Colorado Senate Democratic leader learned significant lessons about compromise

Author: Peter Marcus - May 16, 2017 - Updated: May 16, 2017

The legislative session that ended on Wednesday was so erratic that Senate Democratic Leader Lucia Guzman didn’t know whether to argue or bake pastries.

“It was risky all along,” Guzman said of the session, especially when it came to a compromise that allowed the state to restructure a hospital-bed occupancy fee while lowering the state spending cap to protect taxpayer refunds.

The Senate Bill 267 Hospital Provider Fee deal was perhaps the greatest show of bipartisan compromise in many years. Both sides of the aisle had to give in order to approve a $1.8 billion funding program for roads, as well as more money for schools and hospitals, especially in rural Colorado.

“It was a very trying time, and I think there were times when I would say ‘no,’ sometimes when I would be emphatically feisty, and then there were times when I would bake cinnamon rolls for Sen. Sonnenberg,” Guzman said.

The Senate Democratic leader worked closely with Republican Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg of rural Sterling on the deal.

“I felt like ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ with that bill, always on the edge, that I could go this way and lose it, I could go that way and lose it with our own caucus,” Guzman said.

Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, in his end-of-session media availability last week, called it “the most productive legislative session since I’ve been governor.”

“The general assembly set a model,” Hickenlooper said.

The governor is still considering calling lawmakers back into special session to address some outstanding issues, including additional transportation funding, health care reform, broadband development and saving the Colorado Energy Office. But despite the issues that were left on the table, the governor was elated by a willingness to work together.

“I think the key in this last session was that the Republicans and the Democrats were willing to put down the weapons on occasions,” Hickenlooper said Monday in Colorado Springs. “By that, I mean, the words that were being used as weapons.”

And the love fest came from both sides of the aisle.

“We have to work with each other,” said Senate Republican Leader Chris Holbert of Parker. “I’ve tried this session to not say ‘Minority Leader (Guzman),’ and I asked her not to call me ‘Leader Holbert.’ She has 17 talented people herself … If we did things that got to the governor’s desk it usually meant we were working with her caucus.”

Senate Republicans held only an 18-17 majority this year, so compromise was the key to success.

Guzman said her caucus couldn’t have advanced much of its agenda without Republican agreement and a commitment by Republicans to give measures a fair hearing.

One example is a bill that extends coverage to provide a 12-month supply of contraceptives for women. The Senate Democratic leader pointed to other examples, including progress made on curbing the opioid epidemic and using about $15 million in marijuana money to pay for housing and homeless services.

Unlike other sessions, some of the more significant disagreements came not between parties, but between House and Senate Democrats. Guzman at times found herself at odds with House Speaker Crisanta Duran in terms of negotiations, especially around the Hospital Provider Fee.

Senate Democrats also had concerns with a handful of Democrats supporting using the annual School Finance Act to address equal charter school funding. While the issue ultimately advanced in a standalone compromise, saving the School Finance Act, it left some bad blood.

“The Democrats in the House and the Senate, it would have been nice to work more closely together in terms of understanding the strategy on one end and the strategy on the other end, and so we bogged down in that – there wasn’t always a supportive outcome,” Guzman said.

But overall the Senate Democratic leader said she learned perhaps her most valuable lessons in all of her seven years in the legislature.

“It was productive in terms of teaching us what joining in a bipartisan effort can mean,” Guzman said. “That to me was the most productive and most significant lesson for us to take away.”

Peter Marcus

Peter Marcus

Peter Marcus is senior statehouse reporter for Colorado Politics. He covers the legislature and previously covered politics, the governor’s office, the legislature and Congress for The Durango Herald. He joined The Herald in 2014 from The Colorado Statesman, a Denver-based political weekly. The Washington Post twice named Marcus one of the nation’s top state-based political and legislative reporters.