Colorado’s 2018 legislative session midyear review: House takes stand on sexual harassment

Inside the chamber of Colorado’s House of Representatives, disheveled stacks of paper are piling up on the desks of lawmakers. It’s one sign of the work that’s been done so far this year as the 2018 legislative session clears the halfway point.

But one desk stands out; there are no papers, pictures or paraphernalia. It’s empty, save a power strip, and a reminder that Rep. Steve Lebsock, who is accused of sexually harassing five women, was expelled from the House just 10 days ago — a historic vote that comes in the wake of the national #MeToo movement.  

It was a stand-out, stand-up moment in a legislative session where split power in a House controlled by Democrats and a Senate run by Republicans has made reaching agreement difficult, even on legislation that both sides agree is needed, such as how to pay for aging and congested roads, how to keep the state’s public employee pension plan sustainable and how to ensure teachers and school staff are adequately compensated for their work.

Over the next 57 days, lawmakers will have to work out these differences. Being an election year won’t help. Nearly half the Senate, 17 seats, and the entire House’s 65 seats, will be up for reelection in November. And Democrats are eager to retake control of the Senate, which Republicans maintain by a single seat.

Adding pressure to the mix is the March revenue forecast, which lawmakers expect to see released next Monday and will turn their attention toward passing a balanced budget.

Below are the highlights from the session so far and what is expected in the days ahead.

In the Senate, a ‘dark cloud’ lingers  

Earlier this month, House lawmakers voted to remove Rep. Steve Lebsock— a Democrat who switched his party affiliation to Republican just prior to the vote to oust him— over allegations of sexual harassment. The vote marked the first time in 103 years that lawmakers voted to expel one of their own.

It’s a different story in the Senate. Democrats are putting daily pressure on leadership to get a vote on a resolution that would expel Randy Baumgardner, a Hot Sulphur Springs Republican who is accused of slapping and grabbing his former aide’s bottom multiple times. Democrats submitted the resolution on Feb. 13, and so far, Senate leadership has refused to take it up.

“There is this dark cloud that is hovering over the Senate floor,” said Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, on Monday. “I just can’t stop thinking about our code of ethics. I can’t stop thinking about our principles.”

Following a report that found the allegations were credible, Baumgardner says he voluntarily resigned as chair of the Transportation Committee. But aside from this, Senate leadership has also taken no disciplinary action. Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Republican from Cañon City, called a report into the allegations biased.

Republicans are calling for criminal investigations into allegations of sexual misconduct. District Attorney Beth McCann, a Democrat who would lead the investigations, told Senate leadership in a letter last week that they have full authority to investigate allegations and take disciplinary action themselves.

What’s in the works

High-priority bills that would help pay for transportation projects and a public employee retirement pension are making their way through the Senate this week. But partisan disagreements over certain parts of the legislation are setting the stage for a heated debate.

On Wednesday, the full Senate will debate a bill that would help fund transportation projects, such as the widening of highways to ease congestion. Lawmakers are trying to find a way to pay for an estimated 10-year funding backlog of about $9 billion at the state’s transportation agency, and about $25 billion funding gap over the next 25 years, according to its 2016 annual report.

Republicans have a tax-free plan that could raise $3.5 billion for transportation projects, mainly roads and bridges, through the sale of bonds. But the proposal would pay for the bonds with General Fund revenue, which, Democrats say,  may come at the expense of other state programs, especially in tight budget years.

Related: Where candidates for governor stand on asking voters to raise funds for transportation

Another proposal announced last week would reform a public employee pension plan, known as PERA, or the  Public Employees’ Retirement Association. The plan would cut benefits for retirees and increase contributions from workers and employers in an effort to help pay for a $32-$50 billion unfunded liability. That means if there is another economic downturn PERA may struggle to pay benefits to retirees.

The proposal would also allow all public employees to opt for a defined-contribution plan, much like a 401(k). Democrats and the state’s largest teacher’s union oppose this idea in principle and say it will do little to address the unfunded liability. But Republicans remain adamant on keeping the provision in the bill, which is scheduled for debate in the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday.  

“Let the battle begin,” Senate President Grantham told reporters on Monday when asked about the bill. “Needless to say, not everybody is happy with it.”

Another key piece of legislation would reauthorize the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. Republicans say they have changes in mind for the commission, which enforces the state’s anti-discrimination laws. The commission is fighting a high-profile case before the U.S. Supreme Court involving the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood that would not make a cake for a gay couple because he claimed it violated his First Amendment right of artistic, religious and free speech expression.

Legislation that would raise money for Internet projects in rural Colorado, where about a quarter of residents lack access to basic Internet, already won bipartisan support in the Senate. It’s now working its way through the House, where it cleared its first committee on Monday.

Funding the Colorado Energy Office was among the first bipartisan accomplishments of the session. The office, which dates back to a 1977 executive order by former Democratic Gov. Dick Lamm, pays for projects like community solar farms and home weatherization for low-income residents. It is also currently promoting the extraction of natural gas. This keeps with an “all the above” focus hoped for in the latest iteration passed by the Senate this year.

Bills that die

The school shooting in Parkland, Florida, where a gunman killed 17 people, prompted students across the country to call for gun control, and, remarkably, persuaded one of their U.S. senators, Marco Rubio, to say he supports raising the minimum age to purchase a rifle and a ban on bump stocks.

But here in Colorado, like elsewhere in the U.S., the Republican response has been to loosen gun laws. An effort by GOP House Minority Leader Patrick Neville to allow guns in schools failed. Neville was a sophomore at Columbine High School in 1999, the year of the deadly shooting there. Also failing was an effort to repeal a high-capacity magazine ban.

One lawmaker wants to ban the sale of bump stocks, which make semi-automatic rifles capable of shooting faster, but Republicans question the point of banning the devices when they are readily available for sale in other states. The effort will likely go nowhere this year without some sort of compromise.

Attempts to regulate oil and gas have run headlong into the partisan divide. A bill to give local communities more say in permitting decisions was killed in committee.

Another to prioritize public health and safety when issuing drilling permits also was killed. Even efforts to increase reporting requirements for oil spills and gas leaks, which is scheduled for debate this week, is considered by Republicans too onerous a regulation.

The session is scheduled to end on Wednesday, May 9.

Title photo: Colorado Capitol. Photo by John Herrick