To read a summary of a bill, or to read an entire bill along with fiscal and other relevant information, go to http://leg.colorado.gov/bills/ and search by adding 21- (for this year’s session). For example, search for SB 260 as SB21-260.
Legislature Advances Broad Progressive Agenda
The 2021 legislative session saw majority Democrats push through significant legislation on transportation funding, health care and firearms safety, plus consumer protection, criminal justice, early childhood care and education, elections, environmental protection, social equity and economic security.
Budget issues also were important this session. A rebound in state revenues and massive amounts of federal pandemic aid allowed for unprecedented spending, but most of it is one-time. (The June issue of Front Porch included a report on budget issues.)
The pandemic had limited the Democrats’ ability to push a broad policy agenda in 2020. In 2021 they felt able to push ahead. There were many compromises and a few losses along the way, but overall much was accomplished. Here are some of the highlights.
Transportation funding was billed as the breakthrough issue of the session, promising to end years of tinkering and stopgap funding.
The solution was SB 260, a complicated package of fees and TABOR-exempt state enterprises designed to raise more than $5 billion over a decade to fund not just highway improvements but also electric vehicles, mass transit and encourage reduction of greenhouse gases.
Lawmakers also created a Front Range rail district (SB 028), tasked with promoting passenger rail service from Fort Collins to Pueblo, and passed HB 1186, which gives the financially troubled Regional Transportation District more flexibility in its operations.
But the 2021 session did substantive work on much more than transportation.
Consumer Protection and Economic Fairness
Lawmakers passed about a dozen bills in this area, including restrictions on insurance company use of external consumer data that could be discriminatory (SB 169), increased regulation of mortgage servicers (HB 1282), and a bill to give consumers greater control over their personal data online (SB 190).
Some consumer bills touched on more mundane concerns. Those included limitations on pet store sales of dogs and cats (HB 1102), requiring certain businesses to accept cash (HB 1048), continue allowing liquor takeout and delivery (HB 1027), and limiting the ability of homeowners’ associations to censor residents’ flying of flags (HB 1310).
The big news in education policy this session was passage of HB 1304, which will create a brand-new state agency, the Department of Early Childhood. Among other functions the new agency will oversee the universal preschool program that will launch in a couple of years, funded by the nicotine taxes approved by voters last November.
The two most notable pieces of higher education legislation fit in with the Democrats’ push for equity. National tests like the ACT no longer will be required for admission at state institutions (HB 1067), and legacy admissions are banned by HB 1173.
Democrats got a slate of election measures through, including a general overhaul of election law and tightening of recall requirements (SB 250), a measure to move toward ranked choice/instant runoff voting in non-partisan elections (HB 1071) and a revision in ballot language for initiatives (HB 1321), among others.
Environmental protection and action on climate change were big priorities for Democrats this session.
The biggest environmental bill of the session came together very late after Gov. Jared Polis and legislative Democrats patched up differences over proposed limitations on greenhouse gas emissions and the powers of the state air quality commission originally contained in SB 200.
In the session’s closing hours a softened version of those provisions was amended in HB 21-1266, a measure originally intended to provide better monitoring of pollution in disadvantaged communities.
On the consumer front, HB 1162 will phase out single-use plastic bags and certain food containers.
Health and Insurance
The so-called public option or state option health insurance plan drew a lot of attention before the session started.
The original proposal (HB 1232) was for a state-run insurance program that would reduce premiums for some people on the individual market, particularly in some Western Slope counties. Ferocious opposition by the hospital and insurance industries created headwinds for the bill. It got amended down to a state-regulated but privately run insurance plan that insurers would have to offer.
The other big “health” related fight of the session was over HB 1317, which will regulate the potency of concentrated THC in various marijuana products.
Other health-related bills that passed included a requirement that insurance companies cover annual mental health evaluations, (HB 1068), expanded insurance coverage of alternative pain treatments (HB 1276), establishment of a state board to review affordability of prescription drugs (SB 175), and additional state controls on the price of insulin (HB 1307).
Colorado’s out-of-control housing market and rising housing costs prompted several bills, most of which are intended to protect renters. Those include new rules for reporting tenants’ rent payment history to credit agencies (HB 1134), greater protections for renters on late fees and evictions (SB 173), and expanded local government authority to require affordable housing (HB 1117). A number of the pandemic stimulus bills also include funding for affordable housing programs.
Justice and Law Enforcement
Firearms safety bills drew lots of attention and some hot rhetoric. Bills passed included safe storage requirements (HB 1106), expanded background checks (HB 1298), background checks when guns are transferred (HB 1082), mandatory reporting of lost or stolen firearms (SB 78), flexibility for governments to regulate firearms (SB 256), creation of a state office of gun violence prevention (HB 1299) and reporting of firearms owned by people under protection orders (HB 1255).
Prompted by the 2019 death of Elijah McClain at the hands of Aurora police, HB 1251 puts some limits on police and paramedic use of the tranquilizer ketamine on arrestees.
Two bills on sexual abuse liability sparked emotional debate. With passage of SB 088, victims who suffered sexual abuse as minors will have expanded ability to sue perpetrators and the organizations that employed them. And SB 073 extends the statute of limitation for lawsuits against perpetrators.
Social Equity and Economic Security
It took lots of debate, but lawmakers finally passed SB 087, which gives farm workers many of the state labor law protections they previously didn’t have. But another labor measure concerning workplace harassment and unfair labor practices, SB 176, died in committee the night before adjournment.
Other equity bills passed this session included extension of anti-discrimination law to gender expression (HB 1108), strengthening of anti-discrimination laws related to people with disabilities (HB 1110), creation of a program to encourage outdoor recreation by disadvantaged youth (SB 1318), a bill to fund food bank-type centers to distribute diapers and related supplies (SB 27) and, finally, the bill to ban most American Indian school mascots (SB 116).
Todd Engdahl owns Capitol Editorial Services, a firm that provides legislative coverage, intelligence, and analysis to private clients. During a long career as an editor and public policy journalist, he served as executive city editor of The Denver Post, founder of DenverPost.com and a founder of Education News Colorado, which later became part of Chalkbeat Colorado.
Northeast Denver’s five legislators, all Democrats, were in the thick of things this session.
Freshman Rep. Jennifer Bacon (House District 7) was listed as a prime sponsor on a dozen bills. Among those were creation of a state office of gun violence prevention (HB 1299) and a measure to improve outcomes for newly released convicts (SB 146). But two bills that Bacon participated in didn’t make it. One was a measure on reform of pre-trial legal procedures (SB 273) and the second would have given school boards a stronger position in charter school appeals to the state (HB 1295). Bacon also serves on the Denver school board.
Sen. James Coleman (Senate District 33) was new to the Senate this year after two terms in the House. He was a prime sponsor on six bills, including education and criminal justice measures and HB 1288, a pandemic relief bill that sets up a $30 million revolving loan fund for startup businesses.
As a now-veteran member of the Joint Budget Committee, Sen. Chris Hansen (Senate District 31) was a key player in budgetary, pandemic stimulus, and other financial issues. Hansen was a prime sponsor of the bill to regulate the strength of marijuana concentrates (HB 1317) and a measure that makes important changes in the property tax system (SB293), plus measures tweaking state income taxes, gun control, and some environmental bills. He was listed as a prime sponsor on 43 bills, but that number is inflated because JBC members as a group can introduce an unlimited number of bills.
Rep. Leslie Herod (House District 8) was busy as a new member of JBC this session but also retained her interests in equity, criminal justice, and other issues. She sponsored bills to limit fines and fees on juveniles in the justice system (HB 1315), pandemic stimulus relief for creative industries (HB 1276), and an update to the 2020 police accountability law (HB 1250). But she and cosponsors had to withdraw a bill to reform school discipline and policing practices (SB 182). She was a prime sponsor on 38 bills.
Rep. Steven Woodrow (House District 60) is serving his first full term and was a prime sponsor on 11 bills. Those included reform of pre-trial detention (HB 1280), the “right to repair” bill requiring tech manufacturers to provide repair information to independent service shops (HB 1199), some pandemic relief measures, and one of the gun-control bills.