GOP hardball in Colorado Statehouse has Dems vowing to get tough — and organized — next year

Said one Democrat of his party's commitment to civility and process: “I don’t know what good that does us.”

Democratic Senate President Leroy Garcia, left, and GOP Minority Leader Chris Holbert chat on Thursday, May 2 — the second-to-last day of the 2019 legislative session. (Photo by Alex Burness)
Democratic Senate President Leroy Garcia, left, and GOP Minority Leader Chris Holbert chat on Thursday, May 2 — the second-to-last day of the 2019 legislative session. (Photo by Alex Burness)

It’s a shame, Colorado Republican lawmakers are saying this week, that Democrats have been so unwilling to work across the aisle this legislative session.

Had the Democratic majority in both chambers welcomed more input, worked harder to build consensus on key issues, the GOP says, there’d be no need to obstruct or delay.

But they didn’t do that work and so obstruction is necessary, says GOP Sen. Bob Rankin of Carbondale. He’s typically one of the more moderate members of his caucus, but as the session’s end nears — it’s set to wrap at midnight Friday — Republicans are engaged in a coordinated, all-hands-on-deck effort to stall into oblivion as many Democratic bills as possible.

“I hope that we’d exercise every power we can,” Rankin says. “We’re fighting back. We’re willing to stay here all night long.”

Republicans have invoked a slew of rules meant only to kill time. They’re forcing long bills to be read aloud at length and lining up to speak for hours on end — de facto filibustering. True to Rankin’s threat, lawmakers worked on a Saturday for the first time in decades and pulled an all-nighter Monday, working until 5:30 a.m. Tuesday, and grabbing a few hours of sleep before getting back at it on Wednesday.

With a day and a half left in the 120-day session, about 100 bills are still waiting in the wings. Some cover controversial topics, including sexual education in schools, a proposed nicotine tax, immigration enforcement and climate action.

It remains to be seen how many of those bills will slip through the closing door, but the experience of these past days has left Democrats determined to avoid a similar partisan-fueled logjam next year.

“There are a number of my bills caught up right now in this backlog because I didn’t push them through earlier. I sat on them,” said Democratic Sen. Mike Foote of Lafayette. “Well, maybe next year I just push forward and hope that it all works out.”

In addition to vows to better manage the bill calendar, some Democratic lawmakers are wondering whether the party needs to toughen up in order to match, or at least mitigate, a Republican minority that’s been transparent about its willingness to obstruct — the only power it has outside compromise — to shape policy coming out of the statehouse.

Republicans are completely out of power at the Capitol for the first time since 2014. They can’t force passage of their bills in the House or Senate, nor stop Democratic bills in either chamber or in the governor’s office.

The appetite for compromise has been small from the start, but Democratic lawmakers have appeared caught off-guard by the hardball. (One notable attempt by Senate President Leroy Garcia to circumvent a Republican stall tactic backfired.)

Democrats insist that if the tables were turned and Republicans held all the power — the last time they did so was in 2004 — they wouldn’t manipulate the process as cynically and would be less obstructive.

But, Foote admitted, “I don’t know what good that does us.”

“They had a narrative”

Both sleep-deprived, running-on-adrenaline parties are blaming the other side for the frenzied waiting game currently underway at the Capitol. Republicans say Democrats have tried to run roughshod over them; in fact, Rankin said he felt “bullied.”

Colorado had a split legislature from 2015 to 2018. When Democrats seized control last election, the party’s members at last saw an opportunity to pass long sought-after policies, including paid family leave, a repeal of the death penalty and gun reform.

That lifting of the damper on liberal bills, combined with the spirit of rebellion that President Donald Trump’s bare-knuckled tenure has inspired, brought about something of a legislative free-for-all this year, with dozens of decidedly progressive bills launched.

Democrats say they’re doing the work they were elected to do, advancing policies the state has long needed. Republicans offer a different characterization.

“These people get elected and they’ve promised their constituents extreme positions to get elected,” Rankin says. “So, they come in, they have to be allowed to run their bills. And now we’ve got a bunch of them stacked up that we just really hate.”

Sage Naumann, Senate GOP spokesman, is proud of how effective Republican obstruction has been.

“Our base appreciates the fact that we’re doing everything we can to try to kill these bills,” he says. “Why in the world would we try to put an olive branch out there to say, ‘Let’s talk. Let’s get through this week smoothly’?’”

The Democratic power play became clear, Naumann says, in February when Democrats announced Senate Bill 181. That bill — now law — presented a sweeping rewrite of regulations for the oil and gas industry.

“When 181 hit, that was the moment in which we realized that the other side wasn’t looking to reach across the aisle and reach a consensus that all of Colorado could feel comfortable with,” Naumann says. “They never tried to find a way to work together.”

That allegation is debatable. Republican Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert and Democratic Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg were seen shaking hands before the final passage of SB-181, which included a slew of GOP-supported amendments that Democrats tacked onto the bill.

But as Naumann and other Capitol Republicans tell it, things were bad with 181 and they’ve only gotten worse since then. The Democrats have packed the back half of the session’s 120-day calendar with bills that promise to move the ever-bluer state as far left as it’s ever gone, without ever making a good-faith effort to negotiate with the minority party, they lament.

“Everyone’s taken aback,” Naumann says.

That’s simply B.S., Democrats respond. Multiple Democratic lawmakers point out that even before the session started, Republicans were broadcasting their intent to kill bills they believed would tilt the state further left.

“They had a narrative and they were going to go with it no matter what we did,” Foote says.

Take, for example, House Bill 1032, which would change sexual education curriculum in public schools. It is in some senses the anti-181 because it debuted earlier in the session, but after all these months and multiple waves of public input it’s still awaiting final passage in the Senate.

So, Republicans concerned about process moving too fast won’t obstruct the bill?

“Oh, absolutely we will,” Rankin says.

No apologies

There are reasons to believe next year will go more smoothly, regardless of whether Democrats start playing a little rougher.

For one, all 65 members of the House and half of the Senate were running elections last fall, so many of them didn’t start workshopping their priority bills until December, just weeks before this election started. The short on-ramp is partly why so many major Democratic bills — including proposals to expand paid family leave policies, to require industry to curb greenhouse gas emissions and to increase taxes on nicotine products — have been dropped in the back half of this session.

The first several weeks of the session were mostly quiet, with lawmakers convening for plenty of 30-minute meetings on the chamber floors, passing little or nothing of any controversy. That was particularly true in the Senate.

Sen. Faith Winter, as much as any lawmaker at the Capitol, has paid the price for rolling out a big policy late in the session. She led the fight for paid family leave — the most heavily lobbied bill of the year, according to The Colorado Sun — and had to dramatically scale the bill back last week once it became clear there weren’t enough Democratic votes to pass it in the Senate.

Constituents, many of whom have been shouting for years about the need to allow poor workers more time off to address family and medical matters, also paid a price. Advocates for the family leave bill thought this was finally their year, and the fact that the bill stumbled even after so much process came as a “gut punch,” says Karla Gonzales Garcia, a progressive policy expert and advocate.

“We came with the best intentions to do a negotiation to take us to a place to pass a policy that would impact the most marginalized among us,” she adds. “We were in the clouds, thinking we’d pass this.”

Winter says now, “I have no apologies about how we got here.

“We were all coming off an election, and we had to do our stakeholding during session. For next year, we get to start our stakeholding next week.”

Colorado looks more liberal by the year, so there’s some chance Democrats won’t soon relinquish their trifecta of power at the Capitol. But nothing’s guaranteed beyond the 2020 session, and lawmakers says this messy final week of the 2019 session has emphasized, among other things, that Democrats — even with the extra lead time they’ll have ahead of the next session — may need a different approach next year if they want to make the most of the power they have now.

Many on both sides think the Democrats must be better at managing their calendar and picking their battles. The House has run a fairly tight ship, most agree, but its members dropped some of the most controversial bills of the session to the surprise of Senate colleagues. Multiple state senators said they had no idea the sex-ed bill and the bill to add Colorado to the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact were coming this year. Both forced Democrats to expend a lot more time and political capital than they’d planned for.

The Senate has been anything but a tight ship. That’s by design, says Senate President Garcia, whose philosophy on leadership is to let his members push their bills how and when they want to. He and Majority Leader Steve Fenberg aren’t known for being good at saying “no.”

Capitol Democrats are mixed on whether this approach is healthy for the Senate.

Winter said the family leave saga reminded her that some people are going to fight legislation no matter how much you involve them in its crafting. She spent months engaging people on family leave — including Republicans and the business community — before introducing the bill, but that didn’t do anything to quell resistance once the bill was made public.

“I gave a lot, and I still started at the one-yard line,” Winter says. “I could have started at the 20 without giving anything.”

There is a fine line, Democrats say, between recklessly ramming legislation and more deliberately, forcefully advancing it. Winter says she’ll be forceful next time and, carrying through her football analogy, won’t let herself be pinned again on the one.

Republicans have made clear that as long as they’re in the minority, they’re going to use what tools they have to obstruct bills they don’t like — regardless of how the Democratic strategy does or doesn’t change next year.

Sen. Dominick Moreno, Democrat of Commerce City, said his party won’t abandon its self-enforced standard — “always err on the side of civility and a fair process” — just to get more bills passed on a quicker timeline next year.

“This obstructionism is really unfortunate,” he said. “But I won’t stoop to that level.”

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