When Colorado legislators return to the Capitol on Jan. 10 for the 2024 regular session, they’ll probably be thinking, “We’ve been here before.”
That likely will come to mind because legislators left the Capitol less than two months earlier, after finishing a brief special session in November that saw the passage of a stop-gap property tax relief bill. And lawmakers are returning to several issues that they grappled with in 2023 but failed to finish during the last session.
Top issues expected to be addressed in 2024
The Budget—The session will have to pass a budget for the 2024-25 fiscal year. There’s sufficient revenue to fund current programs. But there’s only a modest amount of funds available for any significant new initiatives, and the billions in federal relief money that flowed during the pandemic have already been spent or allocated. As some have put it, we’re back to a “normal” budget for the state government.
Crime and Punishment—Reform of police, prisons, and criminal law have been big issues in recent sessions, often pushed by Democratic progressives such as District 8 Democratic Rep. Leslie Herod, who is term limited after this session. But lawmakers may be forced to devote more money to prisons because of rising prison populations and severe staff shortages. Gov. Jared Polis is also asking for funds for public safety initiatives, including auto theft reduction. The issues pertaining to funding law enforcement agencies and reforming the criminal justice system could spark debates between the progressives and moderates in the Democratic Party.
Education Funding—This could be a landmark year for K-12 schools because lawmakers are eliminating the use of the Budget Stabilization Factor, a legal mechanism that allowed the legislature to reduce school funding to help balance the state budget. But there’s also pressure on lawmakers to determine how to subsidize the rapidly growing universal preschool program and how to ensure sufficient support for state colleges and universities.
Land Use—Last year, Polis pushed a comprehensive bill that would have taken away land use powers from local governments and imposed statewide guidelines to increase the density of residential areas, the prevalence of accessory dwelling units, and the use of public transit systems. When the bill died in the Senate, Polis promised that he’d bring the issue back in 2024. In early December, he released an aspirational “housing and transportation” plan, the details of which remain unclear. There’s a lot of uncertainty about how this will play out.
Property Taxes—This was the other explosive issue of 2023. Legislators knew they had to do something, given that soaring property market values had teed up big increases in property tax bills. In the final days of last year’s session, after keeping their cards close to the vest, Polis and majority Democrats unveiled and rammed through a complicated tax relief plan that went to the voters in November as Proposition HH. Voters resoundingly rejected that plan, forcing Polis to call the November special session to pass a bill that will only reduce the increases to 2024 property tax bills. The special session also created a panel of experts to come up with solutions for a longer-term fix and report its ideas to the legislature in March. At that point, with less than two months left in the 2024 session, lawmakers will have to scramble to develop a property tax solution for 2025 and beyond.
Social Services—Colorado is facing a multifaceted crisis in its Medicaid, behavioral health, and welfare systems that boils down to one basic problem: The state doesn’t provide adequate reimbursements to the medical professionals and mental health counselors who care for Medicaid, disabled, and mentally ill patients. Efforts to increase funding for these services will eliminate money for new legislative programs. And lawmakers are being asked to also provide more funding for the state’s troubled program of competency evaluation and restoration services for criminal defendants.
Racial Justice—District 33 Sen. James Coleman, District 7 Rep. Jennifer Bacon, and Herod, all Northeast Denver Democrats, will be prime sponsors of a bill that was announced in early December and that is designed to—in the words of a news release—“commission an independent task force to study injustices and disparities faced by Black Coloradans as a result of the impacts of slavery and systematic racism…This study will help the State quantify and qualify inequities in health care, housing, education, the criminal justice system, and our economy.”
Will Civility Improve?
The 2023 session had lots of rocky moments, including floor delays and disruptions caused by hard-right House Republicans, and behind-the-scenes shouting matches between Democratic progressives and moderate party leaders.
One promising Democratic first-term member, Rep. Ruby Dickson of Greenwood Village, announced in early December that she was resigning because of the polarized atmosphere at the Capitol. Later in December, Rep. Said Sharbini, D-Brighton, also announced that he was resigning, citing financial reasons and the Capitol atmosphere. At a December panel discussion, legislative leaders from both parties said improving civility is a top priority. Time will tell.
Todd Engdahl is founder of Capitol Editorial Services, which provides research, reports and news on the state budget and other legislative issues to private clients. He’s a former executive city editor of The Denver Post, launched DenverPost.com and was co-founder of the website Education News Colorado.