Dems fight the clock on vaccine, sex ed and greenhouse gas bills

Republican stalling helped create backlog ahead of Friday adjournment

The clock is ticking for recall petitioners who oppose Senate President Leroy Garcia, pictured here on April 27, 2019. They need to meet the signature requirement by mid-October. (Photo by John Herrick)

Lawmakers have been working past midnight in recent weeks and even came in on Saturday for the first time in decades. But it’s clear that Democrats, who swept control of the state Capitol in November, won’t finish their legislative to-do list by midnight Friday, when the session ends.

A few of the biggest-ticket bills awaiting a vote in the Senate include House Bill 1261, to cut the state’s greenhouse gas emissions; House Bill 1333, to raise taxes on vaping products and cigarettes; House Bill 1312, to make it harder to get a vaccine exemption; and House Bill 1032, to change sex education curriculum in K-12 schools.

Those bills, along with several others, will be triaged as the clock runs out.

Question marks remain as to whether some of the session’s other headline-making bills, including a sports-betting tax, changes to the Capitol’s workplace harassment policy, and authorization for local governments to set a minimum wage, will get a vote or die on the vine.

“We need to be very strategic,” said Sen. Nancy Todd, a Democrat from Aurora who is sponsoring the sex education bill, which she knows might not pass the Senate due to time constraints.

There are fewer controversial bills awaiting a vote in the House, which had a casual feel on Saturday, with representatives showing up in jeans, sans ties and jackets, and one cradling his baby outside the chamber. Late afternoon, the House tackled the contentious vaccination measure, passing a version that will make it more difficult for parents to obtain exemptions from having to vaccinate their children attending public schools. An amendment was added that excludes home-schooled children from the law, meaning the state wouldn’t require them to be vaccinated. The bill passed 39-20, mostly along party lines. This bill was one of the last major hurdles for House Democrats.

In the Senate, it was business as usual. Lawmakers wore ties, but the coat rule was relaxed. A long list of 68 bills was up for potential debate. Some, such as reopening a high-security state prison, have been placed on the “consent calendar,” which means lawmakers can pass them without debate. That bill passed unanimously Saturday and now heads to the House.  

The weekend work helped plow through some of the backlog, which Republicans blame in part on poor management by the new Democratic leadership.

They acknowledge they have played a role, too.  

Republicans have spent much of their effort in the minority delaying votes on bills by making drawn-out arguments and asking that certain bills be read in their entirety. These tactics are similar to a filibuster, which Colorado law prohibits, in that they cost time.

Democrats have managed to get a handful of major bills to the governor’s desk, including several notable criminal justice reforms, a gun-reform bill meant to remove firearms from the hands of dangerous people, and a landmark rewrite of rules for the oil and gas industry.

Tensions ran high on Friday. Republicans were effectively filibustering a bill requiring lobbyists to disclose more information, including their positions on bills, to the secretary of state. That’s when Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Democrat from Denver, dropped the gavel and passed a bill even as Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert was standing in the well with his hand raised, waiting to speak. She gave him a steely stare as he protested.

There were also several testy exchanges between Gonzales and Sen. Bob Gardner, a Republican from Colorado Springs. In one instance, Gonzales waited several seconds before calling on Gardner, who was waving his hand and bouncing up and down.

“Sometimes people look through me.” Gardner told his colleagues.

“Try being a Chicana,” Gonzalez interrupted. “Proceed.”

Democrats could deny Republicans from speaking about any bill. But this tactic could be bad public relations.

The problem for Democrats is that the antics are costing time. And with each passing minute, Republicans gain more leverage over which bills survive this session.

Holbert, a Republican from Parker who spent the last two years as majority leader, said running out the clock has been the strategy since the start of the session. He’s watching the clock very closely.  

“They have to decide what bills are going to get through because there is 155 hours…” he paused to look at the clock on the back of the Senate chamber, “and 48 minutes left.”

“We’ve asked the majority to find bills that they’re willing to spend hours and hours on. And they have enough time to get them passed. They just don’t have enough time to get all of them passed,” he said.

Democrats introduced 584 bills this session, fewer bills than last year.

Todd’s sex education bill was held up for six hours during debate in the House. The caucus has not determined whether to abandon it, she said. But Todd knows it’s one that could sink to the bottom of the priority list and perish. This bill was laid over again on Saturday.

“It’s part of being on the team,” she said. “You win some, you lose some.”