On Wednesday, May 9, when the clock struck midnight, legislators cheered the end of the legislative session and, after 120 days at the Capitol, returned to their lives outside of the Gold Dome.
How effective were our state elected officials this go-around? An astounding 721 bills were introduced this year, and 432 were approved and sent to the governor, making 2018 only slightly less efficient than the previous legislative session. Governor John Hickenlooper has signed 222 bills, vetoed zero and allowed two to become law without his signature, according to a preliminary report from the Office of Legislative Legal Services.
In true bureaucratic fashion, tons of bills are dense and technical, such as those relocating whole statutes to new sections of the law, clarifying the election code, or classifying the popular Japanese alcoholic beverage sake as a wine. (That took four months to accomplish.)
And this year could go down as a turning point in Colorado political history with all the sexual-harassment scandals that kicked off the session and persisted until the very end, leading to potential real change. Thornton Democrat Steve Lebsock was ousted by his House colleagues over multiple allegations of sexual harassment, including a complaint by fellow Democrat Representative Faith Winter. (These days, Lebsock can be found toasting to the president at the Trump International Hotel Las Vegas, as he is no longer a Democrat. He became a Republican hours before he was expelled.)
Plenty of other important work was accomplished beyond investigations into alleged misconduct.
The Colorado Civil Rights Division and its commission were almost left in the dust this year as they went through a sunset review, which is typical for agencies every five or nine years to look at their performance and reauthorize their existence. The agency dodged defunding early in the session but almost did not get reauthorized. After a second round of last-minute arm-twisting on the final day of the session, the House and Senate reauthorized the civil rights agency two hours before midnight. What started out with Senate Republicans calling for a long list of reforms ended with a very modest compromise with Democrats: The agency will be subject to periodic legislative audits, and its seven-member commission will include labor union representatives and at least one unaffiliated voter.
“I’m proud that we were able to achieve common ground and reauthorize a strong [Colorado] Civil Rights Division and Commission,” said House Speaker Crisanta Duran, a prime sponsor of HB 1256 to reauthorize the civil rights agency, in a statement. “The solution coming forward is truly representative of what we can get accomplished in this building when we are able to sit down and problem-solve.”
But not everyone was satisfied. In the Republican-controlled Senate, five conservative senators voted down the results of the last-minute negotiations. The bill previously included a provision that would have expanded the commission from seven to nine members and would have given some appointment powers to the legislature; Republicans fought hard to force the governor to split appointment powers with them this session, but they ultimately lost.
Senator Bob Gardner of Colorado Springs was one of the five conservatives opposed to the final negotiated version, saying the bill did not do what he and others in his caucus "asked to be done and believed was necessary to restore balance to the [Colorado] Civil Rights Division. And that was to ensure the gubernatorial appointments were subject to a real, very real legislative oversight. ... That does not exist in this bill," Gardner said on the Senate floor Wednesday night.
Conservative Republicans' obsession with the civil rights agency stems from its decision in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, in which a Lakewood baker refused to make a custom wedding cake for a same-sex couple in 2012 because of his religious beliefs. The couple filed a discrimination complaint with the civil rights agency, which sided with the couple and forced Masterpiece to either make custom wedding cakes for everyone or stop baking them altogether. Litigation ensued, and now the case is pending in the U.S. Supreme Court. Masterpiece Cakeshop has been a rallying cry for political conservatives looking to enact stronger religious exemption laws over the years, including this legislative session. So when the civil rights agency came up for reauthorization, conservatives attempted to stack the commission in a way that would make state decisions on cases like the Masterpiece one a thing of the past.
Keep reading for a roundup of other notable bills that died or lived.
More Civil Rights
Two blatantly anti-LGBTQ bills were introduced this year. The first bill read like a conservative fantasy where queer Coloradans could be discriminated against by religious institutions, medical providers, private businesses and even the state. The second bill would have allowed religious organizations to discriminate against same-sex couples in adoption and foster-care services. Both died. And for the fourth year in a row, Republicans blocked a bill that would have banned conversion therapy for children.
Let's start with the horrible bill proposed by Senator Gardner in the wake of the national #RedforEd protests that would have prohibited public school teachers and teachers unions from "directly or indirectly inducing, instigating, encouraging, authorizing, ratifying, or participating" in a strike while also preventing public schools from supporting strikes or even paying teachers for days missed while on strike. To make things worse, the bill would have threatened striking teachers with up to six months of jail time. Thankfully, this bill died, and the right to protest is still intact.
Teachers are protesting and striking because wages are low and, most important, school funding on the whole is low; Colorado ranks 31st in the nation for school funding. Two bills in the legislature would have changed the game for education funding, but they both failed. The first bill would have completely overhauled how the state calculates per-pupil funding and would have provided significantly more resources for at-risk students, English language learners, gifted students and special education. While almost every superintendent supported the bill, it died in the Democrat-controlled House. A second bill would have increased school funding enough to provide full-day kindergarten for $37 million a year, but it died in the Senate.
In more positive education news, with the national spotlight centered on yet another school shooting — this time, the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Florida, during which seventeen students were killed — Colorado legislators took some time to craft safety legislation.
"Safe2Tell is now required to create annual reports that include a breakdown of the calls received, the effectiveness of the dispatch center and potential misuse of the program, among other things." Safe2Tell will also have to provide training to all schools in Colorado about how to use the program, which was created after the Columbine High School shooting as a way to report school safety concerns before they escalate. This bill is aimed at preventing false reports by anonymous callers, like students, who abuse the system to bully other students.
The legislature has also established a grant program that will provide funding and training for two-way radios that would allow for immediate communication between schools and emergency responders without having to call 911. Legislators have committed $30 million over the next six years to fund the grant program. A second grant program was approved to fund research, program development and training to improve emergency responses at schools.
With the 2020 census right around the corner, the fight over redistricting is coming to a head. The legislature approved a bill this week to move congressional redistricting authority away from the General Assembly and into the hands of a twelve-member commission equally split among Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters. But because the change requires a constitutional amendment, voters will have to decide at the ballot box this November whether to support the change.
Anti-fracking sentiment is growing in Colorado in the wake of multiple explosions last year, including the fatal blast in Firestone and near-fatal incident in Windsor. Even with anti-fracking protesters getting louder, the Senate has resisted calls for more oil and gas regulations.
In an effort to protect children from explosions and leaks, a bill was introduced that would have required a 1,000-foot setback between fracking wells and school property lines. The bill passed the House but ultimately died in a Senate kill committee, which means fracking can continue near school playgrounds and sports fields. Current law only stipulates a 1,000-foot setback between wells and school buildings.
A second Democrat-led bill would have required increased reporting for oil and gas explosions, flaring leaks, spills, venting and other incidents, but it also died in a Senate committee.
HB 1071 would have reaffirmed the Colorado Court of Appeals decision on the Martinez v. Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which concluded that the state must make the protection of public health, safety and the environment a pre-condition to permitting drilling activity. But that also died in a Senate committee, during a hearing that was packed with anti-fracking protesters.
The last major piece of oil and gas legislation to die was SB 48, which would have allowed municipalities to create zoning ordinances for oil and gas facilities just as they would for any other industrial activity.
The session did offer one glimmer of hope, albeit in the form of an industry-supported bill. Mineral-rights owners who do not consent to drilling but are forced into a procedure known as "forced pooling" are now immune from all liability for costs related to oil and gas drilling activity. Drillers will also be required to give sixty days' notice for mineral-rights owners to decide whether to consent to pooling.
A red-flag bill that would have allowed peace officers to get court orders to temporarily confiscate weapons from dangerous individuals, particularly those suffering from acute mental illness, failed in a Senate committee on Monday. The bill was named after Douglas County sheriff's deputy Zachary Parrish, who was killed on New Year's Eve by a military veteran who had been known to law enforcement as suffering with mental illness. After he called the police to his apartment, he live-streamed the shootout, during which he unloaded 100 bullets from two rifles, a shotgun and a handgun, killing Parrish and injuring four other officers and two civilians living in nearby apartment units.
Less than an hour before the legislature adjourned for the year, the House and Senate came to a controversial agreement to stabilize PERA, the state's public pension program. PERA is facing anywhere from $32 billion to $50 billion in unfunded benefits that the state had promised employees for nearly two decades but wasn't contributing to. On Wednesday, lawmakers agreed to pay $225 million annually to pay down the gap, increase the retirement age to 64, increase employee and employer contributions, and limit annual employee raises to 1.5 percent.
Steve Lebsock was the first legislator this session to be accused of sexual harassment. Then came allegations of butt slapping by Senator Randy Baumgardner, more butt pinching by Senator Larry Crowder, intern leering by Senator Jack Tate, ladies' restroom visiting by Senator Daniel Kagan and attempted kissing by Representative Paul Rosenthal. Aside from Lebsock, Baumgardner was the only other elected state official to face multiple allegations and see any official discipline. Baumgardner did voluntarily step down from his chairmanship on the Senate Transportation Committee earlier in the session and was formally stripped of his positions on four interim committees, which meet outside of the regular session, over allegations that were found to be credible.
Sexual-harassment policies will be considered this year in an interim committee outside of session, and recommendations will be made when the legislature reconvenes in 2019.
A controversial bill to pilot the nation's first supervised injection site to give heroin addicts a safe place to shoot up died early in the session. The supervised injection site would have allowed drug users a place to safely get high without fear of incarceration and with medical supervision. The site would also allow drug users a place to access addiction services so they could kick the habit without fear of the gavel of justice coming down over their illegal substance abuse.
Arguably the most important legislation to come of this session was the $3 billion transportation funding bill. But there's a catch: The bill requires a vote of the people to approve the $2.34 billion in proposed bonds to pay for most of the highway, local and multimodal transportation projects. Legislators did not put forward their own ballot initiative to accompany the bill; they're relying on two competing measures that are fighting for the ballot to determine the state's transportation fate.
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