The Colorado General Assembly, which began its 2017 session Wednesday, is again a divided branch (a Senate with 18 Republicans and 17 Democrats and a House with 37 Democrats and 28 Republicans). Overall, however, the legislature has been somewhat strengthened by a recent constitutional amendment making it more difficult to initiate citizen votes on constitutional amendments.
But old challenges to the legislature’s authority and importance, such as term limits and strict limits on raising revenues, will continue to hamper the effectiveness of the Colorado Senate and the Colorado House of Representatives in the upcoming session.
The new constitutional amendment requires initiated constitutional amendments to be passed by 55 percent of the voters rather than the 50 percent previously required. In addition, signatures on initiative petitions must be gathered in each of the state’s 35 state senate districts rather than anywhere in the state (no more getting all the required signatures in just Denver and Boulder, or some other limited area).
If the new constitutional amendment accomplishes its purpose and reduces the number of initiated amendments, business should pick up in the state legislature as interest groups go to the legislature to accomplish their goals rather than going directly to a vote of the people. That may mean more bills,(there already will be about 700) ,more lobbying pressure on legislators, and, in the end, perhaps more legislative output in the form of new laws.
Most important, however, the steady loss of power of the state legislature, as initiated constitutional amendments put more and more legislative functions in the state constitution, will be slowed.
But term limits – limiting each state senator and state representative to only eight years in the legislature – will continue to effect legislative operations. The most obvious effect is that seasoned and experienced legislators are being forced out of office after eight years. About a third of this legislature are new to their positions, although a handful of senators were formerly members of the House. Another effect of term limits is they reduce the time that legislators from the two parties serve together in the legislature, resulting, many believe, in less collegiality, bipartisanship and moderation.
Term limits also cause legislative committees to lose power to political parties in the legislature. Legislators have less time to gain committee expertise and thus find it easier to simply vote along party lines. Parties began to replace committees as the major source of legislative proposals.
Committee expertise is also a victim of term limits. Committee chairs no longer possess deep knowledge of the committee’s subject area. The end result: legislators have less confidence in committees in Colorado and their recommendations are less honored on the floor.
Still another consequence of term limits has been the frequent turnover of those in top legislative leadership positions. Speakers of the Colorado House or presidents of the Colorado Senate now turn over every two years or so. Some of these leaders come to their positions with a lot less experience than use to be the case before term limits (although one positive thing for this term is that both the speaker and the president are veterans of the Joint Budget Committee, which remains a great training ground for legislative leadership). And they leave their leadership offices after relatively brief tenures.
The 2017 session of the Colorado legislature will be characterized by the perpetual quest for new sources of money. Transportation and infrastructure funding will top the to-do lists – but the fights will be over how to fund these on a long-term basis. Initiated constitutional amendments, such as TABOR, have removed control over the state’s financial affairs from the state legislature and placed them under rigid constitutional rules.
This chronic shortage of state money has led to a decline in the influence of the Joint Budget Committee, the small six-person committee that writes the initial draft of the budget for the state legislature.
When hard economic times hit Colorado following the major recession that began in 2008, the Joint Budget Committee stepped back and let the governor take the leading role in announcing unpleasant budget cuts. There was awareness that the tight financial conditions forced on the state by the TABOR Amendment had taken most of the fun out of being on the Joint Budget Committee. A few years-ago, a Boulder Democrat noted that any state legislator “would love to be on the powerful Joint Budget Committee and hand out wads of cash to every constituency, but we don’t have wads of cash.”
Once again the 2017 session of the state legislature will have to wrestle with the dreaded “Three Go Up and Two Go Down” problem in Colorado state finance.
Because of Colorado constitutional mandates and U.S. Government mandates, three areas of state expenditures go steadily up and two move drearily down:.
Increasing are: (1) Constitutionally-mandated annual increases in K-12 education. (2) The U.S. Government program mandating state spending for Medicaid, which provides medical services for the poor. (3) The cost of operating state prisons, which go up as the state’s population increases.
The two that go steadily down are:
(1) The state’s contribution to higher education (state universities and colleges). (2) All other functions of state government (state highways, state parks, state mental hospitals, the state contribution to welfare services, etc.).
The state of Colorado’s economy is better than it has been a decade with unemployment down remarkably to about 3.2 percent, But this is plainly not reflected in the state’s crucial General Fund – which seems nearly impoverished to meet challenging state needs. The 2017 session of the Colorado state legislature will persevere in spite of term limits and constitutional limits on state revenues. And somehow, with a financial patch here and a fiscal Band-Aid there, and some last minute compromising, the job will get done (hopefully better than the Rockies, Nuggets, Broncos and Avalanche have done lately!) and Colorado will meet its obligations for another year.
Tom Cronin and Bob Loevy are political scientists at Colorado College and co-authors of Colorado Politics: Governing a Purple State.