Both sides of the political aisle agree on at least one thing — the 2013 legislative session was perhaps the most contentious and jam-packed in nearly two decades.
With Democrats in control of both chambers after regaining the House this year, the party pushed an incredibly ambitious agenda, which included gun control, same-sex civil unions, in-state tuition for undocumented students, and a polarizing elections reform package that includes same-day voter registration.
They were less successful with sweeping restrictions on the oil and gas industry, but pushed multiple measures to at least advance the conversation, as controversial hydraulic fracturing grows along the Front Range.
Even on an issue most legislators wanted nothing to do with — a mandate by voters to enact rules and regulations for marijuana legalization — the House and Senate advanced a groundbreaking framework that could be used as a model for the rest of the nation.
Indeed, the 2013 legislative session was most certainly historic.
Lawmakers introduced a total of 613 bills, of which 441 passed. Last year, the legislature introduced 545 bills, of which 306 passed.
But as House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, pointed out, it wasn’t so much the volume of bills that were introduced, as much as the weight of the bills. A session defined solely by gun control would have been ambitious by itself. But Democrats pushed the limit, taking on a plethora of meaty issues.
“Longtime observers of the Colorado legislature, people from both parties, have told me they’ve never witnessed such a productive session,” said Ferrandino.
“It’s easy to get lost in the individual fights that happened, the things that gained attention, the controversial issues, but we really were able to work together on some of the most important issues,” he added, reminding Coloradans that 95 percent of the bills that passed had bipartisan support.
The Speaker had called for a session that included the “Three Cs” — consultation, consensus and cooperation. And while many bills passed with bipartisan support, some of the most significant issues became bogged down in partisan politics and political gamesmanship.
In fact, as the session neared its end, tensions grew and fights escalated. House Republicans even stormed out of the chamber with less than two weeks left on a late Friday night of business, refusing to come back after Democrats interrupted one of their members who was speaking at the well. Ferrandino asked a sergeant-at-arms to roundup the Republicans, who begrudgingly came back to the chamber to resume work.
And in the Senate, as the debate on elections reform came to a head, Republicans began a filibuster of the bill by asking for the more than 120 pages to be read at length. The stall tactic took two and a half hours, and irritated Democrats who were forced to sit through the strategy.
The budget is also an excellent example of the decline in bipartisanship compared to last year. Last year’s budget passed by a historic 64-1 vote. This year, the so-called Long Bill passed the House by a vote of 45-18.
Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, acknowledged the drop in bipartisanship. But he said the budget is still an example of government working together.
“We were, I think, not as bipartisan this year as we were last year with our budget… But I think that’s still a bipartisan outcome… That’s just good government…” he said of the process this year, noting that the budget included ideas popular to both Republicans and Democrats, including setting aside a reserve in preparation for another economic downturn.
“It is what makes people believe in government, and I’m a big believer that the more people who believe in government, the more people will want to see the news and read the news,” Hickenlooper continued.
Still, House Majority Leader Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, D-Boulder, pointed to a frustration within the Democratic Party after working with Republicans this year. She said Republicans refused to compromise and cooperate.
“I’ve heard from our Republican colleagues who say that we didn’t follow through on our commitment, and in fact we have actively sought consultation, consensus and cooperation throughout the session,” opined Hullinghorst. “Time after time we brought our bills forward and we tried to work with the minority to get its support.”
She said House Democrats “allowed a full and fair debate,” pointing out that Republicans spoke twice as much as Democrats this session during floor debates.
But much of the damage was done early in the session when Democrats pushed a gun control agenda that included banning high-capacity ammunition magazines of more than 15 rounds, implementing universal background checks and fees associated with it, and greater restrictions on domestic violence offenders.
Republicans locked down on several issues. Hickenlooper took note: “We did not get the bipartisan support on universal background checks, despite the basic facts…” remarked the governor, who added that the majority of Americans support it.
Senate Dems forged ahead
Senate Democrats felt much of the same pressure working with Republicans this year. Senate President John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, acknowledged that many of the proposals his chamber tried to advance infuriated Republicans. But he said his caucus needed to forge ahead.
“As the majority, we have to govern. We don’t have the luxury of sitting back and saying, ‘No, it can’t be done,’” Morse stated. “We have to step forward, lead, figure out a way to get it done… and we work across the aisle as best we can. But at the end of the day, ‘no’ is not an option. We’ve got to move things forward.”
Senate Majority Leader Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, agreed that Democrats hit roadblocks with the Republican Party. But she said her side of the aisle had to advance its agenda.
“No doubt we would have loved bipartisan support, we did outreach on everything, and we were able to get bipartisan support on parts of it, and despite our best efforts, we weren’t on others, and it wasn’t for lack of trying,” said Carroll.
Morse had his own problems in his first year as Senate president whipping up the votes he needed — even from within his own caucus — on several key pieces of legislation. On multiple occasions he had to kill his own bills, and even took to the well a few times to explain why he was spiking those measures.
The Senate president killed his bill that would have created a liability on assault weapon manufacturers; a measure that would have brought comprehensive telecommunication reform; a resolution that sought to allow voters to repeal a portion of marijuana legalization; a bill to make it a felony to repeatedly drive under the influence of alcohol; and a measure that would have required DNA swabs on misdemeanor convictions.
“My job this year as Senate president was to advance Colorado’s agenda and to not be focused on my own, and that’s exactly what I did,” Morse responded to his lackluster luck on his own agenda items. “Certainly I had several bills that didn’t get all the way through, but I’m very proud of all the bills that did get all the way through, and I’m happy to help other people get things done and make Colorado a better place.”
When word spread that Democrats were calling the session bipartisan, Republicans shook their heads in awe. Many said the 2013 legislative session was the most polarizing in their lives and careers within the building.
House Minority Leader Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, said the session was about a power grab for Democrats, who used their majority to wrestle the important issues away from the people of the state. Waller had hoped that the Democrats’ top agenda items would have included jobs and the economy. But he said it became abundantly clear early on that the session highlights would be on wedge issues.
“This was one of the more divisive session, and it was incredibly disappointing for me coming into the session to speak with the Speaker, to be promoting the same message as the session started — we both talked about the No. 1 priority in this state still is and remains jobs and the economy, or creating opportunities for Coloradans — and on the other side of the aisle, not only did we not see that materialize, we saw a lot of bad stuff come as well,” declared Waller.
Republicans point to a host of bills they consider to be bad, including a measure that empowers employees at smaller firms to file discrimination lawsuits — legislation that Republicans say only creates jobs for trial attorneys — and another measure that would raise the rural renewable energy standard.
“The session has been more defined, not by those weighty issues, but by the Democrats’ approach to those weighty issues,” continued Waller. “And it seems like consistently, we got the same message out of them… and that was, ‘We know what’s better for you than you do.’”
Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, said his caucus had a similar experience in the upper chamber. “Republicans are glad it’s over,” he joked about the painful session for the GOP.
“We saw some of the biggest debates, longest legislative fights that I’ve seen here in over a decade,” said Cadman. “Probably most disappointing for us is the laser-like focus on jobs and the economy became a night-light barely visible. And the focus became really on an extreme agenda…”
The Senate minority leader accused Democrats of caving to special interests, including unions and environmentalists.
Are vetoes coming?
With the session in the rearview mirror, Republicans are now turning to Hickenlooper to see if he might veto any of the bills that they so vehemently fought against this year.
The governor has already signed the discrimination bill. But the GOP maintains hope that Hickenlooper will veto Senate Bill 252, concerning the rural renewable energy standard.
Hickenlooper says he is in fact struggling with SB 252, but his administration has always been leaning towards supporting the bill.
“That’s one we’re still looking at…” he said this week. “I ran a small business, I know your utilities are a small part of your cost structure, but they’re a fixed part, and when any part of your cost structure goes up, that’s part of your fixed cost that you can’t do anything about, especially if you’re in a situation where you’re struggling to survive… It does become a burden.
“That being said, the reason we’re doing this… There are an awful lot of really smart people who are convinced and give compelling evidence that climate change is changing, it is changing rapidly, and carbon emissions are a big part of that…” Hickenlooper continued.
The governor avoided several sticky situations this year, including tough decisions on oil and gas rules and a bill that would have offered statewide collective bargaining rights to firefighters. After inserting himself into those conversations, the measures were so watered down, or killed altogether, that he sidestepped having to make painful decisions.
He also used his lobbying power to resurrect a bill to repurpose Fort Lyon prison into a treatment center for the homeless, and he helped end discussions on repealing the death penalty.
That said, the governor was emphatic that it is entirely possible that he could exercise his veto authority this year.
“Our goal is to have full communication at all times with both parties, and really do our very best to make sure that we don’t have to veto anything,” explained Hickenlooper. “But I don’t know. We’ll see. Let me guarantee that decision has not been made.”