Bipartisanship is key word on opening day

The Colorado Statesman

Legislative leaders from both sides of the aisle during opening remarks on Wednes-day pleaded with members to exercise bipartisanship following a blistering interim.

In the wake of two successful recalls that ousted Senate President John Morse of Colorado Springs and Sen. Angela Giron of Pueblo for their support of gun control, leaders appeared set on healing open wounds.

A third Senate Democrat, Evie Hudak of Westminster, resigned in November rather than face a painful recall election, thereby preserving the Democratic majority in the Senate by one seat.

With Morse ousted from office, Sen. Morgan Carroll of Aurora took his place. She was unanimously backed by both sides of the aisle to serve as the next Senate president, a showing of bipartisanship despite fears by Republicans that she will advance a liberal agenda.

Carroll pointed out that 95 percent of bills passed last year with bipartisan support. She made specific reference to civil unions legislation, pointing to Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, who joined Senate Democrats in supporting the measure last year.

The topic was personal for Carroll and her friends, Darin and David Riffle. The gay couple had long waited for the day when civil unions would pass. Unfortunately, David was diagnosed with cancer on Valentine’s Day in 2012. When the civil unions bill was signed in March of last year, David was too sick to attend the ceremony. The governor saved a signing pen for him.

“I wish you could have been there to see what that signing pen meant to David and Darin,” Carroll addressed her colleagues.

Just five days before the first civil union ceremonies were scheduled to begin in May 2013, David died from the illness. Darin attended Carroll’s remarks on Wednesday.

“It was too late for David and Darin to enter into a civil union in Colorado, but it was not too late for others,” explained Carroll.

While it may seem odd that Carroll would focus a major portion of her opening day remarks on legislation that has already been enacted, the purpose of her comments was to highlight bipartisanship.

“That bipartisan work and support on important bills was not the exception last session…” said Carroll. “It was actually the norm.”

She went on to highlight other bills that had bipartisan support last year, including measures dealing with property rights, marijuana implementation, in-state tuition for undocumented students, wildfires, health care, protections for rape victims, school safety, military support, and college savings, among others.

“Working together was nothing unusual last session and this session we can do even better,” Carroll said with optimism.

She encouraged her colleagues to consider the great seal of the United States, which carries the inscription, “E pluribus unum,” or, “Out of many, one.”

“We are all individuals with different life experiences, coming from different parts of the state or country,” she said. “Our diversity and differences are a source of strength, and we are here united to serve one goal — to diligently act as public servants for the people of Colorado.”

Carroll was not alone in her wishful thinking. Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman of Colorado Springs echoed similar hopes in his opening day remarks. He tied his comments to ensuring the greater good for all of Colorado, quoting Nelson Mandela, who recently died.

“‘To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedoms of others,’” Cadman recalled the words of the great Mandela.

Cadman would not rehash the specifics behind the recall elections and resignation of Hudak. Everyone under the Gold Dome remembers what happened during the gun control debate. In fact, Cadman asked his colleagues to thank Morse, Giron and Hudak for their efforts.

He said he invited Morse to the opening day ceremonies, but Morse declined the invitation.

But Cadman questioned why those recalls took place, suggesting that Democrats over-reached and silenced certain voices from the other side of the debate.

“Democrats divided by Republicans does not produce outcomes that are representative of this state,” opined Cadman. “In addition to the historic events, that formula produces a hyper-partisan toxin that affected this entire institution, those who serve here and all who visited here…

“Instead of Ds divided by Rs, what if we try Ds plus Rs?” Cadman asked of his colleagues. “We do have examples of that, but they certainly fade when hyper-partisan politics and narrow special interests control this institution from that lobby.

“Our challenge today is to change the formula,” he added. “Our challenge is to build up relationships that tear down partisanship.”

The same words of hope were offered during opening remarks in the House, where Democrats maintain a 37-28 majority. Speaker Mark Ferrandino of Denver, who began his second year as speaker, said bipartisanship is something that is regularly achieved at the Capitol.

“This type of collaborative policymaking is not the type of hyper-partisan rhetoric and high-octane fighting that made headlines,” he said. “But it is the truth.

“I can cite one example after another from the work we’ve done these past few years to show that the pundits and partisans who say Colorado is a fractured state, split between left and right, rural and urban, are simply wrong,” he added.

He offered Rep. Amy Stephens, R-Monument, as an example, though some have taken it as a political jab. Stephens, who is seeking her party’s nomination to challenge U.S. Sen. Mark Udall this year, sponsored a bill in 2011 that created a health care insurance exchange in Colorado.

Stephens, conservative on most policy issues, was heavily criticized for the bill because some on the right viewed it as advancing President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. It has already become a wedge issue as Stephens runs in a crowded Republican primary field.

“Amy Stephens, an advocate on health care issues who had the political courage to work across the aisle to create Colorado’s health care exchange,” Ferrandino described his colleague on the other side of the aisle.

Following Ferrandino’s remarks, Stephens chuckled about being singled out by the speaker.

“I think that was kind of him,” she laughed. “I never read more into it. I thought, ‘OK, we get it.’ I mean, how can anyone miss that?”

Ferrandino went on to point to some of the Democrats’ critics, including those in rural Colorado. Voters in 11 counties in northern Colorado this November were asked whether they would like to secede from the state. Six of those counties said “no,” halting the 51st state initiative.

The speaker pointed out that despite a small portion of those voters wishing to secede, state officials looked beyond the politics when it came to rescue efforts during recent devastating floods that impacted much of rural Colorado.

“It wasn’t lost on me that when a few counties were voting on whether to separate from Colorado, our state and local governments and charitable organizations were performing one of our most daunting disaster cleanups in some of those same counties,” remarked Ferrandino.

“Guess what: politics didn’t matter,” the speaker continued. “What did matter was making sure people were taken care of. We… are in this thing together. It is our great charge to build a better, stronger Colorado.”

Newly appointed House Minority Leader Brian DelGrosso of Loveland reiterated the call for bipartisanship, adding, “There are issues that we fundamentally disagree on, but rather than let the partisanship impede progress, let’s cooperate, let’s have healthy debates and arrive at decisions that are best for all of the citizens of this state.”

But DelGrosso was also critical of the Democrats’ agenda from last year, suggesting that bipartisanship was lost because of unwillingness by Democrats to listen to Republicans.

“Over and over again, we were reminded that we did not have the votes. We know we are the minority, but we represent over 2 million people who have a right to be represented here,” said DelGrosso.

Some lawmakers aren’t buying into the bipartisan talks. Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, a stalwart conservative, believes Carroll “whitewashed” the Democrats’ aggressive agenda from last year.

He points to instances in which sheriffs and citizens were limited in their comments on gun control. He also pointed to similar concerns during hearings on a rural renewable energy standard.

“She said this is a democracy and everybody gets to participate,” Harvey pointed out following Carroll’s remarks. “But there were probably 54 sheriffs here who were denied the ability to speak, there were probably 3,000 people here who tried to speak and they were denied the ability to speak, there were rural electric association members from all over the state that were told to go to hell…” opined Harvey. “The current president of the Senate has the gall to say ‘our doors are always open…’”

But Sen. Irene Aguilar, D-Denver, who often leads a progressive agenda, did not walk away frustrated after hearing from legislative leaders. Instead, she is optimistic.

“We are 35 independent senators who can do whatever we want,” said Aguilar. “While the majority leader and minority leader speak for what they would like to see this session, ultimately it’s going to be each senators’ personal position.

“But I think the attitude that they both conveyed in those speeches is what the people of Colorado would love to see in here happen,” Aguilar continued. “I’m hoping that anyone who is thinking it might be different will step back and consider that.”

Different perspectives on progress

Differing perspectives are also coming to light when it comes to jobs and the economy. It was clear from the opening day speeches that Republicans and Democrats differ on the progress that was made.

DelGrosso believes Colorado’s economy would improve faster if the legislature focused more on easing mandates and red tape.

“These people are the lifeblood of our economy,” he said. “If our business community is not thriving we will not have a thriving economy.

“Yes, Colorado’s unemployment rate is down and that is encouraging,” DelGrosso added. “But what cannot be ignored are the many parts of Colorado that still struggle today. Outside the Front Range we have communities stricken with stagnant or in many cases declining economies.”

He pointed out that Colorado has dropped on an index by the National Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council that rates policies supportive of small business.

“New regulations, even with the best intentions, take an enormous amount of time and resources to navigate,” he said. “Businesses do not need another competitor in the form of government getting in their way and erecting barriers to success.”

But Carroll pointed to Colorado being first in the U.S. for labor supply; second in the nation for starting a business and entrepreneurship; and fourth for projected economic growth. She added that the state has added 161,000 jobs.

“We know that a good-paying job is essential to a person’s freedom to succeed as well as the health of our overall economy, which is why I believe Colorado will see us unite in our commitment to continuing to grow good-paying jobs and pursue public policies that improve economic security,” explained the Senate president.

Ferrandino pointed out that Colorado’s unemployment rate has dipped to 6.5 percent, about one-point down from where it was at the start of the session last year.

But the speaker believes more can happen, suggesting, “We must not reduce our efforts to facilitate a broader, more sustainable recovery.”

Ferrandino said his caucus would push bills around advanced industries, skills training and cutting the business personal tax, which has been encouraged by Republicans for years.

But the major focus for Democrats this year when it comes to jobs and the economy will be tying the discussion to education.

“That means ensuring that a single mother without a high school diploma can access the training she needs to land a new, good-paying job, and that she also has access to affordable childcare for her daughter, and that her daughter later has a shot at graduating from college without a mountain of debt,” remarked Ferrandino.

There will be measures this year around higher education, including Senate Bill 1, which would add over $100 million to higher education, increasing financial aid and restoring a 6 percent cap on tuition rate increases.

“Educated people not only benefit from a higher employment rate and salary, but also help prompt entrepreneurship and job creation,” said Carroll. “Creating good-paying jobs that foster economic security is a priority for us all to provide the freedom to succeed.”

She pointed to several statistics, including that college tuition has gone up more than 600 percent since 1985; the student share of tuition is 65 percent compared to the state’s 35 percent; textbooks have gone up 812 percent since 1978; and the average student debt level is now over $29,000, accounting for nearly $1 trillion in outstanding student debt in the U.S.

For Carroll the conversation is personal. She pointed to her mother, Rebecca Bradley, who fought to provide an education for herself. Carroll and her mother practice law together. She attended the ceremony on Wednesday.

“She was raised in an environment where she saw her mom trapped in a relationship, financially dependent on someone who, despite his other strengths, was also a controlling and physically abusive man,” Carroll explained of her mother.

“Without an education or a job, her mom was entirely financially dependent on someone who was cruel and controlling in an era where divorce was quite unthinkable.

“Freedom for my mom was an education,” Carroll continued.

But Democrats worry that they won’t be able to do much when it comes to K-12 education without a funding increase. Colorado voters this past November rejected Amendment 66, which would have funded education reforms through a nearly $1 billion tax increase.

Democrats and Republicans greatly differ on the subject. Republicans believe K-12 can be funded through existing resources, while Democrats say it is time for more revenue.

“While some have argued for reform before resources, let me say this: reforms will not work and our schools will not get better if they are not adequately funded. Period,” said Ferrandino.

But DelGrosso made it clear that a rosier budget picture, in which lawmakers will have an estimated $1.4 billion more to spend this year, will allow for education reform without additional revenue.

“Many of the education reforms discussed last session were welcomed by House Republicans,” said DelGrosso. “But when you look at the state of our economy, conditioning these reforms on a billion dollar a year tax increase was bad policy.”

Republicans plan on pushing bills this year around school spending transparency, equitability for charter schools and English language proficiency.

Rebuilding from floods and fires

While the legislative leaders expressed different perspectives on many topics in their opening day remarks, they all appeared united around rebuilding after devastating floods and fires.

The recent Arapahoe High School shooting that took the life of a 17-year-old female student has also served as a rallying call for unity.

“Confronted by these trials, we saw, again and again, neighbors, friends and strangers becoming true heroes all across Colorado,” said Cadman.

“Our devastation was no match for our human spirit,” he continued.

Several victims of the natural disasters and the emergency workers who rescued them were in attendance on Wednesday.

Carroll said bipartisan bills would be pushed to remove red tape so local communities can expedite repair of roads and bridges. Another measure would waive property taxes on destroyed properties.

Many of the first bills introduced on Wednesday concerned flood and fire recovery efforts.

“Despite all the recovery work that’s already happened, there’s much still to do,” said Ferrandino. “And we must see it through to completion. Because nothing less than the fullest possible recovery is acceptable to me, to the other 99 lawmakers in the general assembly, to the people of the 24 impacted counties and, indeed, to the entire state of Colorado.”

“Although our resolve was tested, we were not broken, and we will recover to be a stronger state as a result,” added DelGrosso. “To see this kind of Colorado spirit was truly amazing.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com