Flare-up over rules turns into a political firestorm

Remember pledge for bipartisanship just last week?
The Colorado Statesman

Last week’s pleas for bipartisanship by legislative leaders during opening days of the session quickly faded from reality as a kerfuffle over the introduction of a gun control repeal imploded into a political firestorm.

Senate Republicans accused Democrats of attempting to thwart the democratic process by violating legislative rules in order to delay introduction of a measure that would repeal much of the universal background check law pushed by Democrats last session.

Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, took a moment of personal privilege Tuesday on the Senate floor, lambasting Senate President Morgan Carroll of Aurora for authorizing the delay.

Cadman and his Republican colleagues in the Senate believed that the bill, sponsored by Sen. George Rivera, R-Pueblo, was a pre-file measure, thereby making the deadline for formal introduction Monday, Jan. 13.

Senate Democrats, however, filed a document that was approved on Jan. 9, waiving the introduction deadline until April 16.

Even despite the filing, Democrats pointed out that nonpartisan Senate staff provided a deadline of 1 p.m. on Jan. 14 to submit the bill to the secretary of the Senate. The bill was then introduced in the Senate on Wednesday as Senate Bill 94, falling in line with the appropriate deadlines given by nonpartisan staff.

But before the misunderstanding was resolved, Republicans were sent into an uproar. They wanted the bill to be introduced without an extension, suggesting that Democrats attempted to delay hearings because the topic was a Second Amendment issue.

As the majority, Democrats have the privilege of extending deadlines without Republican approval, though leaders from both sides of the aisle are often brought into those discussions.

Taking to the well, Cadman started by quoting former Sen. Ken Gordon, D-Denver, who died suddenly on Dec. 22 just before the session began. Cadman said Gordon emailed him in March, in which Gordon, the former Senate majority leader, offered advice to lawmakers. Cadman calls the letter “Gordon’s Axioms.”

“If you abuse the rules in order to prevent the minority party members from accomplishing anything that reflects the values of their constituents, then you create a deep and bitter resentment…” Gordon wrote to Cadman.

“Respect the minority party members. There are a large number of people who voted for them. When you disrespect the minority party members you disrespect many of the people of Colorado…” Gordon continued in his email read by Cadman.

Cadman then went on to say of legislative rules that protect a lawmakers’ right to introduce bills, “Their purpose is to make sure all bills that meet the deadlines are treated in the same manner. All bills must be treated the same… and the president must introduce all bills.”

Cadman pointed out that Rivera turned in his draft bill on Jan. 3, pre-session. He said the bill should have been assigned a draft bill number, read across the desk and assigned to committee within three days of the session getting underway, which would have been Jan. 13.

“The deadline has already been met, you can’t extend a deadline that’s already been met…” said Cadman. “Once that bill was assigned a delayed status, this process was violated. Completely, irrevocably violated.

“Before the headlines hit the newsstands, before the rhetoric of our opening day remarks were even dry on the newsprint, the rules of this chamber were violated…” Cadman continued. “The majority party has the constitutional right to stop our bills; you do not have a right to silence those who sent us here. That’s what happened… before the ink was dry from Wednesday’s rhetoric.”

Following his remarks, Cadman alleged that Democrats sought to delay the bill in order to stifle public hearings on the Second Amendment issue. He said that without formal introduction, the bill is not widely available to the public, which also impedes the democratic process. He even suggested that Carroll might face a recall election over her maneuvering.

The contention comes following a divisive interim in which Democrats were accused of limiting testimony last year on gun control measures. The frustration led to the recalls of two Senate Democrats, President John Morse of Colorado Springs and Angela Giron of Pueblo.

Rivera, a Republican, was elected to replace Giron, who was accused of not listening to her constituents.

Cadman said that by delaying Rivera’s bill on repealing the mandate for universal background checks, Democrats obstructed his ability to represent constituents in SD 3.

“They deliberately, through their own signature… on the second day of the session said the rules don’t apply to them, or to this bill, and frankly, they silenced the voices of 150,000 Coloradans from Pueblo who sent Sen. Rivera here to represent them,” Cadman opined later on Tuesday following his remarks on the Senate floor.

“Delaying this bill for three-and-a-half months just silenced the voices of Pueblo for three-and-a-half months…” he added. “The bottom line here is the people were silenced, this legislator was silenced, this bill was kept from the public…”

The Senate minority leader on Tuesday worried that Democrats are setting a tone for the rest of the session that could lead to problematic relations between the two sides of the aisle.

“This is definitely square one. It’s a poor indicator of how this is going to be handled in the future,” he said. “This bill does not belong to Morgan Carroll, this bill belongs to this institution. But with her signature, she kept it from becoming public.”

But just 24 hours later, it appeared that Cadman realized that the frustration was more of a misunderstanding. He again took to the Senate floor on Wednesday to backtrack on his original allegations.

“There was definitely something seriously wrong in what happened to lead us to yesterday. I will admit, I believe in my heart there was an absence of malice, but that doesn’t change the fact of what happened,” he said.

“I really appreciate the conversations I’ve had with the president, the majority leader and my colleagues about how we can work together to make sure what we saw with that situation and those bills never happens — because the fact that we don’t know how to stop it yet means it will happen, and we have a mutual commitment for something greater than ourselves to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Cadman continued.

Carroll acknowledged Cadman’s attempt at trying to smooth things over, suggesting that two bills were confused, which caused the misunderstanding.

“We too have a renewed commitment to working with you.… we appreciate you taking the time this morning to let members know, just for clarity because they may not know: it looks like the other of two bills got flipped in the process,” she said. “With that, I think that was the misunderstanding…”

Earlier in Senate proceedings on Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Rollie Heath of Boulder laid over a resolution on civility among lawmakers. Laying the resolution over until the end of the session effectively killed it, signaling the significance of the politicized tone in the Senate.

“When it comes to civility, actions speak louder than words,” said Heath.

Carroll equates the outrage expressed by Republicans as nothing more than political theatre.

“I don’t want to impute his motives in the same way he did here, but it’s hard to explain when everything has followed the rules, everything is getting introduced on a deadline, and all we’ve done is extend a courtesy to members bringing bills that are going to have a high volume of people to participate,” Carroll told reporters following Cadman’s blistering remarks on Tuesday.

She said there was never any intention of delaying the bill all the way through April 16. And she cautioned against assigning motive.

“If I were him, I would be a little embarrassed about going off like this when we’re in 100 percent compliance with the rules,” said Carroll. “Complying with the rules is not immoral.”

Carroll said the majority waived the deadlines as a courtesy to Republicans because the measure would likely receive a contentious debate and Democrats wanted to be able to introduce it at a time when it could be scheduled for a proper hearing.

“We learned from last session that really you need to make sure there is enough time for everybody to testify, so… we extended the deadline to make sure that on high testimony bills… everybody who shows up to testify can do so and they’re not getting run out by other bills,” explained the Senate president.

She is also concerned that Republicans pounced before having spoken to the majority. Carroll said she has been in touch with Cadman every day, and that he could have come to her with concerns before having held court over the issue.

“All of this would have been avoided simply with a question…” said Carroll. “He’s making a story on a nonexistent rules violation.”

Killing the kill committee

Little, however, seemed to be patched up between Republicans and Democrats following the events. Just two hours after Cadman backtracked, Republicans held a news conference to express frustration over Senate Democrats assigning several Republican bills to the State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee.

The committee is known around the Capitol as a “kill committee” because the majority can send unfavorable measures there to die on a party-line vote.

A range of Republican bills have been assigned to the committee, including one that would have repealed a rural renewable energy standard enacted by Democrats last year, and another that would have prohibited using public benefits at marijuana centers, among other bills. The committee killed both those bills Wednesday on party-line votes.

Senate Republicans suggest that the bills had no place in Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs, alleging that Democrats sent the measures there with the sole intention of killing the bills.

But utilizing State Affairs as a so-called “kill committee” for both parties is nothing new. In fact, the practice goes back as far as 25 years, according to long-time Capitol insiders.

The origins of “kill committees” go back to 1988 when voters approved the GAVEL amendment. The initiative stood for “Give a Vote to Every Legislator.” House Republican leadership — who held the majority at the time — opposed the voter initiative, despite it easily passing.

The intention of the amendment was to stop the majority from delaying a hearing on an unfavorable bill for so long that it resulted in a so-called “pocket veto.” GAVEL allowed a committee member to make a motion for an immediate hearing, thereby limiting the chairman’s ability to “pocket veto.”

From there, the legend of the “kill committee” was born. By diminishing the “pocket veto,” Republicans began to think outside the box on ways to kill unfavorable bills, and committees were created to end such measures.

In 2004, when Republicans last controlled the Senate — by the same 18-17 majority that Democrats hold it now — several Democratic-backed bills were assigned to the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee and killed.

At least five of those bills could have been assigned to committees more specific to their intent, including measures around emergency contraception, public access to grand juries, safe storage of firearms and incentives for employing Coloradans.

Sen. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, acknowledged that both parties have used “kill committees” for decades. But he believes Democrats are abusing it.

“I can tell you that the tone has changed dramatically in the volume of minority sponsored bills that are sent to the kill committee,” said Lundberg. “I’m not going to try to defend bad public policy practice, and I believe that whenever a serious bill is not given serious consideration that something wrong has occurred. We need to do our very best to bring these issues before the legislature so that we can give due deliberation.”

He pointed out that as of Wednesday, Republicans had introduced 39 bills without Democratic sponsorship. Nineteen of those bills were assigned to State Affairs, said Lundberg.

Republicans point to the rural renewable energy standard repeal as an example, pointing out that Sen. Lois Tochtrop, D-Thornton, went against her party last year to vote against the mandate. Tochtrop sits on the Senate Agriculture, Natural Resources and Energy Committee, where Republicans had hoped the repeal would have been assigned.

Sen. Ted Harvey, R-Highlands Ranch, had introduced the rural renewable energy standard repeal that was killed by State Affairs on Wednesday.

“When you hear [Carroll’s] rhetoric on the first day of the legislature that we are going to take politics out of this session and we are going to treat every bill fairly, and 50 percent of the Republican bills are sent to her kill committee, where is the difference between the rhetoric and her actions?” asked Harvey. “Does she really want to have fair public hearings before the experts on each one of the committees? Or does she want to send it to her kill committee?”

Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, said his measure that would allow Coloradans to buy health insurance across state lines should have been assigned to Senate Health and Human Services.

Brophy, who is seeking the Republican Party’s nomination to challenge Gov. John Hickenlooper this year, encouraged Hickenlooper to lead the way on changing the “kill committee” process.

“I’m calling on the governor to lead, pick up the phone, call the Senate president and say, ‘Let’s let our actions match our words,’” said Brophy.

Rivera, who is leading the charge to have the universal background check law repealed, believes his bill should have been assigned to Judiciary.

“My constituents will not be able to come up and make their voices heard, and I’m very concerned about that,” he said.

Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, who is seeking his party’s nomination to challenge U.S. Sen. Mark Udall this year, said his measure that would reduce car registration fees should have been assigned to Transportation.

“I’m sad to be up here today, but I think it’s important to be up here today to highlight that talk is very cheap right now when you talk about policy over politics, but politics sure seems to be taking front stage,” surmised Hill.

Following the Republicans’ news conference, Carroll put the responsibility back on Republicans, saying the caucus shouldn’t introduce measures that simply repeat conversations from last year, or that don’t move the state forward.

“Coloradans have been clear that they want us to focus on creating good paying jobs, expanding access to higher education, funding K-12 education and getting reasonably priced housing and child care,” she said. “Every bill will get a full, fair hearing…

“But we are not going to move the state backwards,” she continued. “We have no obligation to pass bad laws for Colorado.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com