House Republicans in the upcoming legislative session that begins on Wednesday hope to renew hearings on issues such as gun control and a rural renewable energy standard, opening the door to several divisive debates that are likely to repeat themselves this year.
Newly appointed House Minority Leader Brian DelGrosso of Loveland said his Republican caucus is looking to introduce bills that would repeal or tweak some of the gun control laws, including measures that banned high-capacity ammunition magazines of more than 15 rounds and mandated universal background checks. There may also be measures seeking to modify a bill from last year that makes it harder for those accused of domestic violence to possess a firearm.
Meanwhile, voters may separately be asked to repeal the ammunition magazine bill, and there is also a potential measure on the 2014 ballot that would prohibit concealed weapons on college campuses.
Gun control isn’t the only hangover remaining from last year. The House Republican caucus is also looking at a measure that would modify the rural renewable energy standard signed by the governor, lowering it from 20 percent to 15 percent.
“The one thing that we’re going to continue to focus on this year, like we focused on the last couple of years, is pushing to make sure that all of Colorado is heard,” explained DelGrosso.
During debates on gun control last year, many Republicans, gun rights groups and citizens complained that Democrats had packed multiple committee hearings on several gun control measures in the same day. As a result, Democratic leaders limited debate in order to get through all of the issues, though the Senate did a lot of that scheduling.
“We’re going to push to make sure that if there are hot button issues, that people, when they come to testify, at least the process is honored and people are allowed to have their voices heard,” DelGrosso continued.
“That is the thing that a lot of people forget and realize sometimes when they’re down here,” he added. “There is a lot more to the state of Colorado than just the Front Range and right under the Dome.”
DelGrosso believes recent elections in northern Colorado proposing to secede from the state are an indication that there is frustration outside the urban regions of the state.
The 51st state initiative was halted after only five of the 11 counties passed the secession question that appeared on the ballot in those areas. But in those rural parts of the state, the initiative passed by wide margins.
“The reality is the votes turned out the way it did, but I think the fact that that was even on the ballot in the first place should be a wakeup call to everybody,” opined DelGrosso. “The fact that people felt that that is their only recourse… should be very concerning to everybody that’s down here. It doesn’t matter what party. The reality is we need to listen to the entire state.”
The House minority leader pointed out that several sheriffs from rural parts of the state had showed up to the Capitol to testify against gun control measures last year, but that they were asked to limit their testimony.
“When you’ve got sheriffs who are showing up to testify and they are basically given no time to testify… I understand that we want to get in and out of here, but the reality is that our job as legislators is to listen to the people,” surmised DelGrosso.
He believes recent recall elections in which two Senate Democrats — President John Morse of Colorado Springs and Angela Giron of Pueblo — were recalled from office over their support for gun control indicates a larger frustration with Democrats.
A third Senate Democrat, Evie Hudak, recently resigned from office rather than face a costly and volatile recall election. Her move protected the Senate for Democrats, who now hold the upper chamber by only one seat. In the House, Democrats hold a 37-28 majority.
“People tried to say that it was all about guns, I tried to explain that there was a lot more to it than guns,” said DelGrosso. “I think a lot of folks felt like those senators weren’t listening to their district.
“They were more focused on what was being pushed here under the Dome, than what was going on in their district,” explained DelGrosso.
But House Speaker Mark Ferrandino of Denver scoffed at the idea that Democrats pushed an agenda that ignored constituents in any part of the state.
“That is hysterical because I don’t remember any time we shut down debate,” the Denver Democrat said. “Everyone was allowed to speak, we never closed debate. Unlike what happened the year before, we limited testimony, but that’s been something that’s happened in this legislature for a very long time and will continue to happen. But everyone had a say.
“There’s a difference between having your voices heard and getting your way,” Ferrandino added. “Just because you don’t get your way, doesn’t mean your voice isn’t heard.”
The speaker pointed out that the secession movement failed by a wide margin. And he said that his door is always open to rural Colorado. He met, he pointed out, with Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway, the architect of the 51st state movement.
Ferrandino said he is working with Republicans on a bill that would allow citizens to testify remotely, which would greatly expand who is able to testify on legislation.
“We want to make sure everyone has the ability to come,” he said.
House Democrats say they will also focus attention on recent devastating floods and wildfires that impacted several rural parts of the state.
“My neighboring district in Lyons and the mountains there in Jamestown was one of the worst damaged areas in the state,” House Majority Leader Dickey Lee Hullinghorst of Boulder said at a meeting with the Capitol press corps on Friday.
She is hopeful that the legislature will be able to provide assistance stemming from a bipartisan committee that met in the interim to address the recent flooding.
“I look forward to seeing those bills on the floor rather quickly so we can go about helping people out in Colorado as much as we can,” Hullinghorst continued.
“The flood waters did not discriminate between Democrat or Republican counties; Democrat houses or Republican houses,” added Ferrandino. “It impacted huge portions of the state.”
Another effort at bipartisanship could come over the issue of education reform. The legislature last year was divided when it tied reforms to a nearly $1 billion tax increase.
With voters this November rejecting Amendment 66, Republicans feel vindicated for their stand against using additional tax dollars.
One thing both sides of the aisle agree on is that the state is in desperate need of change. DelGrosso is hopeful that the two sides can come together this year to work towards reform without additional revenues.
“I don’t think the majority of our caucus talked to anybody out there that said, ‘Look, education is great, it’s fine, there doesn’t need to be any change,’” explained DelGrosso. “Everybody we talked to realizes we want to continue to push our education system forward, we want to see it get better.”
DelGrosso said that lawmakers could take pieces of last year’s Senate Bill 213 and incorporate those reforms without additional dollars. He pointed to a rosier budget picture, in which lawmakers are expected to have an additional $1.4 billion to spend in the upcoming fiscal year, according to the latest revenue forecasts.
“The reality is there is money that’s in the State Education Fund,” he said. “The state is doing a lot better now than we had been in the past, and so Republicans are going to push to have a lot of the changes that were in 213 that would have had wide bipartisan support last year move forward this year.”
He offered several examples, including spending transparency in schools, a focus on English language learners and spending equity for charter schools.
“Those are all things we can do to improve our education, but we can do it within existing resources,” said DelGrosso.
Ferrandino would have liked to see voters approve additional resources. He agrees that the legislature must work on what it can do with the limited funds that are available, though he acknowledged that it would be tough without more money.
“The question for the Republicans is, do they think that we don’t need to put additional money in to do those reforms?” asked Ferrandino. “I think we definitely need to.”
“Republicans and Democrats… can come together…” Ferrandino said at the Friday media availability. “There are some things we overlap on; some things we don’t overlap on. But our goal is to really focus on those things that we can do within the education system that we can fund…”
But with the improving economic outlook for the state, more money could lead to more problems for the legislature. DelGrosso said House Republicans would push for more savings, while Ferrandino said there must be a balance between spending and saving.
Gov. John Hickenlooper has already proposed increasing the General Fund reserve level to 6.5 percent from the current 5 percent level. DelGrosso said Republicans might fight for even more savings.
“We’re going to have a budget fight, but obviously it’s going to be a little different than where we were three or four years ago,” he said. “Three or four years ago we were trimming a billion dollars out of our budget, and this year it seems we have a little over a billion dollars that we can fight over on the flipside.
“But I think that highlights where Republicans will be when it comes to the budget this year,” DelGrosso added. “Looking back, we want to make sure that we’re doing a lot more saving than spending this year, and if we do spend money, then it’s going to be on more one-time projects.”
Ferrandino does not deny that saving should be a priority this year. But he also would like to see investments in fire and flood prevention and recovery, capital construction, creating jobs, and education.
He would also like to see spending on higher education, given the additional resources.
“We want to pass a budget that helps with the immediate need, but builds a stable budget moving into the future,” Ferrandino, a budget guru and former JBC member, told The Colorado Statesman.
“We have passed over the last couple of years some of the most prudent budgets,” he added at Friday’s media availability. “During the economic downturn we were very fiscally smart on the investments that we made as we’ve been recovering, and as we’ve seen revenue increase, we’ve been smart to be fiscally conservative and put things in one-time funding so that we didn’t build a budget that wasn’t sustainable. We also increased the reserve…
“It ties into this whole idea that as we’re building out of this recession, we’re building stronger; we’re building for the future,” he continued.
There may also be some consensus this year around economic recovery. Democrats this year will push a measure to cut the business personal property tax. In the past, Republicans had been the sponsors of such efforts.
“There are still people out there who are looking for jobs who aren’t finding jobs, so we have work to do,” acknowledged Ferrandino.
But a divisive election year could damage relationships between the two sides of the aisle when it comes to overall legislative business.
Both DelGrosso and Ferrandino acknowledge that election-year politics may skew the direction of the legislature.
“This is an election year and it always seems to be a little tougher when it comes to election years,” said DelGrosso. “But we’ve definitely heard from the majority party and we’ve heard from the governor that they would like to see this be a lot more of a bipartisan session.
“We’re excited to hear that,” he continued. “Call me foolish, if you will, but we heard that last year… Quite frankly, I don’t think anybody can argue that they saw a lot of that last year.”
Ferrandino said that he would work as the leader of the House to foster an environment that allows for bipartisanship, adding that he had an excellent relationship with Rep. Mark Waller of Colorado Springs last year when Waller was House minority leader, and that he is developing a positive working relationship with DelGrosso.
“We’ve tried to find places where there’s common agreement in getting Republicans and Democrats to work together,” said Ferrandino.
He added that 94 percent of bills passed last year with bipartisan support. Ferrandino said he would like to see that number increase this year.
Being term-limited after the session, the speaker isn’t too concerned with the election-year squabbles that are likely to happen. He’s already reminiscing about his time in the building.
“I will enjoy my last year,” he said. “I will be joyous but I’ll be sad too after I bang the gavel in May…” he said. “I’ll be looking back at my legislative career.”
DelGrosso agreed that as a legislative leader, there are things he can do to encourage lawmakers from both sides of the aisle to get along. He says he has a good working relationship with Ferrandino. But he remains cautiously optimistic.
“We’ll continue to try to reach across the aisle and say here’s something that I think is important, here’s why we like this or don’t like this,” he said. “Hopefully our voices will be heard.”
One issue, however, that likely won’t have bipartisan support is elections reform. A bill last year, House Bill 1303, completely overhauled the elections system in Colorado, offering same-day voter registration, among other reforms.
The law has outraged conservatives, who say that it was poorly written with conflicts and complicated residency requirements.
Jon Caldara, president of the libertarian Independence Institute, made a point during the recall of Morse by registering to vote in a district in which he did not reside, though he did not actually vote in the election.
Caldara believed simply showing intent to live in a certain district was enough to vote because of a potential loophole in HB 1303.
Republican Attorney General John Suthers’ office on Thursday said it would not criminally charge Caldara for the stunt. First Attorney General Robert Shapiro said in a letter that there is “arguable ambiguity within some of the new legislation.”
Republicans are likely to push Democrats to fix the perceived errors in the bill in the upcoming session.
But Hullinghorst called Caldara a “one-man circus,” making no indication that Democrats will tackle the bill again this year. The issue is likely to become a wedge during election-year arguments.
“I don’t know where you would find another person in Colorado who would go through what he did to vote suspiciously, if not illegally…” said Hullinghorst. “I don’t think you’ll find this happening as usual, I think it was done to create a scene, I think it did create a scene, and I think he’s lucky to not be prosecuted.”
Another divisive issue that could face the legislature concerns oil and gas regulations. Democrats had pushed an ambitious agenda last year that largely did not go anywhere.
They are closely watching rules proposed by the governor’s office that aim to cut methane emissions. And Hullinghorst said there could be measures on providing studies for health impacts.
Where the issue could become very sticky is on local control.
A total of five municipalities — Longmont, Lafayette, Boulder, Fort Collins and Broomfield — have passed bans on hydraulic fracturing, or so-called “fracking.”
Longmont, Lafayette and Fort Collins are facing lawsuits filed by the industry seeking to overturn the bans.
Meanwhile, Colorado voters may be asked to approve a ballot initiative that would give local communities the power to ban fracking and other oil and gas regulatory issues.
Hullinghorst suggested that the legislature might also attempt to address issues around local control, which would face pushback from Republicans. But overall, the agenda does not appear to be as significant as that of last year.