Legislature faces tough 2nd half

Monday, March 7, 2011 11:54 PM

DENVER — State legislators are about halfway done with their yearly session. Unfortunately for them, they’re done with the easy half.

Lawmakers have had a hard time adapting to the new reality that has Republicans in charge of the House and Democrats in the Senate.

Divided control means that the most partisan legislation has gone nowhere.

The carnage so far has been significant. At least 115 of the 458 bills introduced so far have been killed.

Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, said she and her colleagues are having trouble passing bills that in past years would have easily gained bipartisan support.

“Mother Theresa could have blessed it, and it’s not going to get through,” Roberts said.

And the real crackdown hasn’t even started yet.

Last week was a soft deadline to get bills through their original chambers. So now, Republican bills that got out of the House now have to go to the unfriendly Senate, and vice versa.

Republican Speaker of the House Frank McNulty and Democratic Senate President Brandon Shaffer will wield tremendous power over each other’s agendas in the next few days, as they assign bills to committees.

An assignment to either chamber’s State Affairs Committee – which function as “kill committees” for unfriendly bills – means a bill is as good as dead.

An assignment to any other committee could give a bill a fighting chance.

Here is a look at the most intriguing bills and how they might fare in the second half of the session:

Up in the air

Farm taxes: As much as House Republicans hated the “dirty dozen” tax bills approved last year by former Gov. Bill Ritter, they have had no luck in repealing them.

One possible exception is Rep. Jerry Sonnenberg’s attempt to roll back sales taxes on farm inputs like fertilizer. It’s on track to pass the House, but even if it gets a friendly committee assignment in the Senate, It faces a tough road.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Gail Schwartz voted against the farm tax last year, but she’s not sure about repealing it because it would cause added cuts to schools.

“My concern this year is this cut to education. It’s a very different call. I’ve got 20 rural school districts,” Schwartz said.

The bill is House Bill 1005.

Immigrant tuition: Senate Democrats are trying again to approve in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants who graduate from Colorado high schools.

The bill (Senate Bill 126) failed in the Democratic-controlled Senate in 2009, but it looks set to pass this year. The sponsor, Sen. Michael Johnston, thinks he could get it through the Republican House, too, if the bill goes to the Education committee.

Civil unions: This Senate Democratic bill (SB 172) would give many of the legal rights of marriage to gay and lesbian couples. Colorado voters rejected the idea in 2006, but the political climate around gay rights has changed, with the U.S. Congress overturning the ban on gays in the military. The bill’s first hearing is Monday.

Concealed guns: Most House Democrats stridently opposed this bill (HB 1205) to allow people to carry a concealed weapon without a permit. But when it passed the House last week, seven Democrats voted for it, including the top one in the House.

Dead in the water

Soda tax exemption: HB 1162 is another House Republican bill to repeal one of the “dirty dozen” – this time the sales tax on soft drinks. But when Senate Democrats see a choice between education for kids and tax-free sugary drinks for kids, it’s no mystery how they will vote.

Voter identification: A batch of bills has sought to require a proof of citizenship to register to vote, or a photo identification to vote at the polls. One of the surviving ones, HB 1003, is scheduled for execution at the Senate State Affairs Committee on Monday afternoon.

State-run health care: Republicans deride this bill by freshman Senate Democrat Irene Aguilar as a single-payer health care system for Colorado. The bill would set up a health care authority that ultimately would need voter approval to offer basic health coverage to all Coloradans.

With as much as House Republicans deride “Obamacare,” it’s safe to assume they have a death panel arranged for this bill (SB 168).

Good bets

The budget: The yet-to-be-introduced budget bill has the advantage of being the only one the constitution requires the Legislature to pass. That puts the responsibility on the pro-public-school Senate Democrats and the pro-budget-cut House Republicans. The drama will be over how large of a cut public schools will have to take.

Health insurance exchange: This future bill is the Legislature’s major follow-up to last year’s federal health care bill. States have to create an “exchange” – an online shopping site where consumers can compare policies.

Sen. Betty Boyd, head of the health committee, wants to introduce a bill by the end of this week. But she has to deal with Republican House Majority Leader Amy Stephens, who wants to limit the bill to merely setting up a board that will design an exchange in the future.

Rancher privacy: Sonnenberg’s bill (HB 1111) to prevent the state from sharing its database of farm and ranch operations with the federal government sailed through the House on a 61-4 vote, despite worries about what would happen during a livestock disease outbreak.

Reach Joe Hanel at