Republicans signal quick end to Colorado special session

Author: Joey Bunch - October 2, 2017 - Updated: December 10, 2017

Special session 2017Colorado Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert, left, and Senate President Kevin Grantham speak to reporters in the Senate Republican Office Monday morning. (Photo by Joey Bunch/Colorado Politics)

Colorado Senate Republicans said Monday morning, at the dawn of special session, they needed the extra three and half months before the next regular session to find a solution to fix a bill they helped mess up in the last regular session.

“There’s been a lot of controversy and firestorm about what’s getting ready to happen here today, and a lot of back of forth with the first floor, the governor’s office, whether we’re going to have a special session or not have one and what’s going to happen,” Senate President Kevin Grantham, R-Canon City, said Monday morning.

Gov. John Hickenlooper called the special session without first consulting Republicans on whether they would get on board with an October fix rather than deliberating on it during the regular session that convenes in January.

What seemed most likely Monday, however, is that Senate Republicans will kill any attempts to fix Senate Bill 267 in the special session and wait.

The mistake came about in the complex bipartisan bargaining on the compromise legislation to move the state’s hospital provider fee out from under the state’s constitutional spending cap.

Republicans compromised to spare rural hospitals drastic budget cuts and provide $1.9 billion for transportation over the next 20 years. In the same session, Senate Republicans killed House Bill 1242, a multi-billion-dollar transportation proposal, because it would have asked voters to decide on a statewide sales tax increase.

Lawmakers need three days to pass a bill, but Senate Republicans signaled Monday morning that they could bring the special session to a quick conclusion.

Republicans could kill a bill that originates in Senate, where they hold a majority, as early as today, and then possibly do the same with one forwarded over by the House on Tuesday.

“Then we’re looking at two days of taxpayer dollars down that drain,” Grantham said.

He added that he expected the bills to get a fair hearing, however.

Hickenlooper brokered a deal with special districts to pay for the special session, a story Colorado Politics first reported.

Republicans argue that restoring the tax break amounts to a tax increase, and therefore must be approved by voters under the state Constitution’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights.

Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Sterling, one of the sponsors of the flawed bill, said it’s a question of having time to find the right solution, including answering constitutional questions about taking away a tax break for pot buyers.

“We haven’t heard from the attorney general to see if there is a constitutional issue,” said Sonnenberg, who had a bill drafted this summer that accomplishes the same fix as the governor wants.

“We had a bill drafted early for January so we could float (it) and people could see if there’s a constitutional issue,” Sonnenberg said Monday morning. “All of the sudden it became an emergency and now we haven’t had an opportunity.

“I don’t know if it would pass in January.”

The governor called the special session to restore marijuana tax revenue to special districts, those quasi-government entities that receive tax money to provide specific services like transportation, trash pick-up and cultural programs.

Senate Bill 267 included eliminating the state’s 2.9 percent general state sales tax while hiking a special tax on recreational marijuana sales from 10 to 15 percent.

In the law that took effect July 1, special districts were inadvertently cut out of the deal.

“Every day this issue is unresolved our special districts lose more and more funding,” said House Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Democrat from Denver. “That’s less money for transportation, especially in the rural areas, less money for arts and cultural institutions that enrich our lives and less funding for healthcare in the southwest corner of our state.

“No one in the legislature intended these negative impacts when we voted on Senate Bill 267. The grumbling and finger-pointing around the special session should not hide the fact that this mistake is hurting people across Colorado. In this special session we need to remember the retiree who relies on the bus to get to the doctor or school kids whose class trips to the museum will have to be canceled. We need to put aside political gamesmanship and do right by the people who elected us.”

Denver’s Regional Transportation District, for instance, stands to lose about $500,000 a month from its $914 million annual budget. RTD already is struggling to provide services with its current budget.

RTD stands to lose about $6 million annually without the fix, Dave Genova, the transit agency’s general manager and CEO.

That translates to services for up to 5,000 travelers a day, he said.

Joseph Lamers, who is blind and sits on the RTD Citizens Advisory Board, said the transit service has been vital to him.

“I’ve had a very good life, and one of the things that made that possible was RTD,” he said.

Neither RTD nor metro Denver’s Science and Cultural Facilities District have immediate plans to cut services because of the lost taxes.

SCFD funds about 275 smaller organizations, including the Denver Zoo and local museums. The lost pot taxes amount to about $56,000 a month and $700,000 annually for an organization that distributed about $56.5 million in tax money last year.

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch is the senior political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has a 31-year career in journalism, including the last 15 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and is a two-time Pulitzer finalist. His resume includes covering high school sports, the environment, the casino industry and civil rights in the South, as well as a short stint at CNN.