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As Special Session Looms, Colorado Lawmakers Debate Focus And Fixes

Ken Lund
CC BY-SA 2.0
The Capitol building in Denver. Lawmakers will gather here for a special session of the legislature on Oct. 2.

For only the second time during his tenure as governor, John Hickenlooper is calling lawmakers back to the Capitol outside of their regular session. He wants them to fix an error that is keeping thousands of dollars from getting to the Denver Zoo and regional transportation districts.

But a special session may not lead to a simple fix.

During the final days of their regular session, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 267, which prevented drastic funding cuts to rural hospitals. The bipartisan measure is expansive and includes a change to the way marijuana is taxed. Inadvertently, that change also prevents special districts from collecting retail taxes on pot.

Gov. Hickenlooper hopes lawmakers can take care of the problem quickly.

“The legislature -- and it’s all the legislature Republicans, Democrats, everybody -- let this mistake get turned into law, and our office also,” he said.

The loss of tax money is impacting transit authorities in Denver, the Gunnison Valley, Roaring Fork, Pikes Peak and San Miguel Co. Special districts that support cultural and scientific institutions including the Denver Zoo and Performing Arts Center are also affected.

“We’re going to need legislation to fix it,” said Democratic Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran.

Duran hopes the issue doesn’t become too political.

“This was something that was never intended,” she said. “All of the bill sponsors agree.”

But the special session may reignite the fight from GOP legislators in opposition to the bill.

An intentional effect of the bill was to prevent a fee paid by hospitals from counting against the state’s budget growth limit. Republican Senate President Kevin Grantham said a special session focuses animosity on the overall bill. He said the problems could have been addressed at the start of next year’s session in January.

“This is very interesting that we’re in this situation I can’t think of a single legislator that is thrilled with the idea of coming back in October to do this,” he said. “There’s consternation over the fact that we’re spending taxpayer dollars.”

The bill for taxpayers comes to about $25,000 for each day of the special session. For a bill to pass both chambers, the legislature needs at least three.

While the governor’s executive order calling for the session is narrowly focused, lawmakers can still introduce bills that are much broader in scope.

“It is up to the individual committees and the floor of the Senate to make that determination, not me,” said Grantham. “No one can step in unilaterally and say, ‘I will not allow that bill to run.’ This is a constitutional matter of the right of the legislator to introduce his or her bill.”

Each lawmaker can introduce one bill during a special session. Democratic House leaders like Duran wants the special session to stay narrow.

“Let’s just do what’s right for what’s right for the people of Colorado and get this done,” she said.

While the debate over the goal of the session is playing out, the Republican sponsor of the underlying bill that caused the problem in the first place said he’s not sure if he’ll even vote for a fix.

“I don’t like to go into anything where I’m not prepared,” said Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling, “and if we don’t have the votes to pass this bill it’s absolutely crazy to call a special session.”

Gov. Hickenlooper disagrees.

“I was raised that if you’re part of an organization, or you make a mistake, or your team makes a mistake and you have an opportunity to fairly easily fix it, you apologize, you take responsibility and you fix the problem you created,” he said.

Lawmakers will meet at the State Capitol on Monday morning, Oct. 2. Democrats are expected to back the governor’s plan. At least one Republican in the Senate would need to join them for that chamber to pass something.

The first – and only other – time Gov. Hickenlooper called a special session was five years ago, over civil unions. In 2006, Republican Gov. Bill Owens called a special session over illegal immigration.  

Capitol Coverage is a collaborative public policy reporting project, providing news and analysis to communities across Colorado for more than a decade. Fifteen public radio stations participate in Capitol Coverage from throughout Colorado.

Bente Birkeland has been reporting on state legislative issues for KUNC and Rocky Mountain Community Radio since 2006. Originally, from Minnesota, Bente likes to hike and ski in her spare time. She keeps track of state politics throughout the year but is especially busy during the annual legislative session from January through early May.