Editor’s note: Every week, we send a newsletter to subscribers. This week’s, which is republished below, is a conversation between The Colorado Independent’s Managing Editor Tina Griego and statehouse reporter, Marianne Goodland. Join our mailing list here.
We’re a month into the legislative session, which makes this a good time to a) introduce you to our statehouse reporter and b) see what she has to say about the session so far.
Marianne Goodland has been covering the Colorado legislature for 19 years, the second-longest tenure among the statehouse press corps. She clocked in most of her experience with the now-defunct Silver and Gold Record, an independent newspaper published by the University of Colorado faculty and staff. Before joining the Independent full time in November 2015, she was writing for the Colorado Statesman, as well as for several rural publications.
Marianne still writes for many of those rurals — and if you were in Yuma yesterday, you’d have seen her story on Colorado agriculture on the local paper’s front page. This relationship, by the way, gives her a larger perspective on the state. She’s good at reminding the Front Range, “hey, it’s not all about you.”
So that’s Marianne on paper. Marianne the person is something of a nerdy Renaissance woman. She plays the harp. She bakes. She practices archery, and she loves Lord of the Rings.
Marianne will tell you that by mid-November, when the start of a new legislative session is around the bend, she starts to feel her adrenaline pumping. Sure, Colorado’s four month-long session can be grueling for all involved, and, yeah, by the end, pretty much everyone is sick of one another, but it’s like childbirth: You forget the pain when it’s over.
“You start thinking about all the stories you are going to get to write and the new people you’ll meet,” she says. “It’s a fun place. It’s a busy place. If you walk up to the House or Senate chambers while they are in session, you have to pass through a crush of lobbyists — it’s like a gauntlet. A lot of citizens come in and sit in the gallery to watch what’s going on. There are guests who are allowed to sit on the floor of the chambers: schools kids, counselors, farmers and ranchers, you name it.
“Last week, we had in the Senate about a dozen or so people carrying pictures of loved ones who had been missing for years. It was Missing Persons Day.”
We have again this year a divided statehouse. Democrats control of the House; Republicans have the Senate. Lawmakers are facing some of the same tough issues of previous years — most related to having too many needs and not enough money. Finding $9 billion for backlogged transportation projects is a top priority, again. Plugging a $170 million public school funding shortfall is another priority. The state budget is in the red roughly a half a billion dollars, including that $170 million.
“It’s hard to understand when the Front Range is so prosperous,” Marianne says, “but you get into rural communities, especially those dependent on mining, and they are hurting and they are hurting badly. Severance taxes have not been available the way they have in the past. We have a lot of coal mines shut down. You’ve also got the Eastern Plains, they are more dependent on agriculture and agriculture is in a really rough spot. A bushel of wheat is same price today as it was in 1986, but the cost of producing it is not the same as it was in 1986.”
Now that you have the big picture, let’s get to Marianne’s take on this session.
Tina Griego: What kind of start are we off to?
Marianne Goodland: Busy. Busier than usual, I’d say. I don’t know if it’s because we have new leadership or so many new lawmakers, but probably a combination of both. This week alone we had bills on construction defects, charter school funding, abortion, guns. We had a bill on texting while driving. We had a bill on daylight savings time.We also had comments from the House Speaker Crisanta Duran (about education funding and transportation)that roiled the capitol a bit. Oh, and then there was the bill to repeal the state health insurance exchange.
TG: Most of these bills — guns, abortion — while they generate a lot of debate, were doomed to go nowhere, right?
MG: Yes. The only issues that have had legs and made it past their first hearing are charter school funding and the health insurance exchange repeal. Repeal made it out of Senate Finance on a party-line vote. I’m not sure it’s going to get out of the Senate, though, even though Republicans control the Senate.
TG: Why’s that?
MG: Larry Crowder. He’s the big question mark. He’s a Republican state senator from Alamosa. He represents a very rural district and his concern, possibly his biggest concern, is what happens to rural hospitals with changes in the Affordable Care Act. Repeal of our state exchange was assigned to a committee that he wasn’t on — and he sits on Health so it ordinarily would have gone there — and I think that’s in part because Republicans are concerned on how he will vote on this. His vote is critical. He’s the swing.
TG: But even if it passes the Senate, it’s DOA in the House?
MG: That’s absolutely correct.
TG: What have been the surprises for you, so far?
MG: Well, one is the repeal bill. Knowing that the Trump administration and Republicans in Congress have made repealing the Affordable Care Act a major campaign promise, the fact that our state Republicans introduced a bill to repeal the state exchange on the very first day of the session was a big surprise. Most folks thought that wouldn’t happen for a year. It’s kind of a study in odd logic. We still don’t know what Congress intends to replace the ACA with, and some want the solution to go to the states. Here, the repeal bill basically says, let the federal government deal with it.
TG: Has the hyper-polarization that’s been on display nationally made its way to the statehouse?
MG: Yes, in that when you look at the leadership among the Republicans, the people who were picked to be the House Minority leader and Senate Majority leader are more conservative than their predecessors. You also have that same situation with the House Democrats. Some of the folks in leadership there are more liberal or progressive than folks in the past. That said, we’ve had far more constructive conversations than in the last two years. In the past, leadership drew lines in the sand quickly and that was pretty much the end of it.
It’s early, but we are still hearing about bipartisan conversations on the big issues and some interesting bipartisan legislation you wouldn’t expect. So while leadership might be more to left and right, you can’t necessarily say that of the rank and file.
TG: What kind of bipartisan legislation?
MG: Texting while driving was one. That was headed for certain defeat in the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, which is known as a kill committee. The sponsor is a Democrat, Lois Court, who is a first year senator and previously spent eight years in the House. She set out with a pretty high penalty for texting while driving and Republicans signaled that they thought it was too high. She came back with a proposal they could agree on and it passed. For a Democrat in the Senate, that’s an accomplishment.
TG: You describe the capitol as a fun, busy place. What else?
MG: Lawmakers and their aides and legislative staff work enormously hard. They work enormously long hours but sometimes there is a spirit of joviality there. The Joint Budget Committee, for example, is not thought of as a jovial group, but they are funny. They keep little toys on their desks. The days are long and the people who testify before them are usually state employees, and, to lighten things, one of the members of the committee was telling me that he’d come up with a game. Basically, they choose a word of the day and then see if they can get someone testifying to say it. He has this little rubber duck and if someone says the word, he makes it quack. He was telling me how hard it is to get someone to say the word. The other day, someone was testifying on some telephone issue. The word of the day was “telephony.”
TG: Telephony? Do people testifying know what’s going on, I mean, all of sudden a rubber duck is quacking at them?
MG: I suspect some know. It also just takes it happening once for you to get the joke.
Thank you, Marianne. And thank you, newsletter subscribers. If you’d like to reach Marianne, she’s at Marianne@coloradoindependent.
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The Colorado Independent’s Marianne Goodland with Broncos cornerback Chris Harris in the Colorado state House chambers after last year’s Superbowl win.