Leadership trades charges of political gamesmanship

Deteriorating relationships could hamper negotiations
The Colorado Statesman

As the Legislature nears its mid-session on Saturday, a fiery House Minority Leader Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, has raised concerns over “political gamesmanship” by House Republican leadership that he fears will lead to a deterioration of relationships that could make budget and other negotiations increasingly more difficult.
House Democrats allege that Republicans are killing bills because of their Democratic sponsors, or delaying popular legislation for the same reason.

The focal point this week was on House Bill 1005, sponsored by liberal Rep. Dan Pabon, D-Denver. The bill allows counties and other local governments to make investments in government-backed securities that have less than two triple-A ratings. Because of the shocking downgrade last year of federal securities by Standard & Poor’s rating agency, local Colorado governments were prohibited by state law to make the investments. The bill allows those local governments to invest taxpayer money in the downgraded securities.

While the bill had bipartisan support — conservative Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, sponsored it in the Senate and it passed both the House and Senate by unanimous votes — and despite it having cost taxpayers $164,383 every day the bill wasn’t signed into law, the legislation was laid over in the House by Republican leadership for a month before it finally moved to second reading on March 2. The bill was given final approval by the House on Monday and was sped through the Senate on Wednesday. Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia later signed the legislation on Wednesday in Gov. John Hickenlooper’s absence, underscoring its urgency. Hickenlooper was in Houston for a previously scheduled speaking engagement.

Ferrandino is questioning why Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, allowed the bill to languish for so long.

It wasn’t all that long ago when House Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, and House Minority Leader Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, were confidant that their caucuses could work together in a bipartisan way. That has given way to charges of gamesmanship.

“There was no good explanation from the Republicans, so there’s something behind that, and what’s behind that is either one of two things: Either the Republicans were using that for leverage with the counties and cities, or they were upset with someone and that was a way to get retribution,” Ferrandino told The Colorado Statesman on Monday.

“The games that are being played seem to be growing as we’re going through the session,” he continued. “It’s unfortunate, and I think we’re seeing bills die because of the sponsor, not because of the content of the bill.”
McNulty offered The Statesman a different explanation, arguing that the bill was held for so long because significant concerns were raised over its content.

“There were substantive concerns about that bill related to the federal government’s inability to pay its bills, and the fact that we have to take action here on the state level to allow counties and municipalities to invest in sub-standard investments because the Obama administration and Congress had the U.S. credit rating downgraded,” McNulty explained.

“I understand from a practical standpoint why we had to do that, and that’s why I voted for the bill, but I certainly recognize the fact that we had to take this action because the Obama administration and Congress continue to rack up an unsustainable amount of federal spending,” he continued.

McNulty took offense to any accusations by Ferrandino that he had ulterior motives for delaying the legislation.

“To imply anything into that simply ignores the fact that you have a very liberal member of the House and a very conservative member of the Senate sponsoring that bill,” he said. “The Democrats have picked the wrong bill to make those accusations on.”

Several concerns by Dems

But Ferrandino says House Democrats’ concerns not just over HB 1005. He says there are numerous examples of House Republican leadership killing other Democratic bills, too, simply because of their sponsors.

He first points to House Bill 1035, sponsored by Rep. Dave Young, D-Greeley, who is facing a competitive election in House District 50 as a result of legislative boundary shifts from reapportionment last year. Young was appointed by a vacancy committee last year to replace Jim Riesberg.

His HB 1035 would have repealed the fee charged to military personnel for the branch of service identifier on their Colorado driver’s license. The bill had bipartisan support, with Reps. Marsha Looper, R-Calhan, and Glenn Vaad, R-Mead, signing on as co-sponsors. But when the bill made its way to the House Appropriations Committee, both Looper and Vaad oddly voted against the bill.

House Democrats are likewise frustrated that House Bill 1281, also sponsored by Young, was sent to appropriations on a Republican party-line vote, where the bill is feared to be in jeopardy of being killed. The legislation is a significant part of the Democrats’ agenda this year, and would create a pilot program to address Medicaid payment reforms. Democrats opposed sending the bill to appropriations, while Republican leadership felt it was necessary.

Another area of alarm to House Democrats is House Bill 1260, sponsored by Rep. Jeanne Labuda, D-Denver. The bill would have put a $250,000 cap on enterprise-zone income tax credits that a company can take annually, but the House Finance Committee killed it on Feb. 29.

What particularly concerned Democrats is that on Feb. 22, House Republicans played political chess with the bill, according to Ferrandino. He said Republicans actually tried to let the bill pass, despite their opposition to it, as a jab to Hickenlooper, a Democrat who has remained neutral on enterprise zone reform.

Republicans want the governor to oppose enterprise zone reform measures, but he has not publicly done so. Ferrandino believes that House Republicans thought that if the bill made its way to the governor, then he would be forced to make a tough choice on whether to publicly support the cap, which is quite unpopular in the business community because it takes tax credits away from Colorado businesses. Hickenlooper, a former businessman himself, has repeatedly said that he remains committed to business interests in the state.

When it came time to vote on Labuda’s bill, three Republican Finance Committee members purposely left the hearing in order to miss the vote, said Ferrandino. The thinking was that the six Democrats on the committee would all support the measure, and that it would pass 6-4, according to reports.

But Rep. John Kefalas, D-Fort Collins, voted against the bill, ending the Republicans’ purported game. The bill stalled 5-5 and was tabled for a week. When it came back up again on Feb. 29, the bill died 8-5. Kefalas remained consistent and again voted against the bill.

“It’s the games and politics more than the issues,” said Ferrandino. “It is more personality and election gamesmanship than policy. I have no problem with the policy fights, that’s what we’re down here to do … but we’re not paid to set up campaign ads against each other.”

GOP charges Democrats with same political gamesmanship

House Republicans, however, say political gamesmanship has been around the Legislature since its inception, and point out that Democrats were just as guilty of it when they controlled both chambers. In fact, Republicans say Democrats committed more heinous acts by killing Republican legislation simply to introduce similar bills under Democratic sponsorship.

The GOP points to House Bill 1127, sponsored in 2007 by Rep. Spencer Swalm, R-Centennial. The legislation would have required sex offenders to register all e-mail addresses, as well as instant-messaging and chat room identities. The bill was assigned to the Democratic-controlled House Judiciary Committee at the time where it was killed on a party-line vote.

Also that session, Democrats introduced a similar bill, House Bill 1326, sponsored by Rep. Andy Kerr, D-Lakewood, that required sex offenders to provide electronic communication identifiers when registering as a sex offender. But that bill made its way through the same House Judiciary Committee and ultimately became law.

Republicans insist that Democrats played the ultimate political game with those two bills, killing HB 1127 because it had a Republican sponsor, but then pushing along HB 1326 because it had a Democratic sponsor.
A similar concern was raised over legislation introduced in 2009 that aimed to increase transparency in school budgeting. Senate Bill 57, sponsored in the Senate by Harvey and in the House by Rep. Amy Stephens, R-Monument, would have required school districts to maintain an online database listing revenues and expenditures.

While the legislation made its way through the Democratic-controlled Senate, the Education Committee blocked it in the Democratic-controlled House.

The next year, in 2010, Harvey and Stephens introduced a similar bill, Senate Bill 91, which also aimed to create an online database for school budgets. The bill was assigned to the Democratic-controlled Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, a known ‘kill’ committee for Democrats, where it died on a party-line vote.

But a similar bill that same year, House Bill 1036, was introduced with Democratic sponsors Christine Scanlan, a Democratic state representative from Dillon, and Sen. Chris Romer, D-Denver. HB 1036 also sought to require an online database of budgets for public schools. Unlike SB 91, however, Democrats did not assign HB 1036 to the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee. Instead, the bill was first assigned by controlling House Democrats to the Education Committee, where it was passed, and then to the Senate Education Committee, where it also passed and ultimately sent on to the governor for his signature.

Another example of Democrats killing Republican legislation when they controlled the Legislature are two bills from 2010 that addressed priority-based budgeting, according to Republicans.

Republicans had introduced House Bill 1126, sponsored by Vaad and Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, that sought to require the state to develop a prioritization report for budgeting. The House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee killed it.

But a piece of legislation introduced that same year by Ferrandino, House Bill 1119, which also sought to prioritize budgeting requests, made its way through the same House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, and ultimately to the governor for his signature.

Former House Minority Leader Mike May, R-Parker, a veteran of the Legislature who watched Democrats come into control of the House in 2005, said the numerous examples indicate that Democrats are just as guilty of the political gamesmanship.

“That’s been going on since we first became a state …” said May. “I don’t want to get into the specifics of it, but of course it went on [with Democrats], that’s how it worked. Nothing has changed.”

“In this state, or any state, the only thing that changes is you have Democrats, many of whom there now never served in the minority, and their memories are short, and they’re now on the short end of the stick now,” he continued. “They should quit whining and get on with business.”

Deteriorating relationships in the Legislature?

The concern Ferrandino has now is whether all the games over the years — and especially this session — will result in deteriorating relationships that could complicate the all important work of passing the state budget, which lawmakers are required to do by law.

Democrats and Republicans will need to come to a compromise on the budget, with the biggest sticking point being the restoration of a property tax break for seniors known as the Senior Homestead Exemption. Democrats say the $100 million exemption is too costly to restore after a three-year absence, especially in light of significant cuts proposed to K-12 education.

“When [McNulty] says he doesn’t want to cut any more out of K-12, and he wants to fully restore the senior property tax exemption even though it’s not means tested, if the forecast doesn’t come up significantly better you’re going to come to a place where those two are going to come into conflict, and I worry that some of the lack of cooperation in the chamber makes it harder for the two parties to come together and find compromise,” said Ferrandino.

But McNulty says Ferrandino is “rambling around the hallways searching for ghosts.” The Speaker says Democrats should give the Joint Budget Committee a chance to work out details before sounding the alarm.

“He’s trying to manufacture a controversy,” said McNulty. “Why he’s trying to manufacture that controversy is perhaps a better question because everyone else that we’ve talked to seems to believe that the process is moving forward and that it’s actually the state agencies that are holding this process up…”

Ferrandino, meanwhile, says he is also closely watching to see if a bill to provide a reduced in-state tuition rate for undocumented students — Senate Bill 15 — will get a fair hearing in the House if it clears the Senate, which it is expected to do. He is also worried that legislation that would allow civil unions in Colorado — Senate Bill 2 — will not get a fair hearing in the House based on political wrangling.

Ferrandino is nervous that because of deteriorating relationships, there is a less likely chance that those two bills will be assigned to fair and understanding House committees, and that the bills may never make their way to the House floor for a full and robust debate.

Where did it go wrong?

Ferrandino says his optimism began to decline last month, right around the time McNulty made some leadership decisions regarding embattled Rep. Laura Bradford, R-Collbran. The lawmaker became entangled in a controversy over whether she had been driving under the influence of alcohol and had invoked a legislative privilege that granted her immunity from arrest.

Before all the evidence had come to light regarding the Jan. 25 incident, McNulty decided to strip Bradford of her post as chair of the House Local Government Committee. He also convened an ethics panel to investigate the charges.

But just as McNulty called for the ethics panel, the Denver Police Department held a press conference to apologize to Bradford for originally stating that she had invoked the privilege. According to the Denver Police Department, they got the story wrong, and it turned out that Bradford had actually requested to be taken in to answer the allegations. The ethics panel later exonerated Bradford.

Some within McNulty’s own party questioned his decision to convene the ethics panel and strip Bradford of her post before all the facts had come to light. They accused McNulty of abandoning his Republican colleague in her time of need. The situation became so twisted that Bradford at one point threatened to leave the Republican Party over the perceived insult. With Republicans controlling the House by only one seat, the move would have thrown the House into absolute turmoil and would have undermined Republican leadership. Bradford ultimately decided to stick with her party.

But Ferrandino believes the damage was done and that some Republicans began to question McNulty’s leadership and loyalty, which has forced him to pander more to conservative interests in the aftermath.

“If you look at one issue, that issue helped to cause division within the Republican caucus, which has made it more difficult for the leadership,” said Ferrandino.

McNulty shrugged off any notions of such a division. “Our caucus is sticking together and that’s what matters,” he insisted.

“We are in a good spot,” he continued. “Our 33 members continue to recognize that we’re the only thing between the people of Colorado and the Democrats’ tax-and-spend job-killing agenda. We’re it.”