Colorado lawmakers returned to the statehouse Wednesday for the opening of the 2020 legislative session. It’s a largely ceremonial day marked by speeches laying out priorities and drawing battle lines — the rituals that will launch the whirlwind of the next 120 days of lawmaking.
House Speaker KC Becker, a Democrat from Boulder who is term-limited this year, called in her opening speech for “diverse stakeholders on all ends of the political spectrum to find solutions” to policies a paid family leave program and new gun ownership laws. She invited people struggling with housing costs, climate change, the criminal justice system, underfunded schools, and high drug costs to “come to the table.”
Democrats won control of the House, Senate and governor’s office in 2018. The last session was tumultuous at times, with Democrats racing to get major policy priorities across the finish line as Republicans caused delays by taking advantage of a procedural rule that allows them to request that bills be read at length.
Minority Leader Patrick Neville took a more confrontational tone Wednesday morning than Becker. “We’ll fight it,” he said of many Democratic policy priorities, such as efforts to enact a paid family leave program and boost vaccination rates. He received a sustained applause from a corner of the balcony in the House chamber when calling for protections of “unborn children” and another when he said Colorado should not turn into California.
Democrats control the House 41-24 and the Senate 19-16. Find out more about some of the anticipated hot spots this session by reading our legislative preview.
The mood was more somber in the Senate. Absent from the chamber on was Sen. Lois Court, a Democrat from Denver, who will step down next week after she was diagnosed with a rare auto-immune disorder. Sen. Brittany Pettersen, a Democrat from Lakewood, will also take about a month off because she is expecting a baby boy in January. This means some votes in the Senate could be delayed, adding some uncertainty to an already long list of heavy policy lifts.
Like Becker, Senate President Leroy Garcia called for bipartisanship. “Remember what unites us,” he said. And Minority Leader Chris Holbert, who teared up when thanking his colleagues, spent much of his speech highlighting the need for $300 million for roads and bridges and a concurrent enrollment program so high school students can take college classes.
Tomorrow, Gov. Jared Polis will deliver his State of the State address, highlighting some of his key priorities for the session. Expect talk of early childhood education and efforts to reduce health care costs.
Around noon, anti-vaccine protesters took to the west steps of the for a rally. They were also circulating petitions to get a measure on the 2020 ballot to ban late-term abortions. Others waved flags that read “don’t tread on me.” Colorado lawmakers this session plan to make it harder for parents to obtain a vaccination exemption for their children. Polis, who has made clear he is “pro-choice” on whether parents should vaccinate their kids, threatened to veto a bill last year that would have required parents to apply for a personal exemption in person at local health departments. He told Colorado Matters he saw the bill as heavy-handed, potentially creating more distrust in vaccinations. The issue is one that could create some friction between the first and second floor of the statehouse this year.
In the afternoon, more than a dozen Republican lawmakers gathered around a podium inside the Capitol’s west foyer for an unusual press conference to announce a long list of education priorities. Minority Leader Chris Holbert said one would help students save money on college by allowing high school students to enroll in college classes, which the school districts would pay for. This program is known as concurrent enrollment. Another bill would allow parents to review the curriculum of sex education courses before their child starts taking classes. And another bill would give teachers who invest in school supplies a tax credit for those costs.
Republicans will need Democratic support to pass any of the bills. None have Democratic support yet, but Republicans hope that will change.
Late in the afternoon, House lawmakers began assigning their top-priority bills to committees. The first bill to be introduced, HB-1001, would raise the age to purchase nicotine and tobacco products from 18 to 21. Another bill would end prison gerrymandering. The practice inflates the population of communities that have prisons by counting inmates there, which is then used to draw legislative maps. This has the effect of giving rural, white areas of the state more electoral power.
The Senate also introduced their top-priorities bills, including one to boost behavioral health training for K-12 educators and another creating a state park in southern Colorado called the Fischer’s Peak Preservation & State Park.