The 2011 General Assembly began on Wednesday, and amidst the swearing-in ceremonies and speeches came brief moments when House Democrats reminded their Republican colleagues that Republicans hold a thin one-seat majority in the House, and that Democrats are still wounded from the bruising 2010 election. But in the speeches, a desire for bipartisanship, with a divided Legislature, was the theme of the day.
The morning began light-heartedly, with the “peaceful transition of power” between the departing Speaker of the House, Terrance Carroll, D-Denver, and the incoming Speaker, Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch.
McNulty’s first speech as Speaker was focused on Republican efforts to reverse some of the laws and policies enacted by the previous General Assembly. Voters have asked the divided Legislature to “re-establish truths” in education, transportation, “tax rates that are low and fair and a regulatory system that is stable and sensible, with an eye toward compliance and consumer protection, not punishment,” McNulty said. Job creation and the state’s recovery from the recession must be lawmakers’ focus.
McNulty acknowledged that there would be disagreements between Democrats and Republicans but they should not distract legislators from the job at hand. McNulty pledged to work with the new governor on a smaller government, to “begin a serious conversation about reinventing government, refining procurement” and using technology as efficiently as possible.
Addressing the state’s $1 billion budget shortfall, McNulty said “the days of balancing the state budget on the backs of working families and small businesses are over,” a nod to legislation expected during the session to repeal tax exemption bills passed last year. “The bill for kicking the can down the road has come due. We will not spend what we don’t have.” That includes setting up a state savings account and reinstating state spending limits. McNulty confirmed this week that Republicans plan to bring legislation that would be along the lines of a reversal of SB 09-228, which repealed the Arveschoug-Bird spending limits. (Senate Majority Leader John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, who sponsored the 2009 bill, told The Colorado Statesman such an effort wouldn’t get very far in the Senate.)
And McNulty committed his Republican members to working across the aisle with their Democratic counterparts. “Bipartisanship gets lots of talk time, but it’s always harder in practice… Our work together will be difficult, but it can be done with good humor, and it must be done with good faith,” one of the few remarks in his speech that drew strong applause from both sides of the aisle.
Pace, in his remarks, also carried the bipartisan message, but was more specific about the bills Democrats would carry. “As we start our work today, we would do well to listen to the people and to adhere to their values. We should not steer toward extremes,” he said. He also called for less criticism of government. “Too often government is vilified and made a scapegoat… government was envisioned as a tool for people to use to debate and solve problems.” And while it is not a solution for everything that “ails our state,” it can be “a force for good in people’s lives,” he said.
Pace also refuted proposed ideas by Republicans to repeal 2010 tax legislation, which Democrats have defended as a way to minimize cuts to K12 education; and plans to enact Arizona-style immigration laws. “To neglect programs or slash services without method; to penalize hardworking state workers and teachers to score political points; to demonize people because of their skin color or national origins, and to balance our budget on the backs of the poor, the elderly, the sick and the young — these are no acceptable solutions to the people of Colorado,” Pace said.
But “we must balance the budget the right way. And that means always putting jobs, the economy and the hardworking and middle class families of Colorado ahead of special interests,” Pace said, drawing applause from a few Republicans, including McNulty.
Democrats, Republicans single out proposed legislation
Among the bills Democrats will sponsor, Pace said, is a jobs bill to help entrepreneurs with access to credit, resources and counseling; and legislation to “attract new private investments and capital” to the state. But the state must continue to invest in education, he said, which means fighting “for every district in the state to get the dollars they need.”
In his remarks to the Senate, Minority Leader Mike Kopp, R-Littleton, called for a “low tax policy framework” and to reinstate the tax exemptions. He also called for eliminating the business personal property tax, a request that Republicans got from representatives of the business community last week.
Regulatory reform, the subject of last week’s forum at the Colorado Association of Commerce and Industry, also was on Kopp’s wish list for the 2011 session. Republicans have set a goal of “achieving a 15 percent reduction in compliance costs borne by regulated businesses” in Colorado. And while Kopp told The Statesman last week that Republicans were taking the lead on this issue because they ran on it, in his remarks Wednesday Kopp asked Democrats to work with them on the reforms. “There is more than enough to go around,” and it can become the work of the Senate, not just Republicans, he said.
On the state budget, Kopp asked for a leaner state government, with clear spending priorities, such as education in “innovative schools, ” transportation solutions, wildfire mitigation and public safety, and a “cost-contained, accountable and basic safety net for the most vulnerable,” but with spending discipline and without relying on the federal government for funds.
Like all of the other speakers Wednesday, Kopp also called for bipartisanship, which he said would require “civility, more than a little humor, and willingness to be constructive even while maintaining one’s own closely held principles.” And to his Senate President, Kopp promised tea — Tension Tamer, from Celestial Seasonings, in water boiled to assuage concerns from citizens “who are suspicious that there’s something in the water” at the state capitol that makes legislators behave the way they do.
Senate President Shaffer, who spoke first in the Senate, pointed to legislative accomplishments on job growth and economic development during the past three years, such as a credit on payroll taxes for business that bring in new jobs; an affordable statewide broadband network to provide high-speed Internet to schools, libraries and communities; and HB 10-1365, the Clean Air Clean Jobs Act, which requires Xcel Energy to retrofit coal-burning plants to use natural gas.
The heart of the Longmont Democrat’s remarks was on job creation, but through an educated workforce that attracts business. “Education equals jobs,” Shaffer said. “We must consciously prioritize education first as we consider every bill that comes before the legislature,” and toward that end designated the Knowledge-Based Economy Fund as Senate Bill 11-001. “I challenge each of you to view this session through the Knowledge-Based Economy lens. If your goal is to shrink the size of government — to eliminate programs and root out wasteful government spending — let me help you. Let me help you identify those programs that don’t make sense, those functions of government that can be done more efficiently and less expensively, and let me help you redirect the funds currently being wasted to a higher cause: our Knowledge-Based Economy.”
And to the issue of bipartisanship, Shaffer noted that one-third of the bills signed by Gov. Ritter in 2010 had bipartisan primary sponsors, and 79 percent had bipartisan co-sponsors. “We demonstrated that we know how to work together and that’s exactly what the people of Colorado want us to do,” Shaffer said. Other areas “ripe for bipartisan cooperation and success” are congressional redistricting, ballot initiative reform, and continued reform of the child welfare system. “It is no time for the personal prerogatives of partisan politics,” Shaffer said.
The bipartisan mood in the House was briefly interrupted by a dust-up between House Democrats and the new House Majority Leader, during a vote on House rules prior to the opening day speeches. In their protest, Democrats challenged changes made by the Republican leadership to the names of three House committees: Economic and Business Development (formerly Business Affairs and Labor); Health and Environment (formerly Health and Human Services); and Transportation (formerly Transportation and Energy).
Rep. Max Tyler, D-Lakewood, raised the issue with energy, pointing out that energy has been “an important part of our economy” and that “the new energy economy has driven job creation in Colorado. Why are we making energy disappear from serious consideration?” he asked, and where would energy bills be heard?
The response, from House Majority Leader Amy Stephens, R-Monument, was curt, according to Democratic legislators. Committee name changes have taken place in the past, she said, and for this session the names were changed for “efficiency” purposes. “We’re here to do the work of the people and suggest we do so today,” which was basically Stephens’ response to every objection raised by the Democrats.
Rep. John Soper, D-Thornton, noted that the state has a department of labor but will no longer have a committee with that name in its title, and Rep. Jim Riesberg, D-Greeley, noted that human services issues drive a lot of work for that committee, and questioned whether adding environment, which previously was part of another committee, would drive more workload for the health committee.
The protest was drawn to an end by House Minority Leader Sal Pace, D-Pueblo, who encouraged members to vote for the resolution on the rules changes and thanked the leadership for allowing Democrats to express their concerns. The resolution passed with one “no” vote, from Rep. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood.
Kerr later told The Statesman that with all the talk on goodwill and bipartisanship, “the one time the Democrats get up to ask good questions on the changes, we were very curtly told to mind our own business. We were given no information and no answers — a poor way to start off a happy, peaceful transition of power.” Kerr said his father, who witnessed the exchanges, asked him if Democrats had just gotten the “middle finger” from Republicans.
Stephens, in response, said she believed Democrats were “grandstanding. I don’t think it was us who raised the objectives [on opening day]. These weren’t questions — this was grandstanding.”
Regarding bipartisanship, Stephens said that “we have a choice to work together. We will have dissent, free debate and hopefully free speech debate, and that’s what the session will be about… We were elected to get about the work of tax-paying families,” Stephens said. “We have tough decisions to make.”