Over 500 Bills And Plenty Of Drama: A Recap Of The 2019 Legislative Session
From a robot voice that became the sound of fierce partisanship to a crucial debate over the future of oil and gas held in the middle of a blizzard, there was plenty of drama at the state Capitol this year.
Here’s a recap of some of the biggest moments of the session from its start to its final week.
An ambitious agenda
Democrats kicked off the legislative session riding a blue wave following the November election. They took over every leadership post in state government for the first time in decades. Standing on the west steps of the Capitol in front of hundreds of supporters at his inauguration, Gov. Jared Polis laid out an ambitious agenda.
“We get to work building a health care system that ensures families don’t have to choose between losing their homes and losing their health care,” he said.
Polis and his fellow Democrats also promised free full-day kindergarten, paid family leave and gun control. Republicans, like State Sen. John Cooke of Greeley, said they were having trouble sleeping at night.
“It’s going to be like living in California or Oregon,” he declared following the election.In a few months, Republicans including Sen. Cooke would use some unusual tactics to try to slow down the Democratic agenda.
But in the early weeks of the legislative session, Republicans and Democrats actually found ways to work together.
An issue that affects everyone
Democrat Dylan Roberts represents a district on the Western Slope that sees some of the highest health insurance premiums in the state.
So does Republican Marc Catlin of Montrose.
In late January, the two lawmakers sat side by side at a committee hearing in the Old State Library to introduce a bill intended to help address the skyrocketing cost of health care in their districts.
Catlin said the state-backed health insurance option could bring some much-needed relief.
“All four counties I represent are in a situation where there's only one health care plan they can buy into," he said.
Roberts said the state’s involvement could drive prices down.
"Coloradans deserve more choice, more competition when they are purchasing health insurance so they actually can buy a plan that gives them the peace of mind and the security for themselves and their families they will never go bankrupt because of a health scare," Roberts said.
Their bill eventually cleared both chambers and is now awaiting a signature from Polis.
Republicans also worked with Democrats to advance bills to treat autism with medical marijuana and promote health insurance cooperatives. But that bipartisan spirit didn’t last forever.
In mid-February, Democratic lawmakers gathered in the west foyer of the Capitol to introduce the extreme risk protection order measure, which would allow police to temporarily take guns away from people who are a threat to themselves or others.
Rep. Tom Sullivan, who lost his son in the 2012 Aurora theater shooting, sponsored the bill.
“We’re on the clock right now folks,” he said. “If we keep talking about it. People are going to keep dying. And this is a simple thing to do to save lives.”
Republicans called the gun measure unconstitutional and dangerous. They said police could be hurt when they went to take away someone’s gun. But after weeks of debates, Sullivan found himself in the governor’s office to watching Polis sign the bill into law.
“We may be saving the life of your nephew or niece or grandchild who is 19 or 20 and suffering from a mental health crisis,” Polis said. “We might also prevent the shootings of additional deputies, or even mass shootings.”
Gun control wasn’t the only contentious issue to surface. In late February, Democrats unveiled Senate Bill 181. Standing next to a woman who lost her husband and brother in an oil and gas-related explosion, Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg said cities and counties needed more power to regulate the industry.
The debate over oil and gas regulations brought so many people to the Capitol in early March, the building’s free public WiFi appeared to be overloaded. Republicans labeled the measure an attack on the oil and gas industry and government overreach. And after Democrats unveiled another measure the same week to repeal the death penalty, members of the minority party settled on a plan to bring the lawmaking to a halt.
The sound of partisanship
On March 11, Sen. John Cooke asked for a 2000-page bill to be read at length. The bill wasn’t controversial, but Cooke knew it would take several hours, possibly days, for it to be read out loud.
Cooke had a smile on his face as the Senate’s bill reader started on the task of reading every word out loud.
“We’re going to slow this process down with the only weapon that we have,” he said as the reading commenced.
Democrats came up with a plan to speed up the process. They brought out several Hewlett Packard laptops and used a computer program to have a robotic voice read the bill so fast, no human could understand what was being read.
It took a lawsuit from Republican leadership and a $70 million transportation funding deal to end the partisan gridlock.
And in March, Democrats used their majority and advanced the oil and gas bill to Polis’ desk.
“Today, with the signing of this bill, it is our hope that the oil and gas wars that have enveloped our state are over,” Polis said.
Around the same time, Democrats were learning their power wasn’t absolute.
Big bills hit roadblocks
A conflict within the Democratic party sank an effort to repeal the death penalty in early April.
Sen. Rhonda Fields, a supporter of capital punishment, said her fellow Democrats needed to focus on other priorities.
Leading Democrats then focused on trying to pass a paid family leave program. The proposal promised up to 12 weeks of leave to bond with a newborn or care for a sick parent. Sen. Faith Winter said too many employees are getting stuck at work.
“We have cancer patients who are skipping their second round of chemotherapy because they can't afford to lose their paycheck,” she said.
But fears from the business community and more conflict within the party stalled that bill too. And two days after Gov. Polis publicly expressed concerns, Winter dropped the effort to get it approved this session. Instead, lawmakers are advancing an implementation plan.
While some big proposals got tangled in politics, Democrats found success on other fronts. They used their new majority to join the National Popular Vote compact and add tougher winter driving rules on I-70. They also banned conversion therapy that aims to change a child’s sexual orientation or gender identity. Rep. Daneya Esgar led that effort.
“These kids are coming out earlier and earlier and what they need is guidance. They need support, they need love. They need help to discover who they truly are, they don’t need somebody telling them who they should be,” she said.
In the final days of the session, more history is still being written. Lawmakers passed a $31 billion budget that includes the money for full day kindergarten. And Democrats are still hoping to pass ambitious goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but Republicans are trying to use the waning clock to their advantage.
Capitol Coverage is a collaborative public policy reporting project, providing news and analysis to communities across Colorado for more than a decade. Eleven public radio stations participate in Capitol Coverage from throughout Colorado.