so long as the rule doesn’t affect public safety.

Republicans control the state Senate by one seat, and Democrats have a large lead in the House, leaving the balance of power the same as it was last year. The 2016 session ended in partisan bickering over the hospital provider fee and transportation funding.  A last-minute collapse on construction defects talks meant that issue also was left unresolved. K-12 funding also didn’t see much improvement in 2016.

So, the same issues are back in 2017, but at least on transportation and construction defects, talk of compromise may mean lawmakers are finally willing to bridge the partisan divide. But a $500 million budget gap may mean little, if any gains on K-12 funding, which already is about $900 million short of what’s required under state law. And any progress on affordable housing may have to wait until the construction defects issue is resolved.

The impending transition of power in Washington, D.C. also showed up as an undercurrent in today’s opening day. One of first bills from Senate Republicans is designed to repeal the Colorado Health Exchange, the state’s version of the ACA.

Duran took note of the federal transition, but with a dramatically different tone: “There is a dangerous movement afoot,” she said, “that threatens to rip our social fabric…an elevation of hate and fear that puts democracy at risk.” Republicans initially applauded her call for defending women and people of color, along with the Democrats, but as she continued into a denunciation directed at Trump (although she did not mention him by name), the applause from Republicans quit and they sat stone-faced.

Business as usual: lobbyists gathered outside the Senate (they're not allowed on the floor of the Senate or House) to talk business and bills.
Business as usual: lobbyists gathered outside the Senate (they’re not allowed on the floor of the Senate or House) to talk business and bills.

But there was one place on the second floor of the state Capitol where it was still business as usual, even on Opening Day, and that was just outside the chambers of the House and Senate. That’s where lobbyists jam the hallways and today was no different: they were there by the dozens, making deals and figuring out who will support for or fight against their bills.

Feature photo: new Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran, a Denver Democrat, prepares to give her opening day remarks.

Photo credits: Marianne Goodland, The Colorado Independent; Allen Tian, The Colorado Independent