Colorado Democrats successfully move their legislative agenda

Republicans call it a “far-reaching power grab’

Democrats were not shy this year about tapping into the power they won in 2012 when they regained control of both legislative chambers. The left was finally able to push through civil unions legislation, as well as in-state tuition for undocumented students. And with those issues in the rearview mirror, they kept progressing, taking on sweeping elections reform.

The ambitious agenda left Republicans shaking their heads, suggesting that Democrats were drunk on the power granted by voters. In fact, the GOP called the legislative session a “far-reaching power grab,” which has motivated the party to hit the campaign trail hard in 2014.

Senate Bill 11, the civil unions bill sponsored by Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, and Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, was signed by the Governor on March 21 at the History Colorado museum.
The Colorado Statesman File Photo

But Democrats seemed immune to the GOP’s frustrations. It would have been monumental if they had simply taken on gun control. Democrats pushed a package of legislation that included limiting high-capacity ammunition magazines and requiring universal background checks. But they did not stop there.

The end of session brought some of the most contentious debates, especially with House Bill 1303, which was not introduced until April 10. Democrats painted the bill as an elections modernization bill. The more than 100 pages:

• Expands voter registration through Election Day;

• Shortens the time required for state residency to register to vote;

• Requires clerks to mail ballots to all voters; and

• Prohibits clerks from refusing to mail ballots to inactive voters.

Assistant Majority Leader Dan Pabon, D-Denver, and Majority Leader Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, D-Boulder, sponsored the bill along with Sen. Angela Giron, D-Pueblo.

From the start, the bill caused controversy. Leading the outcry was Republican Secretary of State Scott Gessler, an outspoken partisan, despite the nonpartisan nature of his office.

When told of the contents of the bill, Gessler was outraged, calling the bill “piss-poor” legislation and questioning whether Democrats were “crazy” for proposing it.

“How the hell can they rewrite the state election code in such a way that it excludes half of the entire legislature; the people who have expertise from a secretary of state’s standpoint?” Gessler lamented in early April. “These people are just crazy. They have no interest in creating a good system. They are interested in shoving through an agenda.”

Part of the anger was that Republicans felt the bill was crafted in secret without input from Republican lawmakers or the secretary of state’s office. But Democrats said they offered opportunities for Gessler to weigh in.

Pabon pointed out that he was prepared to present the bill to a Department of the State Best Practices and Vision Commission meeting. But he said he was disinvited at the last minute.

Meanwhile, supporters of the bill were unapologetic. The stakeholder group called themselves Integrity and Modernization for Colorado Elections. The left-leaning group included Colorado Common Cause, Vet Voice Foundation, 9to5 Colorado, Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, New Era Colorado and Mi Familia Vota.

Ellen Dumm, spokeswoman for the coalition, said Gessler was never included because he never expressed an interest in working with the group.

“We wanted to get the folks who had their boots on the ground,” said Dumm. “I think from our perspective… I would say that [Gessler] has made it very clear that he’s philosophically opposed to this. So, it didn’t feel productive to have him at the table.”

The County Clerks Association, however, was at the table. Despite Gessler’s opposition, the association supported the measure by about 75 percent. Some Republican clerks were targeted for their support.

Mailers targeting La Plata County Clerk Tiffany Lee Parker and Mesa County Clerk Sheila Reiner surfaced after the two clerks supported the bill. The mailers were digitally altered to remove a picture of a black person from a photo of voters standing in line. The company that made the flier said it was simply trying to make a point about voter fraud, not race.

The bill passed the House on a party-line vote of 36-26. It first received a contentious committee hearing in which more than 80 citizens showed up to testify. By the time it hit the Senate, the legislation had become one of the most polarizing legislative issues of the last decade.

Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, began debate on the bill on May 2 by asking the reading clerk to read the entire 126 pages at length. The Republican filibuster in the Senate had officially began.

The biggest problem to Republicans is that the bill might lead to voter fraud. They attempted to amend it to require photo identification in order to vote in certain instances. But Democrats shot down the proposal.

Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, led much of the charge against the bill: “Who should care if a few extra votes get dropped in that weren’t legitimate?” he asked. “Every one of us who votes should care, because that illegitimate vote cancels out your legitimate vote.”

Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, signed the bill on May 10. Democrats celebrated afterwards.

“This new and simplified elections system will ensure that Colorado has the cleanest elections possible,” said Pabon. “By making voting easier for all eligible citizens, we’ll increase participation in the election process. Our democracy works best when the greatest number of people participate in it.”

Civil unions

Before Democrats took on elections reform, they had made their final push for civil unions legislation, which offers legal rights to same-sex couples.

The three-year journey ended for gay and lesbian couples on March 21 when Hickenlooper signed Senate Bill 11, sponsored by gay lawmakers Sen. Pat Steadman, D-Denver, and House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver.

Hickenlooper signed the bill at the History Colorado museum, highlighting the historical importance of the legislation. He was surrounded by hundreds of elated supporters who filled the floor and lined the balconies.

The governor had called on lawmakers to pass the bill in his State of the State address this year. That call became reality when Democrats took over both the House and Senate.

“This is the beginning of the whole country changing,” declared Hickenlooper. “It’s going to keep going. It’s not going to stop in Colorado, but I like to think this is a crucial point, a very crucial point.”

Ferrandino said the law has special meaning to him and his husband since the two recently adopted a child.

“Now that we have a daughter, this issue has become even more personal,” said the House speaker. “To know that after the governor signs this, to know that she’s going to have the protections just like every other family, it makes my heart warm.”

Steadman, who recently lost his partner to pancreatic cancer, acknowledged the historical significance of civil unions, but said there is still work to be done.

“This law provides real and meaningful protections to families and couples and children all across our state,” Steadman said at the signing ceremony. “This is absolutely an important milestone on our road to equality. I’m proud to have been part of it and to have worked so long for this day.”

The journey was indeed a difficult one. It came to a head last year when Republicans in the House blocked a vote on similar legislation. Despite the bill having bipartisan approval and enough votes to pass the House and make its way to the governor, then-Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, would not bring the measure up for a vote and he let it die in the waning hours of the legislative session.

Democrats were appalled. They hit the campaign trail in 2012 suggesting to voters that Republicans thwarted democracy. When they came out victorious, Democrats claimed that voters were tired of Republicans clinging to conservative wedge social issues.

The measure once again had Republican support this year. Reps. Cheri Gerou of Evergreen and Carole Murray of Castle Rock, and Sen. Ellen Roberts of Durango all supported the measure.

For gay citizens, the victory couldn’t have been sweeter. Minutes after midnight on May 1, Fran and Anna Simon, who had relentlessly advocated for the bill’s passage, looked into each other’s eyes at the Wellington Webb Municipal Building in Denver and said, “We do.”

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock performed their ceremony. “You may now share, in the state of Colorado, your first official kiss as a truly united couple,” the mayor said to thunderous applause.


Similarly controversial has been the conversation over providing in-state tuition to undocumented students. Much like civil unions, so-called Colorado ASSET — Advancing Students for a Stronger Economy Tomorrow — has taken a long and winding road.

The journey for undocumented students lasted 10 years and over the course of six bills. This year brought closure to the legislative battle, along with tears of joy for the thousands of undocumented students who will benefit from its passage.

Fiscal analysts estimate that the measure will raise $2 million in additional tuition revenue in 2013-14 and $3 million in 2014-15. The fiscal note projects that the legislation will help 500 students in the next school year, with up to 250 more joining the program each year until 2016-17.

After the House backed Senate Bill 33 on March 8 by a vote of 40-21, cheers erupted in the lobby outside the chamber. The proposal had never made it to the House for a full vote, and the lower chamber’s passage sent the historic bill to the governor.

“Si, se puede!” — “Yes, we can!” filled the halls under the Gold Dome.

“When education was under attack, what did we do?” students chanted in a large group up and down the corridors. “Stand up, fight back… Up, up with education. Down, down with deportation.”

Cesiah Guadarrama, whose parents brought her to the United States from Mexico when she was 6 years old, said she finally earned a chance to attend college next year.

“This is a huge victory for us. We haven’t been fighting for this for two years, or five years — I was 8 when this started, so this is definitely a big victory for us. It’s opened so many doors,” explained Guadarrama.

Sens. Mike Johnston, D-Denver, and Angela Giron, D-Pueblo, and Reps. Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, and Angela Williams, D-Denver, sponsored the bill this year.

For Johnston, en educator who had pushed the bill year after year without success, watching his labor come to fruition was a remarkable moment. He joined with students outside the cham-ber, embracing them in warm hugs.

“I’m just thinking of all the kids around the state right now who are sitting in class who now have a real chance to go to college,” he said just minutes after the bill passed the House. “I’m thinking of all the kids I’ve given diplomas to and put a cap and gown on them before who have been waiting for this moment who now have a real chance.”

Williams was also ecstatic, walking up to Johnston to offer him a hug: “Their future must begin now,” she remarked. “We cannot continue to tell these students to get an education, better your lot in life, and then take it away from them with tuition very few can afford.”

ASSET passed as Congress is taking another crack at immigration reform. This could be the best shot for comprehensive legislation as a bipartisan group of U.S. senators, emboldened by calls from President Barack Obama, are working on a proposal.

But it still faces an uphill challenge in the Republican-controlled U.S. House, which has been reluctant to include a pathway to citizenship for undocumented residents. The House will likely debate its own version of immigration legislation.

The growing bipartisan nature of the conversation was highlighted in Colorado with the passage of ASSET. Republicans Gerou, Clarice Navarro of Pueblo and Kevin Priola of Henderson backed the measure this year. Republicans continue to grapple with earning the support of a growing Latino voting bloc.

“I believe the GOP stands for Grand Opportunity Party,” Priola said of why Republicans should support in-state tuition for the undocumented.

At the signing ceremony on April 29, Hickenlooper noted the feverish excitement as ASSET supporters and students looked on.

“Holy smokes,” he said to the hundreds who had assembled, as he cracked his knuckles and prepared to sign the bill with 12 pens laid out before him.

“Making sure that there is access to a quality public education for Colorado’s youth means that there is no limit to your ambitions,” commented the governor. “Every one of you guys can dream every dream you’ve ever wanted or imagined, and if you’re willing to work hard enough, you can do it.”

Immigrant driver’s licenses

Another bill affecting the immigrant population was Senate Bill 251, which offers Colorado driver’s licenses to all residents of the state, whether they are a legal resident, or an undocumented immigrant.

Sens. Jessie Ulibarri, D-Commerce City, and John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, sponsored the legislation. The governor signed it on June 5.

The measure stemmed from a ballot initiative that immigrant rights activists began last year, but failed to advance because they were unable to collect the signatures needed to place it on the ballot.

Ulibarri and proponents pushed the legislation this year as a means to make communities stronger, the economy healthier and roads safer. Ulibarri suggested that because undocumented immigrants are unable to obtain a legal driver’s license, they are more likely to forgo carrying auto insurance, or more likely to flee the scene of an accident.

“Our roads will be safer when we can properly ID everyone who drives on them,” Ulibarri said after the governor signed the bill into law. “These licenses will allow many of our neighbors to get insured, and take responsibility for their actions on the roads.”

The legislation will go into effect on Aug. 1, 2014.

Colorado became one of only a handful of states to allow such a practice. It joins Maryland, Utah, Nevada, Washington, Illinois and New Mexico.

Republicans had opposed the measure, suggesting that it will do little to increase safety and offered a step toward amnesty. Lundberg led much of the opposition.

“In the long term, we’ll push in the wrong direction…” stated Lundberg. “This is one more step down the road of amnesty. I would support amnesty if it worked, if it really would cure the problem. But we’ve been down that road more than once. It doesn’t.”

See the June 21 print edition for a full listing of all the legislative enactments from the 2013 session.

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