House leaders from both sides of the aisle pointed to a productive legislative session in which they traded the political jabs from last year for a session focused on recovery from recent natural disasters and making investments in economic development, jobs and education.
“We set out to accomplish three main objectives… to help those who have been hurt and those communities who have been hurt by flood and wildfires in 2013; to make sure that we make investments and improve our P-20 education system; and to continue to build on the economic growth we’ve seen over the last couple of years and ensure that we continue to see job growth and ensure that that growth is helping everyone and providing economic security for everyone in our state,” explained House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver.
He said bipartisanship was achieved this year following a polarizing session last year that divided the chamber over gun control, elections law and a rural renewable energy standard, among other issues.
A whopping 96 percent of bills passed with bipartisan support this year, up from 94 percent the year before.
“It has been a very productive and very bipartisan session…” boasted Ferrandino, who is term-limited this year and was feeling a bit nostalgic during his last media availability.
“It really shows the best of the legislature when everyone works together to get the best policy for the state.”
The speaker does not believe Democrats were forced into a bipartisan session because of backlash last year. Following the laws on gun control specifically, two Senate Democrats were ousted from office in recall elections, including then-Senate President John Morse of Colorado Springs and then-Sen. Angela Giron of Pueblo. A third Senate Democrat, Evie Hudak of Westminster, resigned rather than face a looming recall election.
“There was a lot more noise last year on a few bills… there was a lot more heat in the building last year…” acknowledged Ferrandino. “But when we took the majority there were things people wanted us to do… and we worked on that and we accomplished it.”
House Majority Leader Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, D-Boulder, also does not believe that the tone changed this year because Democrats backed away from a liberal agenda. She said the reason could be that Republicans actually tried harder to work with their Democratic counterparts.
“Maybe one of the reasons this one was less contentious is that they got the message that we’re here to do the work of the people…” opined Hullinghorst. “We don’t pick fights just to pick fights, and maybe they’re beginning to understand that.”
House Minority Leader Brian DelGrosso, R-Loveland, who finished his first session as minority leader, agreed that the session was less contentious. But he believes that shift had to do with Democrats realizing that Coloradans were frustrated with the partisan tone last year.
“Overall it was not quite as contentious this year as it was last year,” he said. “We definitely still had some partisan battles… but we didn’t get to the level… of contentiousness… as it was last year. That was good for everybody.
“What happened last year I don’t think was good for the people of Colorado,” DelGrosso continued. “So, to have a little more civility down here and work a little bit more in a bipartisan fashion, I think overall is better for the people of Colorado.”
Education was at the top of the bipartisan list. Lawmakers patted themselves on the back for leading an effort that included a more than $400-million spike for public schools, which equates to a jump of about $400 per student.
The funding amounts to the largest increase in education spending in the state’s history. But the funding only erases $110 million of the so-called “negative factor,” which was brought about as a result of $1 billion in cuts experienced over the course of the economic downturn.
Lawmakers also increased higher education funding by $100 million, while setting a tuition cap of 6 percent for the next two years.
The legislature also took action around expanding public-private partnerships for college scholarships.
“That’s going to be a significant resource to districts across our state to be able to restore some of the great cuts they made during the Great Recession, and hopefully also reduce class sizes,” said Ferrandino.
But he admitted that he did not expect the intense lobbying from teachers, school boards and executives over the negative factor. School funding saw some of the biggest lobbying fights of the year, with dozens of lobbyists lined up outside the chambers for last-minute amendments.
“I did not anticipate that. That was probably one of the surprising things of the session,” said Ferrandino. “If you talk to either party… it was an interesting year in education policy and education funding decisions.”
Education spending offered an opportunity for Republicans and Democrats to come together, as the GOP had also made investments in schools a priority. Republicans had adamantly opposed a ballot question last year that would have raised taxes by nearly $1 billion to fund K-12.
Following the defeat of Amendment 66, Republicans vowed to work to find a legislative fix. Collaborating with Democrats, they built upon proposals from last year that called for reforming the student count process and offering financial flexibility to charter schools.
“Going into this year, our main objective… was education…” explained DelGrosso. “Republicans last year made big arguments; do we need a billion dollar tax increase? And we argued and argued and said we don’t need a billion dollar tax increase, we can make significant investments into our K-12 education system and it doesn’t require that large of a tax increase…
“I was glad we were able to work with my colleagues on the other side of the aisle and get a significant investment into K-12 this year,” he added.
The two sides of the aisle were also able to come together on economic recovery, holding up a bipartisan measure that finally offers relief from the business personal property tax.
House Bill 1279 would provide small business owners a tax break on their business personal property taxes up to the first $15,000 on equipment.
While DelGrosso was pleased that Democrats were willing to work with Republicans on the issue, he wondered what took them so long to get on board, pointing out that Republicans have been proposing the tax break for years.
“One of the funny things for me and a highlight for me this year is the business personal property tax…” said DelGrosso. “I laughed… That’s basically been a Republican idea for every year since I’ve been here… This is a very onerous tax on the businesses… Now all of a sudden in an election year Democrats suddenly carry a business personal property tax bill.
“The reality is that I think a lot of the business community last year thought that that was one of the most damaging sessions towards the business community in recent memory…” he continued. “This year it’s going back to, ‘You know what. We made a lot of the business community mad, now we have to make nice with people.’”
House Democrats, however, have a different take on why there was a focus on breaks for the business community this year, including the business personal property tax.
“This is funny because we have supported business personal property tax bills over the last couple of years that both Democrats and Republicans have brought forward,” said Ferrandino, pointing out that Democrats pushed a bill in 2008 exempting companies with $7,000 or less worth of equipment from paying the tax.
“They have to remember their history first,” jabbed Ferrandino.
“The way they’ve tried to do it in the past is just get rid of it completely, and that just won’t work because it devastates local communities,” added the speaker.
Hullinghorst echoed similar thoughts, suggesting, “The Republicans in the past have introduced bills that are simply too draconian and would have put some county governments out of business…
“The bill that we passed this year really helps small businesses a lot… and it does so in a way that the state backfills that through an income tax credit so that the local communities are not harmed,” continued Hullinghorst.
Floods and fires
There was also little bickering conceptually over recovery efforts following devastating floods and fires. Most of the fighting was about appropriating dollars, but both sides of the aisle agreed that progress was necessary.
The session came full circle in the last days of the legislative year when the first measure introduced in the House, House Bill 1001, became one of the last pieces of legislation to pass in the waning hours.
Sponsored by Rep. Jonathan Singer, D-Longmont, and Sen. Jeanne Nicholson, D-Black Hawk, the bill would offer a tax credit for property destroyed by a natural cause. The measure passed a conference committee to discuss amendments in the last day of the legislative session, coming down to the wire as one of the most important pieces of legislation of the year.
“It was the first bill introduced, happened to be the last bill passed through the legislative process,” acknowledged Ferrandino.
Lawmakers also found $17 million to address areas impacted by last year’s floods, as well as an additional $20 million for an aerial firefighting fleet.
“A lot of that was bipartisan going into the session deliberately…” said Hullinghorst. “Making the committee that dealt with floods and fires absolutely bipartisan… that helped us going into this session to get those bills passed…
“We did some pretty important stuff,” she added. “Some of it wasn’t very sexy or very controversial, but we got it done…”