The best one-word description of the 2023 Colorado General Assembly is simply—new.
Consider these numbers:
- New members—There will be at least 31 brand-new members, including 18 Democrats and 13 Republicans (the number of new members may change depending on who is chosen in January to fill a Republican Senate vacancy).
- New leaders—Of the six top leaders in both chambers, four are new in their roles.
- New and bigger majorities—Democrats now have a 46-19 margin in the House and control the Senate with a 23-12 margin.
- New gender majority—Women now hold 51 of the legislature’s 100 seats.
- Committee changes —There will be many new faces serving as committee chairs, along with a lot of shuffling of members.
- New budget writers—Five of six members are new to the Joint Budget Committee, where there’s a steep and long learning curve for members to master state finances.
Of course, turnover happens and fresh faces appear after every set of legislative elections. The rough, historic rule of thumb is that about 25 percent of the legislature turns over each election cycle.
So this year’s turnover was high, and it’s noticeably higher than after the 2020 elections, which sent only 18 new lawmakers to the 2021 session. That incoming class was equally divided between Democrats and Republicans, and the class included 11 women and seven men. The 65-member House received 15 of the newcomers, while three joined the Senate.
It’s a little tricky to handicap an upcoming legislative session when there are a lot of new members without Capitol track records.
New members often like to introduce “pet project” measures, many of which don’t go anywhere but which do take up legislative time. A clearer picture of this legislature won’t come into focus until the first waves of bills are introduced and made public after the 2023 session convenes on Jan. 9. More than 600 bills are introduced during a typical session.
So, while it’s hard to fully predict the big issues that will dominate the 2023 session, some likely subjects have surfaced. They include:
A tighter budget—During the 2022 session lawmakers had billions of one-time federal pandemic relief funds to spend. (For example, the annual non-transportation state construction budget was paid for almost entirely with federal funds.) In 2023 the budget committee will have to figure out how to pay for a 5 percent state employee pay raise. The committee will also need to address providing improved compensation for outside providers who supply healthcare, correctional, mental health, and other services for the state while also covering inflationary cost increases in state programs.
Education funding—In January a House-Senate study committee that’s been working off and on for several years is expected to unveil a proposed major revamp of the state’s decades-old K-12 funding formula. What that will look like and how the bill will fare are unknown, but there’s likely to be significant debate.
Firearms regulation—Democrats are weighing how to strengthen gun laws in the wake of the Club Q shootings in Colorado Springs.
Housing—The 2022 session devoted significant amounts of that federal funding to housing programs. Voters in November approved earmarked state funding for housing, which lawmakers probably will want to review.
Judicial reform—Another legislative study group has proposed a ballot measure that would create a fully independent process for disciplining judges. The full legislature will have to consider whether to submit that to voters.
New programs—A brand-new Department of Early Childhood will oversee the universal pre-school program that’s set to launch next year, but lawmakers may need to do some fine-tuning. The same may be true for the state’s reorganized system for providing mental health services.
Democratic Gov. Jared Polis, who is starting his second term after a landslide victory in November, had a pretty successful legislature track record during his first term. Major successes included launching full-day kindergarten and reforming behavioral health programs.
The governor will detail his agenda in his January State of the State speech, but several priorities were laid out in November when he submitted his proposed 2023-24 state budget. His plan is organized around four goals—investing in the future, making neighborhoods safer and more affordable, protecting the environment, and bolstering state reserves as insurance against future downturns.
One of those priorities is crime. The governor has proposed a significant increase for the Colorado State Patrol, both for trooper salaries and for a grant program that will help law enforcement fight auto theft, which has exploded in Colorado.
The governor has also proposed increased funding for school security and continued increases in funding for wildfire prevention, mitigation, and suppression. That plan includes the acquisition of a second high-tech helicopter to fight fires.
The governor is also pushing for proposed increases in preschool and K-12 funding, further reductions in state professional and business fees, more funding for youth mental health, and additional financial support for affordable housing and homelessness programs.
His budget plan also includes more funding for state water programs and agencies.
Finally, the governor’s budget plan urges lawmakers to maintain the state’s 15 percent reserve, set aside additional funds to cover some basic state costs beyond 2023-24, and to match new federal infrastructure grant funds.
Despite all the talk of newness, it’s worth noting that 41 legislators were re-elected. And 18 senators who are in the middle of their four-year terms didn’t have to run last election. So there will be 67 or 68 experienced members returning, pending the filling of that vacant Senate seat.
Only two people without previous legislative experience were elected to the Senate, with one from each party. The other nine “new” senators successfully moved from the House. (In a less common switch, one Democratic senator was elected to a House seat.)
Democrats have held the majority in the House continuously since the 2012 elections and have controlled the Senate since 2018.
The new, larger Democratic majorities will further diminish the Republican role at the Capitol, although the vast majority of routine bills will have bipartisan support, as they do every session.
Todd Engdahl operates Capitol Editorial Services, which provides private clients with research, reports and news on the state budget and other issues 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.