My takeaway, looking back on the first half of the 71st meeting of the Colorado General Assembly, is that a political deadlock doesn’t have to mean gridlock if lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are given the freedom to lead, to improvise and to collaborate on creative solutions.
Although the Republican-controlled Senate and Democrat-controlled House hit no grand slams during the session, we also didn’t strike out on the goals we set for ourselves on opening day. Our successes came as a result of singles, doubles and the occasional triple – and a willingness to keep slugging on causes that at times seemed lost.
The people of Colorado came away with a win as a result.
We didn’t get the “big deal” on long-term transportation funding we all sought, but it wasn’t for lack of effort. One bill faltered because it included tax hikes that some fellow Republicans found unacceptable, which all along I knew would be a tough sell. A second bill died because it would have required lawmakers to draw most of the funding from existing revenues. Democrats found the second option unacceptable because it would force them to make tough budget trade-offs and do more than just talk about making roads and bridges a priority.
But another way was found to kick-start work on the road funding backlog with Senate Bill 267, authored by Senate President Pro-Tem Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling. It will provide $1.8 billion for our highest priority road projects, while also throwing a lifeline to struggling rural hospitals and schools that otherwise might not survive. The bill also cuts business personal property taxes, asks the state’s exploding Medicaid population to pay modestly higher co-payments and requires state agencies to find 2 percent budget cuts.
It exemplifies the potential partnerships that become possible when lawmakers are encouraged by leaders to think and act creatively. But out-of-the-box thinking bore other fruit this session as well.
We also saw significant movement on construction litigation reform, for instance. After years of fruitless efforts to help encourage construction of more affordable, entry-level housing, we cleared away some of the barriers that scare builders away from this market. There is no silver-bullet fix for the housing affordability problem. But by breaking through such a stubborn log jam, we showed that progress isn’t impossible.
Another high point for me was the funding fairness we won for charter school students, who for years have been shortchanged on per-pupil funding, as compared to peers who attend other public schools. With the help of a few Democrats who courageously broke ranks with teacher unions and others who continue to defend this egregious inequity, we ended another longstanding impasse under the Golden Dome.
We further streamlined the school testing regime and approved a $109 million increase in K-12 spending over last year (a bump of $242 per pupil) despite a major budget squeeze.
And we saw similarly bold movement on other issues, including free speech protections on college campuses and marijuana regulation and taxation. We updated open records laws in response to the digital revolution. We kept faith with the intent of Proposition 107 and 108 by adopting implementation legislation allowing unaffiliated voters to participate in 2018 primary elections and the 2020 presidential primary.
Thanks to the amazing resourcefulness of the bipartisan Joint Budget Committee, we balanced a state budget that at the beginning of the session appeared dangerously out of balance – by making the same hard choices Colorado families also must make when balancing their budgets.
And yes, there were missed opportunities too.
A repeal of the state’s faltering Obamacare exchange had to be shelved due to the lack of decisive action in Washington. A potentially promising effort to reauthorize and revitalize the State Energy Office, for the broad benefit of energy consumers and producers, fell apart due to the refusal of Democrats to concede that the old office has become a poorly focused and managed bureaucratic backwater.
Because this is only half time in this 71st General Assembly, such disappointments aren’t failures or lost causes. I view such setbacks as unfinished business, which we’ll take up with renewed vigor when we begin work on the second half in January.
As a result of the wins we delivered for Coloradans this session, despite the long odds, Senate Republicans look forward to next year’s session with resolve, optimism and excitement.
Kevin Grantham, R-Canon City, is Colorado Senate President and represents Senate District 2.