Colorado’s legislative session began Wednesday with a signal to Washington, D.C.: We’re watching.
On the Democratic side, Thornton Rep. Joe Salazar, who might consider a run for governor next year, says he’s working on legislation to make it harder for President Donald Trump to turn some of his campaign rhetoric into reality in Colorado.
That legislation, if passed, would prohibit state and local resources from being used to assist any federal program that might set up a registry for Muslims, create internment camps, or attempt to identify individuals by their religion.
Salazar, an outspoken civil rights attorney in glasses and a thin goatee, often champions progressive causes at the Capitol. He says he began drafting the bill in September when Trump was ramping up his rhetoric about Muslims.
“I said, you know what, if this guy wins I better have something prepared,” Salazar told The Colorado Independent.
Since Trump’s campaign, the president-elect walked back some remarks he made about a blanket ban for Muslims from entering the U.S., but has stood by his plan for a Muslim registry as recently as late last month. The issue also flared up this Wednesday during confirmation hearings for the Trump administration. When Trump’s pick for Secretary of State, Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, was asked during a Senate confirmation hearing if he supported the idea of a Muslim registry he said he needed more information.
Salazar also says he plans to draft a law that would train police to better identify hate crimes and require the state to track them. He said he is concerned about Trump’s rhetoric spurring a rise in such crimes.
Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Republicans in the Colorado Senate used the opening day of the legislative session to call for a repeal of the state’s nonprofit health insurance exchange, Connect for Health, which was created under Obamacare. At the federal level, Trump and congressional Republicans have said they plan to quickly repeal Obamacare.
While this isn’t the first time lawmakers have sought to do that—a former back-bench GOP member of the Democrat-controlled House tried in the past— what is new is how much of a priority Republicans who control the Senate have made this effort.
This week, their Republican counterparts in Washington made their first moves to kill the federal Affordable Care Act with a late-night vote that would let them dismantle the law without Democrats being able to filibuster. Colorado’s Republican U.S. senator, Cory Gardner, presided over the vote, which passed 51-48 at 1:30 a.m. Thursday.
In Colorado, Connect for Health Colorado, which has been operating for four years, acts as an insurance marketplace for people and small businesses and covers nearly 160,000 people, many of whom receive subsidies. The exchange has not been without controversies. Multiple insurers bolted the exchange, and a recent federal audit recommended Connect for Health give back nearly $10 million in grant money for improperly documenting or spending it.
Parker Republican Sen. Jim Smallwood, a first-year lawmaker who is leading the charge to repeal the exchange, says the law, if passed, wouldn’t completely wind down Connect for Health until the end of 2018.
In an interview, Smallwood told The Independent he would rather scrap the exchange and let everyone on it buy health insurance through the federal Healthcare.gov portal, since they are paying federal taxes to support it anyway. He said he believes the state’s healthcare exchange is failing.
Smallwood acknowledged, however, that if Trump and congressional Republicans do deep six Obamacare, then it’s an open question whether Healthcare.gov will even exist.
“If the federal government decides to completely repeal the ACA, the subsidies, the mandates, then our planning might need to take a different direction,” he said. “But we can’t control that right now.”
Luke Clarke, a spokesman for Connect for Health, declined to comment in detail about the repeal proposal because officials at the exchange had not yet gotten the opportunity to talk with the bill sponsors about it.
Asked if news that Republican lawmakers in Colorado want to repeal the state’s exchange came as a surprise to people in the healthcare policy world here, Dr. Ben Miller, director of the Farley Health Policy Center at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, said it might not really be about policy at all.
“Very little of the current health policy discussion has anything to do with evidence, science, or policy,” he said. “There are blatant politics that are currently afoot, and the health policy dialogue is reflective of the politics that are so egregious right now.”
Connect for Health is the only place where Coloradans can get tax credits when they buy health insurance, says Joe Hanel, spokesman for the Colorado Health Institute. So whether Colorado keeps the exchange or not, a big question is whether Congress will even fund those credits, he says.
Another place to look in the legislature this year for laws linked to a Trump presidency is energy policy.
In Colorado’s November elections, the Senate was up for grabs. If Democrats had won, Senate Minority Leader Lucia Guzman of Denver, who likely would have become Senate president, said she planned to set up a special committee to work on more renewable energy in the state, essentially to combat climate change.
But Republicans held the Senate on Election Day, and since then have created their own special committee. As The Denver Business Journal reported in November when the committee launched, the Republican senators appointed to it are “three strident supporters of oil and gas exploration,” Greeley Sen. John Cooke, Henderson Sen. Kevin Priola, and its chairman, Western Slope Sen. Ray Scott.
At the federal level, Trump has pledged to end a “war on coal,” shred red tape for energy projects and permitting, and scrap outgoing President Barack Obama’s carbon-reducing Clean Power Plan initiative aimed at limiting pollution from power plants. Trump also said he wants to open federal lands, including national parks, to energy production. Scott, who was a county chairman for the Trump campaign in Colorado, has said he wants to see how Colorado could take advantage of energy production on public lands if Trump follows through.
With another year in a split legislature, though, legislation drafted in response to the Trump administration’s words or actions is likely to be merely symbolic.
Republicans rule the Senate by one seat and Democrats control the House by nine. Last year, plenty of laws put forward by Democrats died in the Senate, and Republican efforts failed in the House.
Salazar says for his own bill aimed at Trump’s Muslim registry he consulted members of minority communities to gauge their support before he decided to go forward. Asked if he had a Republican co-sponsor he said he was talking to Republicans since he felt his effort has been mischaracterized as one to create a “sanctuary state.”
For his part, Smallwood, says he has been in touch with Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper’s office about his own healthcare exchange repeal bill.
“Although they by no means committed to supporting legislation that we’re proposing they certainly were open to conversations,” he said. “And I, by no means, felt like the door was closed and that any of our ideas were just going to be shut out.”
A spokesperson for the governor said he is committed to Colorado managing its own healthcare decisions and programs, not the federal government. In his State of the State address Thursday, the governor himself said if changes to healthcare are inevitable he “will fight for a replacement plan that protects the people who are covered now and doesn’t take us backward.”
Guzman, the Senate minority leader, said she agreed, and “repealing our state’s healthcare exchange without any kind of equal replacement would hurt working families.” House Majority Leader K.C. Becker, a Boulder Democrat, called the repeal bill a “messaging bill” that has no chance of success in the House.
The legislative session will run through May 10. Federal officials will swear Trump in as president next Friday.
Marianne Goodland contributed to this story.
Photo by Gage Skidmore for Creative Commons on Flickr.