A year after engineering a major policy shift in Colorado, the Democratic-led General Assembly returns to the Capitol this week with much left on its to-do list.
Like the 2019 session, the question this year is how far the party will go in the 120-day session to reshape how Colorado provides health care, education and transportation – and whether voters will show their support in the November election.
“We did a lot last year. ... I don’t think we are aiming to top that,” said House Speaker KC Becker, D-Boulder. “We are really focusing on a lot of new ideas.”
Meanwhile, Republicans are quiet about their agenda and may again use procedural tactics to delay Democrats bills, a controversial approach that brought the 2019 term to its knees.
A range of contentious issues lie ahead, from new taxes and paid family leave to private prisons and vaccine requirements.
Here’s a look at the 10 top issues and how they will play out in the 2020 session:
Will paid family leave have the momentum to pass?One of the most significant leftover items from the 2019 session is an effort to require businesses to provide paid family and parental leave to employees.
Last year, Democratic authors of the bill settled for a study after failing to build enough support within their own party amid a barrage of opposition from 200 lobbyists who worked against the bill.
Opposition from the business community remains fierce, and its prospects remain unclear. An actuarial study shows that a paid family and parental leave program with the most generous, 28-week proposal could cost the state up to $2.2 billion, potentially taking money from employers and out of every Coloradan’s paycheck.
It’s still not clear if bill proponents will seek to have the state or a third party run the program, and whether small businesses and local governments would be exempt.
“I feel optimistic about its chances for passage,” said Sen. Faith Winter, a Westminster Democrat who is one of the legislation’s champions. Still, Winter said proponents have not started drafting a bill. A task force planned to issue a report Wednesday.
Tony Gagliardi, executive director of the National Federation for Independent Business in Colorado, said he is worried about the impact paid leave would have on small businesses. “The bottom line is this is still a mandate,” he said.
Democrats may struggle to find money
The big agenda that Gov. Jared Polis and Democratic lawmakers promised in 2018 is an expensive one. And the money spigot is running dry.
Democratic budget writers are sounding the alarm about how to cover costs of programs added last year and the new ones they want to pass in 2020. And the latest economic forecasts show the money isn’t as plentiful this year. A year ago, lawmakers set aside about $40 million for legislative priorities; this year, that number will fall closer to $5 million.
“It’s going to be a tougher year for budget allocations and new appropriations and maybe new spending initiatives,” said Senate President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo.
Meanwhile, Polis pledges to cut the income tax without reducing state revenue and put more money in reserves – both ideas that were rejected by his own party a year earlier.
Lawmakers look to fees to fund road improvementsThe tight budget is expected to limit money available for a big-ticket item for Democrats and Republicans: transportation.
Democratic legislative leaders believe a new revenue source – taxes or fees – are needed to address transportation issues, but Republicans insist on using existing tax dollars. And Colorado voters in two years rejected statewide efforts to increase taxes or forgo tax rebates to pay for roads.
New ideas this year include the formation of regional transportation districts that can put tax questions on the ballot to allow communities to pay for improvements. But Republicans say that would leave rural communities out of the mix.
The other idea from Democrats is new fees for road users to compensate for the growing number of electric vehicles, and potential surcharges for delivery services. Right now, roads’ main funding mechanism is the gas tax, which has been unchanged since 1992.
Democrats also must decide whether to keep a $2.56 billion transportation bond on track for the 2020 ballot.
Becker was noncommittal when asked what would happen with the measure. “There will certainly be discussions around it,” she said. “We haven’t made any decisions.”
Public option insurance in the spotlight
The push for a government-backed health insurance plan will put Colorado at the forefront of the national debate on a public option. Political stakes are high.
The concept is a top campaign promise for Polis and might emerge as the most contentious debate in 2020. An opposition group with ties to hospitals and insurance companies fired a warning shot in December with more than $100,000 advertising campaign.
“Judging by the amount of out-of-state money we are already seeing trying to defeat this policy, I expect this to be one of the bigger battles of my legislative career,” said Sen. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, a leading advocate. “But health care needs to be disrupted for us to lower costs and make it affordable for people in Colorado and across my district. This is a significant step in that direction.”
Legislation this session will include mandates on insurers and hospitals and set rates to a level that will lower costs for those on the individual market in the first year. The state would oversee the plan, and a private insurer would manage it. The bill would expand access to the program later.
The idea is to create more options for consumers, but Republicans think it would hurt the broader market. “I’m not convinced that a public option or single payer is a good way to deal with health care,” said Sen. Paul Lundeen, a Republican from Monument. “It’s not sustainable.”
Higher education faces a squeeze over student debtThe Polis administration is making it a priority to lower the cost of a college education in Colorado, but the higher education institutions say they need the tuition money.
The conflict is expected to escalate in 2020, months after the failure of Proposition CC, which would have provided colleges with a lifeline to money.
Polis wants to limit tuition hikes next budget year to 3%, while others are looking at how to keep tuition flat. Other lawmakers plan to put forward bills to address loan interest as a way to lower costs.
Big moves on climate change, but what’s next?
Much of the Democrats’ environmental agenda came to fruition in 2019 during a push for tougher regulations on oil and gas operations and more stringent mandates on carbon emissions.
Now, House Speaker Becker says it’s time for the “next level.”
“We’ve run climate change legislation for years; we’ve finally passed it. So what are the next things we need to do to just have a cleaner, greener energy future?” she asked.
Right now, there aren’t many specific policy proposals being discussed. A few ideas on the table, however, include making it easier for local governments to ban single-use plastics, a moratorium on styrofoam and an effort to increase Colorado’s ability to monitor air quality and enforce violations.
Air quality is likely to be the most contentious issue, especially with drillers. Republicans say they are looking out for such ideas and the potential damage they could have on Colorado’s sprawling energy industry.
“I wonder what else they have to kill off the largest industry in the state,” said Sen. John Cooke, a Greeley Republican.
Another attempt to ban the death penalty?Criminal justice is poised to be front and center again.
One debate expected to consume the Capitol is whether to alter Colorado’s felony murder law, which allows people to be charged with first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without actually killing anyone. In addition, advocates will push to repeal the death penalty.
The felony murder reform effort is being led by Sen. Pete Lee, a Colorado Springs Democrat and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who wants to change felony murder to a second-degree murder, Class 2 felony offense. That alteration would take life in prison off the table. “I think people ought to be convicted of what they did,” Lee said.
Prosecutors are pushing back. “I think felony murder should stay right where it is,” said 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler. “I think that there’s a misconception that felony murder (is used against people) who had no clue what was going on and had no idea that there was risk of death to another innocent person.”
The question of whether to abolish the death penalty makes a return from a year ago. The effort to get rid of capital punishment in Colorado last year was yanked because of Democratic friction in the Senate. Sen. Julie Gonanzles, D-Denver, plans to take the helm of the repeal effort this year, but she faces a pair of Democrats whose loved ones were murdered and who want to keep the death penalty.
Finally, also look for an effort to change Colorado’s laws around investigating law enforcement-involved deaths. Polis has said that’s an issue he wants to tackle in 2020.
Democrats look to eliminate use of private prisons
Lawmakers will decide whether to spend millions of dollars to close a privately run prison in Colorado Springs and reopen a state facility near Cañon City. If it happens, it could help reach a goal among some Democratic lawmakers to end the practice altogether.
The debate centers around the Cheyenne Mountain Reentry Center, run by the private company GEO Group. The Colorado Department of Corrections says there have been “deficiencies” with GEO’s work at the 700-inmate facility.
But reopening Colorado State Penitentiary II, near Cañon City, will cost taxpayers $7 million in the first year and $6 million each subsequent year. The Polis administration thinks the cost is worth it, but it could be a tough sell with a tightening state budget.
Bent and Crowly counties host the other two private prisons, but the Polis administration says it can’t do without them. “I don’t know what the future holds. But I can tell you right now, today, we need those prison beds and those other private prisons,” said Dean Williams, the executive director of the state corrections department.
School safety and gun control
In the wake of May’s fatal shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch, lawmakers looked this summer to make Colorado K-12 education safer.
Proposals from a bipartisan interim committee on school safety include providing students with excused mental health days, expanding behavioral health training in schools and bolstering the state’s Safe2Tell reporting system. Rep. Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Commerce City Democrat who led the interim committee, has a bill of her own that would require health insurance companies to provide a free, annual 60-minute mental health screening for all their clients.
None of the legislation drafted by the interim committee deals with firearms, but Democrats are likely to bring legislation that would require safe storage of guns.
If last session’s battle over the “red flag” law is any indication, however, any attempt to tighten Colorado’s firearm regulations will likely prompt a fierce partisan battle.
Low vaccination rate will get attentionA fiery clash between Democratic lawmakers and Polis marked a debate last year on how to improve Colorado’s rate of childhood vaccinations. And it could materialize again in 2020.
House lawmakers are renewing a push to make it harder to avoid the required immunizations by making the process to opt out more difficult for parents. This year’s measure won’t remove existing exemptions nor will it create a mandate, both options considered a year ago in a far-reaching bill that failed. Colorado’s immunization rate for measles, mumps and rubella was 87.4% in the 2018 school year – well below the 92-94% immunity threshold recommended by health authorities to protect against an outbreak.
Polis is taking a different approach, pushing education as the method to improving the rate as part of an executive order he signed. He also asked for $2.5 million in his budget proposal to address the issue. Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers are expected to introduce legislation to protect a parent’s right to opt out their children.
Ironically enough, his current job working for a company that makes metal building kits is in Aurora. His office’s parking garage? The same one where Leonardelli was murdered. Johnson has become friends with Leonardelli’s grandson.“We always talk about how crazy that is,” Johnson said. “Well, God works in crazy ways.”