Who tries to solve big problems like fixing Colorado’s roads, shoring up the state pension system and rescuing the state’s civil rights commission in just 48 hours? Colorado’s 100 legislators, of course.
The 2018 session of the Colorado General Assembly may have convened on Jan. 10, but it didn’t finish most of its biggest tasks until the last two days of the session, which adjourned May 9.
Legislators have an innate tendency to procrastinate, and crafting political compromises takes time, particularly when Republicans control the Senate and Democrats run the House. And legislative leaders, particularly in the House, didn’t do a great job of managing workflow and the calendar, not to mention the number of bills. Some 721 bills were introduced, the highest total in at least a decade and probably longer.
Lawmakers started the 2018 legislative session with a big stack of cash and a short list of very tricky issues.
The extra tax revenue provided by a booming state economy allowed lawmakers to pass one of the most generous budgets in years. They also made a $225 million down payment on strengthening the pension system, set aside $500 million for transportation projects and gave schools $180 million more than the school-funding formula requires.
But it wasn’t easy. The final votes on the pension rescue were tallied with less than an hour to go on May 9, the last day. Also accomplished in the waning hours was a clutch compromise on board membership that renewed the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which was set to expire under the state’s sunset law.
Lawmakers also consumed a lot of time that day on tributes to departing members, satirical skits and general long-windedness.
Agreement eluded lawmakers on one hot-button issue that surfaced late in the session – creation of procedures for confiscating guns from the mentally ill.
Among other top issues this session were the opioid addiction crisis and teacher shortages. Lawmakers discussed those issues all session, and some funding was provided. Some restrictions on opioid prescriptions were passed. But a proposed safe injection clinic in Denver was defeated. Most observers agree that neither set of bills will move the needle dramatically on either issue.
Paying for roads
Lawmakers have been wrestling with this issue for several sessions. Highway officials put the cost of necessary improvements at $9 billion over the next decade.
But the two parties have disagreed on how to pay for all that. Republicans believe some existing state revenues can be diverted for transportation, including enough money to pay off long-term bonds. Democrats fear that earmarking general revenues for roads would squeeze budgets for schools and other programs during future economic downturns. They’ve supported asking voters for a transportation tax increase.
Republicans made the first bid with Senate Bill 18-001. Discussions went back and forth all session. Finally House Speaker Crisanta Duran and Senate President Kevin Grantham crafted a compromise that was accepted by the Democratic majority in the House and all 35 senators on the session’s second-to-the-last day.
The final version of the bill could put almost $3 billion in transportation over the next two decades, including $645 million of transfers from the state General Fund over the next two years. If voters approve a $2.3 billion bonding plan in 2019 then $122.6 million a year would be taken from the General Fund to help repay the bonds.
Everyone pays to shore up pension system
As with transportation, almost everybody agreed something had to be done to shore up the long-term financial health of the Public Employees Retirement Association. But the conflicting interests of state employees, teachers, retirees and employers like the state and school districts made it hard to find compromise.
Backroom negotiations consumed the session’s last day, and the Senate Bill 18-200 compromise didn’t jell until the session’s final two hours. It passed both chambers, although Gov. John Hickenlooper had to coax Democrats to support the plan during a hastily called caucus. The Colorado Education Association opposed the plan, and most of the no votes were Democrats.
The bill increases employee contributions by 2 percentage points. Employers like the state and school districts also will pay more. Annual cost of living increases will be pared to 1.5 percent for retirees, and the retirement age was raised to 64 from 60 for state employees and from 58 for teachers. State workers will be offered a defined-contribution option, but not teachers.
Schools get a welcome boost
Total program funding, the amount of state and local revenues allocated for basic school operating costs, is projected to be $7.08 billion in 2018-19, a $460.9 million increase over the current budget.
That includes a $150 million reduction in the Budget Stabilization (BS) Factor—the term now used instead of “Negative Factor.” That would bring the BS Factor to $672 million in 2018-19.
The funding plan translates to an average per-pupil figure of $8,137, a $475 increase.
Sexual harassment issue overshadows session
Sexual harassment allegations that surfaced six months ago cast a shadow over the session, led to the expulsion of one member and mild punishment for another. And over the summer legislative leaders will be discussing a late-session report by an outside consultant that found an unhealthy culture of harassment at the Capitol.
Todd Engdahl runs Capitol Editorial Services, a research company that provides services to lobbying firms and advocacy groups at the Colorado legislature. He’s a former executive city editor of The Denver Post, launched DenverPost.com and was a co-founder of the website Education News Colorado.