DENVER — The historic 2013 legislative session is in the books — and the stakes have been raised for 2014. Democrats, in control of both legislative chambers again after two years of split control, went big and bold, taking action on gun control, immigration reform, changing how Colorado manages elections and enacting landmark new laws to regulate and tax legal marijuana.
In all, a stunning 613 bills were introduced; 440 of them passed. Republicans were a vocal minority, often arguing for hours against legislation they were powerless to stop. And Gov. John Hickenlooper, a cautious moderate suddenly presiding over a partisan legislature, navigated some tense moments with his fellow Democrats on the second floor but managed to get to the finish line with his agenda in tact and very few bills facing possible vetoes.
The Democrat’s dominance isn’t just the result of last year’s election; this year’s haul of legislation is the political fruit of a decade-long statewide political takeover. And the state’s changing demographics offer Democrats some cover — their ambitious agenda may well be representative of a newly-minted blue state. Republicans beg to differ, however; and they promise that they’ll have the wind at their backs next November.
Here’s a look at some of the big stories from the last four months and the story-lines that will matter moving forward.
Gun control: the issue that defined the 2013 session
The session reached its emotional high water mark in late February and early March, as lawmakers moved forward on a package of Democratic gun control measures. Pro-gun Coloradans packed the Capitol the day that seven gun control bills were heard; many of them drove around the Capitol for hours, honking their horns in a daylong protest. But Democrats had the votes to push through the major pieces of the package: expanded background checks on private gun sales and transfers and a ban on high-capacity magazines.
They also had state Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, who ran for office a few years after her son’s murder and who, on this issue, became a forceful voice of moral authority. She and other lawmakers received death threats; the pro-business governor fretted over signing the magazine ban that was driving Magpul, an Erie-based magazine manufacture, to move out of state. And this was just the beginning.
More than any other issue, gun control will define the 2013 legislative session and the Democrats who presided over it. Polling shows public support for the new laws, especially for background checks; but Republicans were energized too and promise to hold Democrats accountable next year. A handful of Democratic lawmakers are facing possible recalls for their votes on the gun measures. The country’s top Democratic donors know that too. With Colorado a national vanguard on the issue, next fall’s election results will be hugely important in the final analysis: if Colorado Democrats lose, it would be a devastating setback for the gun control issue, which would be viewed as the same political self-sabotage it appeared to be in the early 1990s. But if those Democrats win, it could be a political game-changer.
Unfinished business: in-state tuition and civil unions
With everyone on edge over guns, the anticlimactic legislative journeys of two bills that Republicans had blocked the past two years almost went unnoticed. Public hearings for the ASSET bill, which offers in-state tuition to undocumented students, and for a bill recognizing same-sex civil unions, turned into prolonged, joyous victory laps. On both measures, Republicans complained that Democrats didn’t stick to compromises they made last year to improve the bills’ chances of passage: a religious exemption on civil unions, and, with ASSET, a tuition rate that wasn’t subsidized by taxpayers. When those bills passed without those conciliatory measures, Democrats sent a strong message that elections indeed have consequences.
When Hickenlooper signed the civil unions bill inside the Colorado History Museum in March, hundreds of gay and lesbian couples and LGBT allies rejoiced. In May, hundreds of students, educators and advocates celebrated as he signed the ASSET bill at Metro State University of Denver. Both moments saw a lot of tears shed, the end of two long political battles and new laws that will have a direct impact on thousands of lives.
Marijuana: the legislature’s excellent adventure
Last year’s passage of Amendment 64 dropped state lawmakers, suddenly tasked with coming up with a way to implement and tax legal marijuana, into uncharted waters. It took all 120 days of the session for them to find the shore. After months of meetings, lawmakers began to consider recommendations from a state task force; but the process was in turmoil the whole time, never more so than after an audit of the state’s Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division painted a picture of bureaucratic excess and inefficiency. Only in the session’s final month was legislation even introduced.
In the end, the bills went through. House Bill 1317 provides a regulatory framework that will allow licensed retailers to sell legal pot where residents will be able to buy an ounce at a time. Out-of-staters can only buy a quarter ounce at a time and they can’t invest in the industry. House Bill 1318 will let voters weigh in on a tax rate of 15 percent excise tax and 10 percent sales tax — the right balance, lawmakers hope, to generate enough revenue to pay for the state regulators without driving marijuana users to the black market. And lawmakers finally agreed to set a marijuana bloodstream limit for Driving Under the Influence of Drugs.
But lawmakers expect to be reexamining and tweaking these new regulations as Amendment 64 takes effect. “Prohibition ended almost a century ago and we’re still revising our country’s liquor laws,” said Rep. Dan Pabon, D-Denver, who oversaw the entire process. “This is going to be similar. We’re going to continue looking at this and making sure we’re getting it right.”
Democrats reward key constituency: Hispanics
Colorado has become a blue state thanks, in large part, to an influx of Hispanics. Over the last four months, the Democrats that increasingly powerful bloc of voters helped elect moved forward on a number of measures that will only solidify the party’s grip on this important piece of the electorate. Republicans, unlike in sessions past, were noticeably quiet when these measures came to the floor for debate.
The ASSET bill, which will allow maybe a thousand undocumented students to get in-state college tuition in Colorado this fall, was a foregone conclusion. But one thing changed this year: a few Republicans, including Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, and Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, voted for the legislation.
Democrats also overturned a 2006 law requiring the police to notify federal authorities of people suspected of being in the United States illegally. They did so with little controversy, especially after Republican sheriffs showed up at the Capitol to support the measure.
And at the end of the session, Democrats finally passed a bill to allow undocumented immigrants to get Colorado driver’s licenses, which will clearly state that the holder is not a legal resident. Hickenlooper plans to sign the bill, which will make Colorado only the fourth state with such a law. Republicans may use it to help paint a composite picture of Democratic overreach this session, but it’s a winning vote for Democrats over the long term given the state’s demographic trends.
Oil and gas oversight bills divide Hickenlooper, Democrats
Democrats ran the show over the last four months, but on one issue — stiffer regulations for the oil and gas industry — they ran into a brick wall of opposition. Gov. John Hickenlooper, a former geologist, supported some of the proposals Democrats brought forth, including legislation to force oil and gas companies to report more spills.
But in many cases, these Democratic measures faltered and the lawmakers sponsoring them, not to mention the environmental groups that helped write them, saw Hickenlooper, a former geologist, as the reason why. One cabinet official testified against a health study to determine whether fracking was impacting the health of nearby residents; the administration also fought a budget amendment that sought to fund additional oil and gas well inspectors. And the administration opposed House Bill 1316, proposing to apply the state’s groundwater monitoring rule to the Greater Wattenburg Area, which isn’t required to do as much testing, and House Bill 1269, which would have restructured the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to avoid conflicts of interest. Both bills died in the Senate, where three Democrats sided with Republicans and the governor — just as an industry lobbyist predicted they would at the session’s outset in a client memo accidentally sent to all 100 lawmakers.
Hickenlooper’s team really wanted to sign House Bill 1267, which would have increased fines for oil and gas spills by 1500 percent — from a current daily maximum fine of $1,000 to $15,000 — and removed a total cap on fines. But the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Mike Foote, D-Lafayette, and environmental groups killed the bill on the final day of the session after they were unable to restore a mandatory minimum daily fine of $5,000 that was in the original bill but taken out by the Senate. “We don’t want to pass a bill that looks like it’s doing something, but really does nothing,” Foote said.
The GOP: a vocal, powerless but effective minority
On most of the big issues, Republicans didn’t have the votes. They had their collective voice — and, boy, did they ever use it. GOP lawmakers spent hours speaking out against the gun control bills and other legislation they viewed as over-reaching or detrimental to business and job creation. “Democrats think they know what’s best for everyone else,” said Minority Leader Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs. “We just don’t think that’s the right way to lead. Rural lawmakers were especially vocal in arguing against gun control bills and Senate Bill 252, which raises the renewable energy standard on rural electric associations and may lead to higher electric bills. In the Senate, Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, led the sustained fight against the gun measures on behalf of Magpul and the rural gun owners he represents.
In the House, two Republicans also made an issue out of Jessica’s Law, which would enact mandatory minimum sentences for child predators. After Democrats killed the bill, which was opposed by most prosecutors, the sponsor, Rep. Libby Szabo, R-Arvada, took the issue national, appearing on The O’Reilly Factor. When she later attached the proposal to a criminal omnibus bill, Democrats denied it a vote, angering Republicans again. Democrats saw through the political stunt — Republicans never introduced the bill when they controlled the House the past two years — but the GOP has ginned up another attack to use heading into next year.
The improving revenue forecast allowed for a $20.5 billion state budget that improves education funding, green-lights a number of construction projects that have been on hold, and funds major improvements in the state’s child welfare and mental health systems. State workers will also get their first raise in five years in 2013-14; and Hickenlooper got lawmakers to increase the state’s reserve fund by 20 percent.
Hickenlooper bucked his party at times, most consistently on bills aimed at increasing scrutiny on the oil and gas industry but also by threatening to veto a bill seeking to repeal Colorado’s death penalty.
Voters will have a $1 billion tax increase for education funding on the ballot this number as the result of Sen. Mike Johnston’s School Finance Act, a major overhaul of how education funding is doled out to Colorado’s 178 school districts.
Several lawmakers at the Capitol are likely to pursue higher office in 2014. Minority Leader Mark Waller is likely to announce his candidacy for Attorney General some time in the coming months. Senate Majority Leader Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, may also run for AG. And Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass is thought to be considering a run for Congress in Colorado’s 3rd District, which is held by U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton.