Last year was the first since 2013 in which Democrats controlled the state House, Senate and governor’s office, and so the session was essentially a 120-day race to clear a backlog of priorities that liberals had been waiting years to advance.
The results? Sweeping oil and gas reform. A ban on conversion therapy for minors. And the state’s first new gun-control measure in years, among many, many others.
“The queue has really been cleared,” House Majority Leader Alec Garnett told The Denver Post during a recent pre-session interview.
His Republican counterpart, Minority Leader Patrick Neville, is wary of what’s coming.
“The 2020 session, I think we’re going to be playing a lot of defense,” he said last week. “If we thought last year was overreach, I’m hearing this session might even be worse.”
We know of dozens of new laws legislators will try to pass, touching on every corner of the state and affecting everything from health care costs to the color of the mountains on Colorado license plates.
Work left to do
Perhaps the most significant piece of unfinished business is family leave, after Democrats were unsuccessful last year in passing legislation requiring paid family and medical leave for all workers. They are intent on making it happen this year, but the details are yet to be worked out: How many weeks of leave will workers be entitled to? How much will the program cost, and how much of the burden will fall on workers versus their employers?
This time last year, most everyone at the Capitol would’ve said that the state was primed to abolish the death penalty. “Full steam ahead,” state Sen. Lois Court said. The repeal never happened, though, as four wavering Democrats left the bill’s sponsors without enough confidence to bring the bill to a vote. It was pulled in dramatic fashion, but lawmakers have assured The Post that it’s coming back in 2020, and they’re hopeful it’ll actually pass this time.
And you can bet on vaccines being a big topic in 2020, following the fizzling of a bill meant to boost Colorado’s worst-in-the-nation vaccination rates by formalizing the exemption process. Last year’s bill died in the Senate after pushback from Gov. Jared Polis, who declared himself “pro-choice” on vaccines. Republicans and a group of Colorado parents had opposed the bill because of privacy concerns.
Since then, legislators have been doing more work on the issue and plan to introduce a bill to cut down on vaccine exemptions. Rep. Kyle Mullica, a Northglenn Democrat and emergency room nurse, is hopeful it’ll succeed.
“The governor has his viewpoints and we’re going to try to continue to work with him to try to come up with solutions that he’s comfortable with, but we have a job to do to really try to move that needle to make sure Colorado is not at risk for those vaccine-preventable outbreaks,” he said.
Speaking of the governor …
Underlying the entire 2019 session was an ongoing feeling-out by lawmakers of how to work with Polis, the new governor, and vice versa.
One thing the state’s top Democrat eventually made clear is that he’s resistant to statewide mandates. This played out last year in policy debates over police cooperation with federal immigration officials, vaccines, labor unions and emissions rules for industry, among other issues.
Privately, some lawmakers have expressed a greater desire to challenge Polis in 2020 — that is, to run bills even if he threatens a veto.
House Speaker KC Becker’s take on that: “I don’t know that people ever say, ‘I dare you,’ but I think people are saying, ‘I’m going to work with you as much as possible and then where we part ways, we’re going to part ways.
“No one is going to say, ‘Oh, I’m just not going to do something because the governor said no.’”
That would be a change from 2019, when lawmakers did pull back on bills specifically because of opposition from Polis.
For his part, the governor told reporters during a recent news conference that his top priorities for 2020 include lowering health care costs and opening up more opportunity for early childhood education — continuations of two marches on which he expended significant effort last year.
One area in which Polis failed last session was in an attempt to place a new tobacco tax on the 2019 ballot. A proposed initiative was defeated in the last hours of session, with only nine Democrats supporting the bill in the Senate — but it will likely be reintroduced in 2020.
That’s but one public health issue to keep an eye on. The battle over reducing health care costs is already shaping up to be one of the most heated of the 2020 session.
Lawmakers pushed forward significant health care legislation in the 2019 session, but now they have to figure out exactly how those programs will work, and Democrats hope to go even further with reducing health care costs.
Legislators passed a bill last year that will allow the state to develop a public health insurance option in the individual market in 2022 that is expected to make premiums 9% to 18% cheaper than they are now and reduce the costs hospitals can charge patients. The Division of Insurance and the state Department of Health Care Policy and Financing released a final report with recommendations in November, and now lawmakers will have to figure out what to do them. According to the report, the General Assembly will likely have to make adjustments to state law on pieces of the plan before it can move forward.
The Colorado Hospital Association, insurance providers and other groups have opposed the proposal for the public health insurance option, saying participation shouldn’t be mandatory and will lead to unintended consequences, while lawmaker sponsors of the bill say they are working to provide more consumer choice and lower costs.
Garnett said it’s not completely clear where the legislature will take the next steps for reducing health costs in 2020, but it is a priority.
“I think that’s the No. 1 thing that we hear when we knock doors, that our members hear when they knock doors,” the majority leader said.
Environment and energy
There will be plenty of bills concerning climate change, which was part of the underlying — if frequently unspoken — impetus for last year’s landmark Senate Bill 181, which introduced sweeping new rules and emissions standards for the oil and gas industry.
Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg vowed his caucus would produce a handful of bills meant to improve Colorado’s worsening air quality. There’s already a coalition planning to tackle air quality in and around Commerce City, a hub of heavy industry and one of the country’s most polluted zones.
This will also be the first year that Colorado lawmakers are forced to confront the climate impact of some of their legislation. A bill passed last year will require nonpartisan legislative analysts to project the affect certain policy proposals will have on greenhouse gas emissions. The analyses will function much like fiscal notes, and should offer a clearer view of how various legislative proposals might contribute to or combat climate change.
And a whole lot more
This will be yet another big year for criminal justice reform at the Capitol. To name just a few upcoming bills: Lawmakers may take the first step to wean the state off the private prison industry. They may look to end driver’s license suspensions for unpaid court debt. They’ll try to chip away (again) at a cash bail system many view as predatory.
Lawmakers have spent roughly three years mulling a change to the state’s school funding formula, and many expected a bill on that topic this year. That may not happen. Colorado public schools are underfunded compared to those in other states, and lawmakers — and many outside the Capitol — are concerned about teacher pay and retention, among other issues. One lawmaker has pledged to bring a $50 million bill to provide pay increases to “exceptional” teachers.
The governor, who championed free universal kindergarten last year, is pushing for more free pre-kindergarten slots. A bipartisan school safety committee met over the summer and fall, following the shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch, but the committee produced no gun-related bills. That doesn’t mean there won’t be any brought by others.At the higher-ed level, lawmakers may move to lessen the burden of student debt.
And it’s possible that lawmakers will bring bills to allow for rent control in Colorado — there was a stalled push for that in 2019 as well — and to modernize the state’s porous Open Records Act.
So, more than enough to keep Colorado’s elected officials busy in 2020. One open question is whether another packed legislative slate will produce the same kind of tension it did last year, when the two parties ended up in court.
“I think (Democrats in 2019) pushed too aggressively when they really didn’t need to, and I think the majority now understands that,” said Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert. “I’m not trying to point a finger or place blame, but it was a learning curve. I was learning to be in the minority as a leader and they were learning to be in the majority as leaders. I think everybody has learned, and I anticipate the 2020 session will be less contentious.”