Lawmakers pledge cooperation — but hard feelings linger

Opening day at the 2012 Legislature
The Colorado Statesman

For at least a day, the second floor of the Colorado State Capitol was among the happiest places on earth.

As the second regular session of the 68th General Assembly of Colorado kicked off on Wednesday, legislative leaders from both parties pledged to reach across the aisles to tackle the state’s sluggish economy and dismissed suggestions that election-year politics or lingering rancor over new district lines might impede the people’s business.

House Minority Leader Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, front, delivers opening day remarks as House Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, looks on at the state Capitol on Jan. 11. Legislative leaders pledged to set aside partisan wrangling to take on the task of spurring job growth in Colorado.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

But even while urging colleagues to set aside partisan gamesmanship, leaders drew lines left and right in the Capitol sand over rising Medicaid costs, a massive tax break for senior homeowners and the very notion that government can fix an ailing economy. And a Republican lawmaker — forced into early retirement by Democratic-sponsored reapportionment maps — rose to voice “disappointment in the process” but still, quoting Mother Theresa, pledged to serve out his term with integrity and honor.

Mostly, though, notes of harmony rang through the halls.

House Speaker Frank McNulty delivers remarks on the opening day. He said legislators “have 120 days — perhaps less — to help put Colorado back on the path to prosperity.”
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“It’s our duty, our mission, to do everything in our power to revitalize the engine of Colorado’s economy,” said Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, before banishing the notion that the divided chambers might flounder in the usual partisan bickering. “There is no Republican or Democratic voice,” he said. “There is no progressive or conservative voice. There is only one voice, and that’s the voice of the people of Colorado.”
Shaffer, one of four legislators running for Congress this year — the others are state Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, and state Reps. Sal Pace, D-Pueblo, and Joe Miklosi, D-Denver — asked lawmakers to keep the “debates and disputes” focused on the issues at hand. “They can’t be about us,” he said. “They can’t be about politics and upcoming elections. Rather, they must be about the people of Colorado.”

Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, looks to the gallery as Dennis Sindelir of American Legion Post 32 recites “Old Glory,” a poem about the flag on the Legislature’s opening day on Jan. 11 at the State Capitol. Fellow Legionnaires from the Longmont post stand at attention after presenting the colors.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

House Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, painted a vision of lawmakers defying expectations: “Republicans and Democrats, coming together to improve job creation and economic security for Colorado’s working families and small businesses.”

House Majority Leader Amy Stephens, R-Monument, and Assistant Majority Leader Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, stand and cheer opening day remarks in the House chamber on Jan. 11 at the state Capitol.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Moments later, House Minority Leader Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, took to the rostrum, greeted the assembled dignitaries, and said, “This session, House Democrats will have a laser-like focus on job creation. Thank you.” He then gathered his papers and feinted leaving the microphone before settling in for his own call for cooperation. Noting that one newspaper had already predicted a “massive partisan brawl” this session, Ferrandino countered: “Together, we can prove the pundits wrong.”

State Sen. Jean White, R-Hayden, and her husband, Al, share a moment during opening day at the Legislature on Jan. 11. The lawmaker was appointed to fill her husband’s seat when he stepped down a year ago to take a job with Gov. John Hickenlooper as director of the state tourism office.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

His counterpart in the Senate offered an even more succinct initial response to Shaffer’s remarks. Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, took to the microphone and uttered a single word: “Ditto.”

Then, after warning against intrusion by “omnipotent moral busybodies” — quoting an entrepreneur who had advised Republican lawmakers with the words of C.S. Lewis — Cadman took a nostalgic tour of his tenure at the Capitol, crediting numerous Democrats as helpers and allies.

State Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, and his daughter Christy partake in opening day festivities at the state Capitol on Jan. 11.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“We are so much more than the D or the R next to our name,” he said, pleading with fellow senators to cultivate relationships “built on respect and civility and trust. When these break down, relationships are weakened and this institution becomes vulnerable to the toxic effects of extreme partisanship.”

State Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, greets well-wishers during opening day at the Legislature on Jan. 11.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

After listing a number of bipartisan bills designed to reduce “burdensome government regulations and blind restrictions,” McNulty made clear that Republicans stand firm in their opposition to a budget proposal by Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper that would suspend a tax break for seniors who have owned their homes for at least a decade. “The time of balancing our state budget on the backs of our seniors most in need must come to an end,” he said, referring to voter-approved tax relief that adds up to roughly $100 million this year. (In previous years, both Republicans and Democrats have tossed the tax break to balance tight budgets.)

State Sen. Tim Neville, R-Littleton, and his wife, Barb, listen as a Legionnaire recites a patriotic poem on opening day. The chamber’s newest member, Neville was tapped by a vacancy committee to fill the seat of former Senate Minority Leader Mike Kopp after Kopp stepped down last fall.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

McNulty also urged Hickenlooper to work with federal officials to help curb increasing costs associated with Medicaid and other entitlement programs partially funded by the state, which he said put officials on a “spending hamster wheel of uncontrolled spending.”

Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia, left, visits with state Sen. Cheri Jahn, D-Wheat Ridge, during opening day at the Capitol on Jan. 11.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“We know there is no ‘magic wand’ to fix the federal entitlement program forced on our state,” McNulty said. “But I believe Gov. Hickenlooper, Minority Leader Ferrandino, the General Assembly, our congressional delegation and citizens and experts across the state can come together to find tailored solutions that work best for Colorado.”

State Sen. Nancy Spence, R-Centennial, lends support to state Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, after King decried the reapportionment process that is forcing him from office at the end of this year.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Saying that Colorado “already has one of the leanest Medicaid systems in the country,” Ferrandino shot back that Republican efforts to “set up a false choice between Medicaid and education, or Medicaid and seniors, is simply irresponsible.”

Marlene Valdez Pace, wife of state Rep. and congressional candidate Sal Pace, D-Pueblo, exchanges pleasantries with Paul Weissmann, right, a former legislator who now works at the Capitol as a Democratic staffer. The children, who played at the desk of their father during opening day festivities Wednesday at the Legislature are, left to right, Carlo, Wyatt and little Alana Philomena Valdez Pace, who was born at the end of September.
Photo by Jody Hope Strogoff/The Colorado Statesman

He touted a Democratic-sponsored proposal to change how the state disperses Medicaid payments as proof that Republicans aren’t the only ones concerned about the program’s increasing share of the state budget. And he offered a rebuttal to McNulty: “Let’s stop fantasizing about a magic Medicaid waiver that can make our problems go away. It just does not exist.”

State Rep. Lois Court, D-Denver, third from left, poses with students from Red Rocks Community College — Tracy Perkins, Ed Miller and Joe Heimer — who are taking her “Inside the Legislature” course. An American government and political science adjunct instructor for the local college, Court is providing them with a firsthand look into the legislative process by attending committee meetings and observing what transpires at the Capitol, including opening day proceedings.
Photo by Jody Hope Strogoff/The Colorado Statesman

Then, citing a characterization made by Cadman last month, Ferrandino said, “Let me be clear: Medicaid is not a ‘tumor’ on our budget, as one political leader from a different chamber recently described it. Our Medicaid rolls are still growing because many people are still struggling. Simple as that.”

While the others sidestepped GOP resentment over the recently completed reapportionment process, Cadman — who had earlier called the Democratic-drawn maps “blatantly partisan and politically vindictive” — introduced state Sen. Keith King, R-Colorado Springs, who is stepping aside after being drawn into the same district as Cadman.

“A process that is supposed to be partisan-neutral has failed us, and even more important it has failed the people of Colorado,” said Cadman, who has promised to offer a fix to the once-a-decade system.

Blasting the maps — but adding that he was big enough to keep the outcome from affecting his service to the state for the remainder of his term — King said that Democrats had deliberately sown discord within the GOP caucus and cheated the state of seasoned representation in the statehouse.

“The change was definitely not necessary to fairly represent the people of Colorado Springs,” an emotional King said. “But it was designed, frankly, to force one of us to resign or for us to challenge each other.” He continued: “I think the State of Colorado deserves better. The institutional memory is short enough with term limits. And without the opportunity for us to serve two terms, the system is really run by staff and by lobbyists.”

King’s impassioned remarks were met with a standing ovation from Republicans and Democrats alike.

Then Majority Leader John Morse, one of the Democratic commissioners on the reapportionment panel, took to the microphone to remind lawmakers that two Denver Democrats — state Sens. Joyce Foster and Pat Steadman — were also drawn into the same district, leading to Foster’s decision to step down.

“It’s the nature of the process — it’s politics within politics,” Morse said, adding that he will “greatly miss” King’s leadership.

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com