Senate: Less contentious than last year

The Colorado Statesman

After a rocky start, Senate leaders from both sides of the aisle were able to put aside contention and differences to conduct a bipartisan legislative session with shared values, including funding education and recovering from recent natural disasters and the economic downturn.

But back in January, few Capitol observers would have anticipated a smooth and drama-free session after Senate Republicans accused the majority of violating legislative rules in order to delay introduction of a measure that would have repealed much of the universal background check law pushed by Democrats last year.

Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman of Colorado Springs took to the well in the opening days of the session to attack Senate President Morgan Carroll of Aurora for authorizing the delay.

Cadman believed at the time that because the measure was pre-filed, the deadline for formal introduction was mid-January. But Senate Democrats waived the introduction deadline.

Gov. Hickenlooper looks up at Senate President Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, as he gets ready to sign the Firefighting Aerial Corps bill into law on May 12. Standing behind him are Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass, Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, Rep. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, and Carroll.
Photo courtesy of Colorado Senate Majority Office

The incident turned out to be more of a misunderstanding than anything else. Democrats pointed out that nonpartisan staff provided a deadline that was ultimately met when the bill was introduced on Jan. 15.

At an end-of-session media availability on May 7, Carroll praised Republicans for working with the majority this year. But she acknowledged that things didn’t get off to the start she had hoped for.

“There was a lot of nervousness coming into session where people didn’t know what tone to expect but it turned out to be literally a simple misunderstanding that happened to blow up in the press,” said Carroll.

“That was one blip, and there frankly hasn’t been anything like that the rest of session,” she added.

“We started well, we had one misunderstanding, and what we did was we doubled down on our communication,” Carroll continued, pointing to daily meetings with the minority.

She highlighted working with Republicans on several bills, including those that protected civil liberties, expanded wildfire fighting efforts, created a study of military cuts and closures in Colorado, and curbed eminent domain cases.

“Those are examples behind the scenes that other people don’t ever see where people had questions, concerns, ideas — a problem they wanted solved. We had an open door every day of the session while we were here,” explained Carroll.

“I’m not sure anyone could have guessed at the beginning of session that it would have proceeded as well as it did,” she added, pointing out that 97 percent of bills passed the chamber with bipartisan support.

“That’s not happening in D.C., and I don’t think that’s happening in other states, and it doesn’t happen by accident, it happened because we chose to make it a priority,” Carroll continued.

Senate Majority Leader Rollie Heath of Boulder highlighted the fact that of the estimated 450 bills that passed through the legislature, only 11 were totally partisan measures.

“I can tell you from day one the relationships we’ve had with the minority leader and with the assistant minority leader have been nothing but superb,” added Heath.

“What’s the old adage?” he asked. “Just because you disagree doesn’t mean you have to be disagreeable.

“Certainly we disagree,” continued Heath. “We have differences on philosophy and policy, but I don’t think we were ever disagreeable.”

Cadman shared in the love fest, acknowledging that it was easier working with the majority this year than it was last year. Last session was filled with contention over gun control measures, as well as bills around expanding a rural renewable energy standard and modernizing election laws.

Following the 2013 session, a grassroots movement evolved, in which two Senate Democrats, then-President John Morse of Colorado Springs and then-Sen. Angela Giron of Pueblo, were ousted from office in bitter recall elections that focused on the Democrats’ support of gun control.

A third Senate Democrat, Evie Hudak of Westminster, resigned rather than face a looming recall election.

“It was a lot smoother. Obviously it was a little bit less contentious,” acknowledged Cadman. “There weren’t the major, major issues that were being pushed through here… the Second Amendment stuff.”

Republicans, who sought to repeal the gun control laws passed by Democrats last year, largely introduced the few gun-related bills this year. But Democrats quickly shot down those bills in the early days of the legislative session.

From there, lawmakers in the Senate appeared to put aside the polarizing issues for other less contentious policy debates.

But Cadman believes part of the civility came as a result of Republicans challenging Democrats on the rules early in the session. Cadman stopped short of calling the earlier dustup a misunderstanding, suggesting that Democrats had indeed violated the rules, but that the skirmish opened the door for a bipartisan session.

“I didn’t fly off the handle,” said Cadman. “The rules are the rules…

“We meet every week… and we talk about what’s coming and try to figure out what are the big issues that we need to set aside time for so that we can do the floor work,” he continued. “I think, actually, what it did was kind of let them know that we know the rules too and we expect them to play by the rules.

“Frankly… it turns out it was really good for both of us to understand that we want to hold each other accountable to the rules…” Cadman added.

He said the major difference was the slimmed-down 18-17 majority held by Democrats following the recall elections last year.

“What was the number one change from last year? Opening day,” said Cadman.

“When you have a 17-18 split and you have a couple of Democrats that you can work with… when the margins are that close it kind of gets back to that premise… which is it’s not 17 versus 18, it’s 17 plus 18,” he continued.

The Senate minority leader said he noticed differences between how Carroll ran the chamber compared to Morse, suggesting that Democratic leadership this year did a better job reaching across the aisle.

“What’s been a little bit different this year with the makeup of the leadership is we really did see… them and her reaching out to help … Colorado have an opportunity here, and you saw the president of the Senate reach across and run bills with a lot of Republicans…” explained Cadman. “She is really committed to policy, and I think we were really able to kind of set the politics of this place aside…

“Everybody has a different style and I definitely saw a more proactive policy attempt with the current leadership than we saw before…” added Cadman. “The difference was I really believe Morgan reached out to a few more people across the aisle.”

Focusing on policy, not politics

With the Kumbaya moments going around the upper chamber, lawmakers were free to focus on a variety of policy issues facing the state. One issue that truly stood out was education funding.

With an estimated $1 billion in cuts as a result of the economic downturn, lawmakers were pressured to restore funding given the much rosier budget picture this year.

But the effort turned into a bit of a feeding frenzy. Hungry lobbyists representing teachers, school boards and executives fought hard to dramatically erase the so-called “negative factor.” The legislature ultimately approved a bill that would buy-down the negative factor by $110 million, while adding about $400 million to K-12.

Lawmakers also took aim at higher education, adding $100 million and setting a 6 percent tuition rate cap.

Heath, who has been working on education funding for years and who supported two failed ballot initiatives that would have raised taxes for school spending, said he is proud of the work of the legislature this year. He said the issue is critical in order to place students in under-served jobs.

“One of the tragedies we have is that we have over 5,000 jobs that go unfulfilled because we don’t have the people that are qualified to do it,” he said.

“We did unprecedented work in funding education… this year,” Heath added.

Cadman, however, said that education funding has always been a priority for Republicans. The GOP has just always maintained that it can happen without a tax increase. That’s why many Republicans opposed a ballot question last year that would have raised taxes by nearly $1 billion to fund education.

Cadman is pleased with the work done on education spending this year, but he believes more cuts can be found in other areas of government to additionally fund public schools.

“When you talk about increasing money to K-12, I think we’ve been fighting for that for years because we’ve been fighting against the increase that’s going right across the street to [the Department of Health Care Policy and Financing] to fund the growth of state-run medical care,” explained Cadman.

Senators from both sides of the aisle also worked together on natural disaster recovery efforts, especially on fighting wildfires.

Republican Sen. Steve King of Grand Junction had long been advocating for funding for an aerial firefighting fleet. With Senate Democrats in his corner this year, he was finally able to secure $20 million to fund the firefighting program. But the legislation didn’t come without some heavy maneuvering through amending the annual state budget.

“We had closed the budget, we did not have initially a way to pay for this…” explained Carroll. “That came in response to one senator’s passion for getting the evidence out there, and he really convinced us that some up front money would actually save us disaster and a higher tail end cost to the state on damages and losses.”

Senate Republicans didn’t appear overly disappointed that the funding took several years to find, though Cadman was careful to point out that Democratic leadership only joined the push this year.

“The importance of that issue, the spotlight on that, was when the Senate president decided that she should be a part of making that happen,” opined Cadman. “You know with that authority comes a lot of responsibility and I think that was exercised well in what happened with the fire fleet.

“That’s what it takes here,” he added. “Sometimes it takes a couple of years or more, but the good news is that it got done.”

Senate leaders from both sides are also pleased with their work on economic development, pointing to an additional $5 million to support advanced industries and easing the burden of the loathed business personal property tax.

But it was the legislature’s work around telecommunications reform that really stood out as an achievement for the business community. Telecom executives had been trying for years to modernize the state’s laws by focusing on deregulation and broadband development. They were finally able to cross the finish line this year.

“We did something that the president and many others were committed to and we got them all done and brought high-speed Internet closer to reality in the rural parts of the state,” boasted Heath.

But Cadman suggested that Democrats only focused on business issues, such as tax credits, this year because of the looming midterm elections.

“The reality is as you look at us going into a fairly competitive election season, part of the promotion of those credits… comes from the Democrat majority that’s kind of struggling to be considered a friend of the business community,” opined Cadman.

“They’re trying to readjust their strategy going forward and bring those that typically have been considered Republican supporters to their side,” he added. “A lot of those bills have that kind of appeal.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com