The 2020 legislative session will kick off on January 8, with Democrats still in control of the House and Senate as well as the governor’s and attorney general’s offices, as they have been since last January. With a super (super, super) majority, Dems passed progressive legislation during the 2019 session, including bills that more firmly regulated the health-care and oil and gas industries and funded full-day kindergarten. But 2020 is an election year, so the big question will be whether Democrats will continue to take bold, progressive steps on the biggest issues facing the state, or slow to a more moderate approach so as not to totally alienate conservative voters.
We’ll have to wait a few months to find out. In the meantime, we’re offering a quick look at twenty issues the legislature is likely to consider in the 2020 session, ranging from marijuana expungement to paid family leave and TABOR.
Legislation passed last year directed Colorado officials to come up with a plan for a new, state-run “public option” to be sold on the private health insurance market; now lawmakers have to pull the trigger. Under the proposal, public-option plans would be administered by private insurers, but state regulators would set the prices that hospitals could charge public-option enrollees, the way the federal government already does for Medicare.
It would be a big change, and Colorado would become just the second state — Washington was the first — to try it. But a powerful coalition of insurers and providers is already spending heavily in opposition to the proposal — and reform advocates in Washington were left frustrated when similar industry pressure significantly weakened its plan. Will Democrats hold their nerve, or will the for-profit health-care lobby turn back yet another effort to rein in the industry? Policy-makers around the country are watching closely to find out.
Paid family leave
Sixth time’s the charm? After repeatedly trying and failing to pass a bill to create a statewide paid family-leave program, Colorado Democrats are vowing to finally get it done in 2020. The basic idea behind the Family and Medical Leave Insurance (FAMLI) Act — require businesses and employees to pay into a fund that would cover up to twelve weeks of paid leave for every Colorado worker who needs it — hasn’t changed much since it was first introduced in 2015. But after years of intense lobbying by business groups, it’s not clear exactly what approach the latest version of FAMLI will take. Can Democrats finally get it across the finish line? And what will workers get if they do?
Falling ridership, staffing shortages and a slowing economy have the Regional Transportation District reeling, with some boardmembers going so far as to say that the transit agency is “in crisis.” So who’s to blame? That’s the key question as lawmakers discuss potential changes to RTD’s governing structure, which was formally established by the legislature in 1969. Expect to hear from reformers who think the answer to RTD’s problems is more boardmembers, fewer boardmembers, or an appointed board instead of an elected one — but also from mobility advocates who still don’t believe that state and local governments are doing enough to invest in efficient, reliable public transit.
Could Colorado’s transportation-funding woes get a little less woeful with a small fee on every Uber and Lyft ride? A little-noticed bill passed by lawmakers in 2019 instructed the state’s Department of Transportation to study the question, and the resulting report has given lawmakers a range of options to consider. More than a dozen states have already enacted per-ride fees or taxes on transportation network companies, and TNC fees at the local level in Chicago have helped the city invest millions in public transit. Advocates for climate action want Colorado to follow suit, but don’t expect ride-hailing giants or their lobbyists to share their enthusiasm.
Nearly a quarter of Colorado’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the burning of natural gas in heating systems and cooking appliances — and in order to stop climate change, these building-based emissions will eventually have to be zeroed out. That’s among the most daunting challenges that climate policy-makers will face in the coming years, but they’ve got to start somewhere, and a “beneficial electrification” bill set to be introduced by Democrats will be aimed at speeding up the transition from gas-powered to electric appliances in new and existing buildings.
Recycling and plastics pollution
Thanks to cheap, spacious landfills and a lack of “end market” recycling businesses, Colorado has one of the worst waste-diversion rates in the country. But state officials are determined to change that. A special interim committee approved two bills to be considered by the full legislature this year, while a “bottle bill” — to create a five or ten-cent redemption value for recyclable beverage containers — could also return. And environmental groups continue to call on lawmakers to take a variety of steps to crack down on single-use plastics, including banning polystyrene foam food containers or allowing local governments to do the same.
The defeat of Proposition CC in November was a rare recent bright spot for Colorado Republicans, who turned back a well-funded effort by top Democrats to eliminate the revenue caps imposed by the Taxpayer Bill of Rights. But some liberal groups are already eagerly working to set up a rematch, floating a wide range of potential TABOR reforms that they could seek to put on the ballot in what promises to be a more favorable election year. Lawmakers stung by Prop CC’s defeat say they’re reluctant to get directly involved in that fight, but fiscal reform is sure to continue to be a hot topic for Governor Jared Polis and other top Democrats who want to better fund education, health care, roads and more.
For now, TABOR’s grip on the state budget is as tight as ever, and top lawmakers are already expressing concerns about being able to fund everything they need to in the 2020 budget cycle. New spending items like free full-day kindergarten and a health-care “reinsurance” program, along with other requests from Polis, have members of the Joint Budget Committee feeling the squeeze. The result could be that some key Democratic priorities get left on the cutting-room floor, unless lawmakers find a way to get creative with fees, TABOR cap exemptions or other arcane budget tools.
Colorado’s immunization rates are some of the lowest in the country, and they dropped yet again in 2019 — shortly after the defeat of a bill that would have standardized the state’s vaccination exemption process and eliminated certain kinds of exemptions that parents are able to claim for their children. Opponents, including many Republicans and anti-vax conspiracy theorists, packed hearing rooms to protest the legislation, but it was Polis’s veto threat that ultimately sunk it in the final days of the 2019 session. Can a reworked approach win the governor’s support, or will Colorado retain its ignominious status as a hotbed of anti-vax nuttery?
Colorado was the first state to approve making Columbus Day a holiday, back in 1907, 37 years before President Franklin Roosevelt anointed it a federal holiday. The explorer who “discovered” America — which came as news to those who already lived on this continent — has come under repeated attack over the last few decades, though, and many municipalities and states have already abolished their Columbus Day holidays. But while Commerce City House Democrat Adrienne Benavidez pushed a bill suggesting replacing Columbus Day with an official Election Day holiday in Colorado, that ship never set sail. This year, however, Democrats might be persuaded to approve a version that swaps observing Columbus Day with celebrating Colorado Day on August 1, the day the state joined the Union.
It’s not that Denver restaurateurs — and the organization that represents them, the Colorado Restaurant Association — object to paying workers a higher minimum wage. Last year, before Denver approved raising the city’s minimum wage to $12.85 an hour on January 1, most of them were already paying all of their workers far more than that, because the market is so competitive. But they did object to paying higher wages when still hamstrung by the pesky tip credit, which only the Colorado Legislature (or voters) can lift. State law currently mandates that tipped staff must receive no less than $3.02 per hour below the minimum wage, which now bumps them up to $9.83...when tipped workers are usually earning far more than back-of-the-house staffers. To level the playing field, the CRA is considering a statewide fix on the tip credit, which could call for plenty of wining and dining of lawmakers to persuade them to see the light this session.
Cannabis social equity
As the first state to legalize retail pot, Colorado has been criticized for its lack of social-equity programs. Illinois and Massachusetts have learned from our missteps, with minority business owners pushing for more training programs, access to capital and lower barriers to entry into the cannabis space for minority entrepreneurs, as well as easier paths to expungement for former cannabis offenders. Steps were taken at the state level last year, with legislators creating new micro business licenses for budding entrepreneurs without financial resources, as well as eliminating a rule banning anyone from becoming a licensed marijuana employee if they were convicted of a felony within the past five years or of a drug felony within the past ten years. However, advocates and industry members aren’t confident that either will add tangible diversity to the state’s pot industry, and many of them expect language to be introduced that will create more licensure opportunities for entrepreneurs affected by the War on Drugs, whether that be allocating licenses, creating more staffing opportunities or something else. Components such as who will lead the charge, how the help will be dispersed and who will benefit from participating in such programs are still up for grabs, leaving plenty of room for pushing and shoving from competing interests.
Not only is Colorado behind the pack in cannabis social equity, but we’re also lacking in expungement efforts for minor pot convictions before 2012, when the plant was fully legalized here. And, as with social equity efforts, states and cities that are newer to the party are forcing our hand. On the heels of San Francisco and Illinois automatically expunging past marijuana convictions that are no longer illegal, Colorado legislators are starting to feel pressure to do the same. After a much-hyped cannabis expungement bill was never introduced in 2019, state lawmakers are pledging to put one forth this year. Questions remain about whether the measure would push automatic expungement — something several local district attorneys already oppose because of the resources it would require — or a system that requires former offenders to apply. That technique is used in local record-sealing programs by the cities of Denver and Boulder, which combined have cleared fewer than 75 cases in nearly a year.
Immigration detention facility oversight
Colorado has limited involvement when it comes to federal immigration detention. But Representative Adrienne Benavidez wants to change that. The attorney-turned-politician is pushing a bill this session that would require quarterly inspections by state health officials at all immigrant detention facilities in Colorado. While the GEO Group-run immigrant detention facility in Aurora is undoubtedly the largest of such operations in the state, there are also small county jails that hold immigrants throughout Colorado. Considering how controversial immigration reform is, expect a lot of fighting over this bill.
DMV and ICE
Representative Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat, has spent her career advocating for immigrants, and this session will be no different. She says she’ll introduce a bill that will “strengthen data protections for immigrants when interacting with state agencies.” In particular, Gonzales wants to see less information sharing between the DMV and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Undocumented residents are able to get their driver’s licenses in Colorado, but as the law stands, federal law enforcement agencies can access personal information associated with a license.
Statewide immigrant legal fund
Representative Dafna Michaelson Jenet is championing a bill that would create a statewide legal fund for immigrants facing deportation proceedings in Colorado. Such a fund currently exists in Denver, but Michaelson Janet wants to expand it to the rest of the state so that more money can be gathered to help immigrants who can’t afford legal representation.
Local law enforcement agencies are increasingly opting to encrypt their radio communications, making it much more difficult for media outlets and the public at large to know about potential crimes and dangerous situations in a timely manner. For the past two years, Representative Kevin Van Winkle, a Highlands Ranch Republican, has introduced bills that would prevent radio encryption except for communications dedicated to sensitive information about things like tactical maneuvering. Van Winkle is reintroducing the same bill this session, which needs buy-in from his colleagues across the aisle, none of whom have supported previous iterations.
After the tobacco-purchasing age increased to 21 late last year, a bipartisan group of lawmakers in Colorado — which has one of the highest teen vaping rates in the country — is considering a number of bills intended to limit youth use of nicotine products. Some of the proposed bills, like one that would require state licensing for tobacco shops, seem politically viable. Others, like a full ban of flavored vaping products, will surely lead to dramatic clashes in the legislature, where some politicians are reluctant to crack down too harshly on smoking-cessation products.
During the last legislative session, a bill that would have abolished Colorado’s death penalty failed following fighting among Democrats. Senator Rhonda Fields and Representative Tom Sullivan, each of whom had a child who was killed by individuals who subsequently faced potential death-penalty sentences, lobbied against the abolition bill, saying lawmakers introduced it without notifying them or other family members of victims. Death-penalty opponents acknowledged their criticisms and have spent the past six months publicizing the fact that they’ll be reintroducing a bill this year.
The death of De’Von Bailey, who was shot in the back on August 3, 2019, by Colorado Springs police while attempting to flee, and the passing of Elijah McClain after being pummeled by Aurora cops a few weeks later sparked controversy but no criminal charges against law enforcers. In the months that followed, Representative Leslie Herod began laying the groundwork for a legislative response. “What a bill will look like is yet to be determined,” Herod told us in December. “But we are looking at addressing the fleeing felon statute, an independent office for investigative situations, and the standard for when it is appropriate for officers to use force.”
This article has been updated to reflect the fact that Representative Dafna Michaelson Jenet is championing the statewide legal defense fund.