Debate still on: a contentious Legislature by whose choosing?
DENVER — A year ago, when the control of the two chambers in the Colorado Legislature was split between the two major parties, GOP legislators chided their Democratic colleagues over civil unions.
At the time, Republicans repeatedly said if Democrats really wanted to allow same-sex couples to enter into civil unions, they should have passed such a measure during the 2010 legislative session, the last time they had full control of the Legislature and governor’s office.
Those comments weren’t lost on many Democrats coming into this year’s session. As a result, not only did the Democrats pass a civil unions law, but a plethora of other controversial measures dear to their hearts, from gun control to union collective bargaining to higher renewable energy standards.
It led to this year’s session being one of the most contentious, forcing numerous late night debates, filibusters, protests inside and outside of the Capitol building and, at one point, GOP lawmakers stomping off the House floor in disgust.
“We saw some of the biggest debates and longest legislative fights than I’ve seen here in over a decade,” said Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs. “Probably the most disappointing for us is the laser-like focus on jobs and the economy became a night light, barely visible. And the focus became really on an extreme agenda that we know included a lot of outside interests.”
That “laser-like focus” comment was one Republicans often repeated throughout the session. It was something House Speaker Mark Ferrandino called for a year before he became speaker. Still, the Denver Democrat agreed that jobs and the economy were primary issues for this year’s session.
While Democrats did pass several jobs-related bills, primarily to offer more tax incentives to businesses that create jobs, GOP lawmakers argued that most of their so-called jobs bills just put regulatory obstacles in the way.
Democrats say some of the more controversial measures weren’t of their choosing, but forced on them because of circumstances that the voters wanted them to address. They include:
■ Gun-violence bills needed to be addressed because of last year’s shootings in Aurora and Connecticut.
■ Marijuana needed to be regulated because the voters approved Amendment 64 last fall to legalize it.
■ A civil unions law had to be enacted because a majority of voters and legislators demanded it.
■ In-state tuition for the children of people who came to the state without proper legal documentation was due to pass because the time had come to get it done.
But there were several other weighty issues the Democrats did introduce that weren’t on most people’s radar, such as election reform, increasing the state’s renewable energy standard for rural electric associations and allowing workers in smaller companies to file discrimination lawsuits against their employers.
“One of the things we heard loud and clear during the (2012) campaign was people were sick and tired of government, legislators not doing anything,” Ferrandino said. “They’re frustrated with Washington because all they see is gridlock. What we were told was, ‘Get elected and get something done.’ We ran on a lot of issues, from jobs and the economy to reforming our education system, from civil unions to (in-state tuition), and we delivered on those.”
Other issues that had arisen during the session the Democrats weren’t so successful at included such things as ending the state’s death penalty, allowing striking union workers to get unemployment money and dealing with the hydraulic fracturing issue for natural gas production.
Some of those issues died, in part, because Gov. John Hickenlooper didn’t want to see any of them reach his desk.
“So many of these bills were negotiated by both sides into a better form,” Hickenlooper said of some of the measures that did pass. “Some of these things were so long in coming that they didn’t need that much time. Some of the bills on various other issues were fresher and newer, reflected changing circumstances of the state and this did require more time.”
This year was expected to be a test of Hickenlooper’s true political leanings. Though a Democrat, the governor is largely seen as a friend of business, particularly the oil and gas industry.
As a result, he’s been quite public in his opinions on what oil and gas measures he would sign, how far he would go in expanding union powers and when he believes the public is or is not ready to address other issues, such as repealing the death penalty.
“I am very pro-business. I don’t think you can help anybody in society if you don’t have a strong economy,” he said. “I’ve also been socially liberal. I am somewhat in the middle and I do reflect 40 to 50 percent of Coloradans who I’ll bet you would put themselves somewhere in the middle spectrum, too.”
That stance did result in the death of a major measure to increase fines on oil and gas spills, and another one to weaken the industry’s influence on the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.
It also led to some measures not even seeing the light of day, such as setbacks on where drilling rigs can be located and an outright moratorium on the use of fracking fluids.
Regardless, Democrats said they’re not even close to being done with that issue.
Senate Majority Leader Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, said that’s a topic for next year’s session.
“Right now it’s primarily people and residents versus a fairly powerful oil and gas lobby,” she said. “The only way that we can really stand up to the oil and gas lobby in the building is for more regular citizens who are impacted who are concerned about their air, their water, their public health, their neighborhood and their property values. The one thing that can topple an extremely well-funded special interest in this building is if enough citizens get involved.”