It’s Crunch Time for Colorado Lawmakers, and Things Are Getting Weird

It’s Crunch Time for Colorado Lawmakers, and Things Are Getting Weird
When the Colorado General Assembly convened in January, Democrats had a wide range of long-stalled priorities they wanted to pass with their new Senate majority, and Republicans were desperate to find ways to continue to stall them. With less than four days to go before the legislature adjourns, that dynamic has gone into overdrive.

With more than 200 bills remaining on the calendar — and not nearly enough time to consider and vote on them all — Democrats pulled an all-nighter in the state Senate last night, finally adjourning shortly before 5:30 a.m. today, April 30.

“I just wanted to remind everybody, you’ve been up for almost 24 hours,” state Senator Jim Smallwood, a Republican from Sedalia, warned his colleagues as the all-night session wrapped up. “That is the equivalent of driving with a 0.1 blood alcohol level. So for those of you who are driving, I would consider other modes of transportation.”

Long days and late nights near the end of a legislative session are by no means uncommon at the Capitol — but with an unprecedented backlog of bills, Democrats are pulling out all the stops before the clock runs out at midnight Friday, May 3. Tuesday’s all-nighter came just a few days after the Senate came in for a full day of floor and committee work on Saturday, the first time the legislature met on a weekend during a regular session in almost thirty years. And after a four-hour recess, the upper chamber was right back to work at 9:30 this morning.

They’ve been forced to do so, in part, because of delays and obstruction by the legislature’s Republican minority — what one GOP senator called “weapons of mass discussion,” like holding the floor for long periods during debate or asking for uncontroversial bills to be read at length.

An arms-race of parliamentary tactics has ensued, as Democrats invoked a rule limiting debate on each bill to an hour, and Republicans responded by offering dozens of doomed amendments to various pieces of legislation in an attempt to slow things down further. In more than five hours of floor work early Tuesday morning, the upper chamber was able to advance just four pieces of legislation.

Tensions appear to be rising once again in a legislative session that has often been fraught with conflict. Republicans are posting photos of Democrats sleeping at their desks. Democrats are sharing videos of Republicans watching poorly reviewed Mark Wahlberg movies on their cellphones. Things are getting weird.

But with the clock ticking and dozens of major bills hanging in the balance, the stakes for Coloradans are high. Some of the most notable pieces of legislation remaining on the calendar will have to get through a legislative bottleneck in the Senate in the next two days if they are to have any chance of passing. They include:

House Bill 1261, which would set new statewide targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions to combat climate change, notably a 50 percent cut by 2030. The Senate passed an amended version HB 1261 on second reading early Tuesday morning; it will have to clear the upper chamber one more time tomorrow, then be re-passed by the House before midnight Friday.

House Bill 1210, which would allow local governments to set their own minimum wages. After debating and adopting amendments to HB 1261 for an hour on Tuesday morning, the Senate delayed a vote on the bill; it still needs to pass the chamber on second and third readings before going back to the House for repassage.

House Bill 1312, which would make it harder for parents to opt out of school requirements to vaccinate their children. The bill hasn't yet had a committee hearing in the Senate, and its passage looks unlikely.

House Bill 1032, which would prohibit schools from teaching abstinence-only sex ed and require sex ed classes to include material on contraception, abortion, LGBT relationships and the meaning of consent. The bill has been moved to the full Senate, but a final vote has been repeatedly delayed over the last week.

House Bill 1327, which would legalize and tax sports betting in Colorado beginning in May 2020, and direct the revenue toward water conservation efforts. One of the last major bills to be introduced this session, it quickly cleared the House last week and was approved by two Senate committees. It could be on its way to Governor Jared Polis's desk after two votes of the full Senate.

The backlog of bills has prompted at least one top Democrat to mention the S-word: special session. Though the state constitution stipulates the legislature's regular session can last a maximum of 120 days, Polis has the power to call a special session whenever he wants — and House Speaker KC Becker, a Democrat from Boulder, told Colorado Public Radio this week that if lawmakers still haven't acted on some key priorities when the clock strikes midnight on Friday, they could be back at the Capitol a lot sooner than next January.
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Chase Woodruff is a staff writer at Westword interested in climate change, the environment and money in politics.
Contact: Chase Woodruff