Democrats’ eagerness to fulfill agenda led to exhausting session

By Charles Ashby

When the Democrats took control of the Colorado Legislature after the 2004 elections, a lot of those then-freshmen lawmakers wanted to waste no time reversing many of the conservative policies put in place after decades of Republican control.

Their Democratic leaders, however, told them to hold off. The time will come, they told their members. Just wait for it.

Years of pressure from the party’s traditional supporters, primarily unions and the environmental community, began to build.

And build. And build.

That pressure came to a critical mass this year. Many of those now-senior Democrats realized that the two years the GOP took a narrow majority in the Colorado House in the 2011 and 2012 sessions meant they could lose power at any time.

So, when they won it back so convincingly last fall, it was enough to blow the lid off the Capitol dome teapot.

Most of the legislative sessions I’ve covered over the past 17 years have been highlighted with something explosive.

Whether it be a 13th-hour attempt to redraw congressional district lines, a plan to pave a new super highway from Fort Collins to Pueblo or bills to turn Colorado into an Arizona-like state when it comes to illegal immigration, every session has had at least one explosive issue.

Not so this year.

The entire session was loaded with such measures, most of which kept all of us ­— from the press to the lobbyists to the Capitol staff — following debate late into the night for more days than I care to remember.

Gun control. Election reform. Increasing the state’s renewable energy standard. Repealing the death penalty. Allowing more discrimination lawsuits. Giving workers greater rights to unionize. Cracking down on the “fracking” oil and gas industry, as Democrats often joked.

That was tough enough, but tack onto that other controversial matters, such as regulating the recreational use of marijuana, introducing a telecommunications bill late into the session and then a short-lived, but highly charged battle over a ballot question to repeal last year’s voter-approved Amendment 64, which legalized weed.

Every week of the 120-day session was packed with one controversial issue after another. It was endless. It was tiresome. The Democrats were relentless in their pursuit of just about every major issue they had been waiting years to address.

Republicans said it was clear who was behind many of the ideas Democrats were pushing.

“You can tell who’s running a bill by who’s on the other side of the glass,” Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, said a day after the session ended May 8. “It’s not rocket science. (The Democrats are) punishing folks that haven’t supported their agenda. I’ve heard assertions about, ‘You supported Republicans in the last campaign more than you supported us, and you’re going to pay now.’”

The “glass” that Cadman referred to are the large windows separating the House and Senate chambers from the outside world. On the other side sit the lobbyists, advocates representing all sides of the political spectrum who are there to push their clients’ agendas, from the business community to environmental groups.

To be fair, I’ve seen Republicans do some of the same things when they were in charge. I’ve seen GOP lawmakers pooh-pooh measures Democrats wanted not because they were ideas they didn’t agree with, but because they might make them look compromising, weak or fiscally irresponsible in the eyes of the voters.

I’ve seen Republicans steal legislative ideas from Democrats, killing their bills while introducing nearly identical measures days later.

I’ve seen Republicans stymie debate from Democrats just because they didn’t like someone.

So, to condemn Democrats as mean-spirited about what they did this session wouldn’t be fair. They took their lessons from the GOP, and they learned them well.

Case in point.

As he did last year, Sen. Randy Baumgardner presented a bill to allow methane captured from coal mines to be counted under the state’s renewable energy standard.

The idea made sense to the Hot Sulphur Springs Republican and his Senate sponsor, Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village.

By law, coal companies are required to vent their mines from the dangerous and obviously explosive gas for the safety of their miners. So, following the example of coal mining elsewhere in the world, some have started to capture it and use it as a fuel, as the folks at the Oxbow Mine down in Somerset did just last year.

But the environmental community balked at Baumgardner’s measure, saying they didn’t like the idea of equating a coal byproduct with wind and solar energy.

Somehow, though, that wasn’t an issue when Democrats incorporated the idea into SB252, introduced just a month before the session ended.

That bill, which awaits Gov. John Hickenlooper’s signature, would double the state’s renewable energy standard on rural electric cooperatives from the current 10 percent by 2020.

It will come as no surprise to learn that the bill was introduced by Democrats, including their top leaders. Although Schwartz served as a prime co-sponsor of the bill, Baumgardner wasn’t offered that courtesy.

Who’s surprised?

The Capitol dome steam is still clearing and it may be some time before we all know the real impacts of what lawmakers did this year.

For now, though, the Democrats hope Colorado voters will praise, rather than punish them for their efforts in next year’s elections.

One thing is certain, though. They’re not done. They promise more will come in the 2014 session.

(Sigh.) Can’t wait.

Charles Ashby is the legislative/political reporter for the Daily Sentinel. Email him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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Charles, sounds like you need a vacation! Re: that methane bill, there is a difference between the front range environmental community and those of us on the Western Slope—especially those living in the North Fork area, who have been concerned about methane capture for quite a while. They asked Senator Schwartz to find a way to make their air safer, but the front range was scared to death that renewable standards would be compromised and threw the western slope under the bus.

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