The Colorado Capitol may be the place where legislative dreams go to die in 2020. Democrats, freshly in control of the full legislature and the governor’s office after the 2018 elections, came to the Capitol a year ago with grand plans on oil and gas regulation, middle class economic security, election reform, full-day kindergarten, gun control and more. They accomplished a fair amount of that agenda—and added new spending to the state budget in the process.
Some of 2019’s unfinished work now is on the 2020 agenda, and last year’s spending spree, among other things, has helped reduce the amount of new spending the 2020 legislature can put into the 2020-21 budget.
The State Budget
Much of the $32 billion state budget is committed before lawmakers convene every January—the cost of existing programs, increases in medical caseloads and school enrollments and other continuing costs.
The state’s economy continues to perform strongly, and state revenues are still growing, but not as fast as they were a year ago. But the state has hit the revenue cap dictated by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, so lawmakers can’t spend all the new revenue that’s coming in. Well over $1 billion will have to be refunded to taxpayers over a three-year period.
But lawmakers and Gov. Jared Polis have lots of ideas —more funding for the state preschool program and other education initiatives, expanding air quality inspections, more money for school safety initiatives and drug addiction treatment, increasing the state reserves—the list goes on.
And the governor’s budget proposal gives only modest increases to higher education and state human services and medical programs, so there may be pressure to increase funding in those areas.
The bottom line is there may only be about $55 million in money available for truly new spending, and lots of spending bills will be on the cutting room floor once the session ends in May.
The cost of education is a big chunk of the overall state budget, but this session will see lots of separate debates just about paying for schools. In addition to Polis’ push for preschool funding, some lawmakers will push to further reduce a long-running shortfall in K-12 support; teachers’ unions are pushing for more funding; and lawmakers may face two complicated plans to change parts of the funding system—one to change the state funding formula and one to force school districts to increase local tax rates.
In recent sessions legislative Democrats have pushed bills intended to help Coloradans cope with such pressures as medical costs, insurance and retirement savings. Some of those were discussed last session but not acted on. So expect renewed debates this year on a proposed state-mandated paid family leave program, creation of a state-sponsored health insurance option and of a retirement savings plan, plus measures intended to control prescription and hospital costs.
Gun control was contentious in 2019. Despite the controversy, Democrats probably will be back with bills on safe storage and reporting of gun thefts, among other ideas. Other contentious issues expected to be back this year include immunizations and vaping taxes, among others.
A Big Grab Bag
Over the summer and fall 15 legislative study panels (they’re called interim committees) delved into issues ranging from drug addiction to sales taxes. Together that record number of committees proposed more than 50 bills, teeing up lots of issues for the 2020 session. Many of the bills are technical or minor, but proposals on drug treatment, school safety, prison reform and others could draw significant attention.
Election-year legislative sessions can be especially unpredictable, given that many lawmakers have one eye on the fall election and let campaign concerns influence their legislative actions.
Add contentious presidential and U.S. Senate campaigns to the mix, and there’s potential for some partisan venting under the Capitol dome.
Northeast Denver in the Legislature
The 2018 election produced no changes in Northeast Denver’s all-Democratic legislative delegation, leaving familiar faces in office last year and this session. But that lineup is due for a shakeup before the 2021 session.
Veteran Sen. Lois Court (District 31) isn’t seeking re-election this year. Rep. Chris Hansen (District 6) is running for her seat.
Sen. Angela Williams (33) last year entered the Democratic primary field for U.S. Senate. So Rep. James Coleman (7) announced he was running for her legislative seat. But Williams subsequently dropped out of the U.S. Senate contest and announced she was running for re-election, setting up a potential primary (see story on page 19). The one stable member of the delegation seems to be Rep. Leslie Herod (8), who ran unopposed in 2018 and has filed paperwork to run this year.
Four Democrats—Sean Camacho, Hazel Gibson, Steven Paletz and Steven Woodrow—have registered to run for Hansen’s House seat. Three other Democrats—Bernard Douthit, Jennifer Bacon and Simon Maghakyan— have registered or announced a run for Coleman’s House seat (see Douthit and Bacon interviews).
Primary caucuses are expected to be held March 7 and the primary election will be June 30.
All five members of the current delegation held leadership positions during the 2019 session. Court was elected president pro-tempore (the chamber’s second-highest position) and was chair of the Senate Finance Committee while Williams led the Business, Labor and Technology Committee.
Hansen is on the Joint Budget Committee and chaired the House Appropriations Committee. Coleman was co-whip (a party floor manager) and vice chair of the Business Affairs and Labor Committee. Herod chaired the Finance Committee and was vice chair of the Judiciary Committee. Leadership positions generally—but not necessarily —carry over into the second legislative session between elections.
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.