Insights: In Colorado, bipartisanship found a way forward
Author: Joey Bunch - August 13, 2017 - Updated: August 18, 2017
With the the grease fire that is Republicans’ too-big-to-fail promise to repeal and replace Obamacare, it’s time to remind D.C. how the Colorado legislature got things done this year, from healthcare to switchblades.
The state Constitution forces the legislature to balance its budget each year, that’s a big part of it. Moreover, Republicans and Democrats in the statehouse got tired of losing.
Republicans control the Senate. Democrats control the House. If you’re a partisan under the Gold Dome, that’s a losing proposition unless you have friends across the aisle. Partisans might as well howl at the moon. They’ll get just as far. The only point in picking fights when you don’t have the votes is politics, not governing.
As no small side note, our Democratic governor, John Hickenlooper, is making the rounds with Ohio’s Republican governor, John Kasich.
They’re telling Washington that states want to work across party lines to fix health care. The issue is too important to spoil with brinksmanship.
The legislative session ended three months ago, and usually there’s finger-pointing and backbiting by the time the state fair rolls around. This summer, noticeably, the bipartisan victories.
Bipartisanship is turning into a Colorado thing, like legal weed and light rock music.
Let’s air out the session’s dirty laundry, however. When they convened in January legislators from both parties said their biggest priority would be to adequately fund transportation.
But you can’t blame bipartisanship. It was an all-Republican knife fight that gutted House Bill 1242, co-authored by Democratic House Speaker Crisanta Duran and Republican Senate President Kevin Grantham.
The Democratic House majority passed a bill to ask voters to approve a sales tax hike. Three Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee couldn’t support that. The Republican majority in the Senate then couldn’t agree on a replacement bill.
Colorado found a way forward on health care, however. The bipartisan breakthrough, Senate Bill 267, put millions into rural hospitals and some into transportation, while raising Medicaid co-pays and lowering the state government spending cap. Both sides got some wins there.
Then to prove bipartisanship happens in baby steps, Republicans got in a spat with the Democratic governor on where the bill would be signed. The peace pipe has not been completely smoked.
The divided legislature also found a middle ground on construction defects litigation, fairly funded charter schools, forced law enforcement to better disclose the assets they take in forfeitures and more (driverless cars, more convenient contraceptive access for women and money to address the state’s opioid addiction crisis).
Democrats and Republicans did some real giving and taking. It paid off.
A lot of the progress had to do with Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert, a Republican outdoorsman from Douglas County, and Minority Leader Lucia Guzman, the Democratic pastor from Denver who is the someday leader emeritus of the LGBTQ Caucus.
For six of the eight years of the Hickenlooper administration, Republicans and Democrats will have shared control of the legislature. Before this past session, bombast had a way of spoiling things.
Bipartisanship starts with better relationships, Holbert said. The Senate leadership in both parties tried to keep a lid on the accusatory, overblown rhetoric that makes subsequent bipartisanship a heavy lift.
“What we’ve tried to do is to reach across the aisle quite literally by standing in that center aisle and to shake hands and to embrace and not use that kind of (negative) rhetoric with each other, first just to set that example and to encourage other people in the caucus,” Holbert said.
Guzman said relationships at least provide an open ear across the aisle when the votes are against you.
“I’ve known President Grantham since we came in together,” Guzman said. “He and I traveled to Israel together. We’ve done lots of things together.”
Holbert said the Colorado Constitution forces the legislature to work together to pass scores of bills, including balancing a budget.
“The way we have to do our jobs is different than most other states and could be different than all other states,” he said.
It’s complicated and detailed, so he wrote out Colorado’s unique governing requirements for me.
For my fellow Colorado government geeks. Holbert’s lesson:
Single Subject Rule
Everything in a bill before the Colorado General Assembly must fit under the title of that bill. This restriction prohibits “pork barrel” legislation and deal-making when unrelated issues are combined into one bill.
Every Bill Must Receive a Hearing
In many states, legislative leadership or committee chairmen have the authority to decide whether a given bill will receive a hearing. If a bill does not receive a hearing, then it cannot pass. Here in Colorado, all bills that are introduced must receive a hearing.
No Pocket Veto
In Colorado, no one legislator or even the Governor has the authority to kill a bill simply by ignoring it. Bills in our legislature can and do die by vote of a committee or chamber, with at least a simple majority of members voting against the measure. If a bill passes both chambers, our governor must either sign it into law, sign it as a veto or the bill becomes law without his signature.
Balanced Budget Requirement
The Colorado Constitution requires our state legislature to pass a budget each year and that the budget be balanced. The Colorado General Assembly cannot deficit spend, meaning that it cannot spend more than it has. With our current spilt legislature, Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate must work together to pass a balanced budget.
Voter Approval Required for Taxes
Unlike many state legislatures, the Colorado General Assembly does not have authority to create a tax or increase an existing tax rate without voter approval.
Individuals may serve up to eight years in each chamber of our state legislature. House terms are two years each and Senate terms are four years each.
Limited Session Time
The Colorado Constitution limits the annual general session to no more than 120 days, including weekends and holidays. Unlike other states that limit session duration, here in Colorado, neither the legislature nor the Governor has authority to extend a general session beyond 120 days.
Colorado voters have also amended our state Constitution to prohibit lobbyists from giving anything of value to a state legislator. Whereas non-lobbyists can currently spend up to $59 per year entertaining a state legislator, lobbyists can spend nothing on such activities.