The 73rd General Assembly resumed Tuesday with delayed opening day speeches from legislative leaders presaging a session likely to see partisan fights over everything from elections to energy, despite a reminder from the Republican House minority leader that the parties are separated only by a “short walk across an aisle.”
Speaker Alec Garnett said in remarks Tuesday that addressing the consequences of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic would be the majority Democrats’ overall emphasis. “This session, our top priority will be to see our state out of the public health crisis and to work to usher in a swift economic recovery for Colorado’s hardworking families and small businesses,” the Denver Democrat said.
Garnett pointed to a variety of economic policy areas likely to receive attention from his party, which holds a 41-24 majority. He specifically mentioned “investing in job creation, small business assistance, housing, rural economic development [and] child care” and urged legislators to consider options to provide help to Coloradans in “other areas where equitable relief is badly needed.”
House Minority Leader Hugh McKean argued that the GOP caucus must play “defense against attacks on our freedom,” “defense against more and more pressure brought to bear on our families and their paychecks,” and “defense against the laundry list of things government can do but often without the debate about what it should do.” He urged protection of rural interests and the fossil fuel industry and peppered his comments with populist themes: “It is the role of government not to demand more from its citizens but rather to protect their ability to succeed and live without the tyranny of an unassailable ruling class,” McKean said, urging legislators “chart a course that takes into account the swath of our state and country that have lost faith in their government.”
The Loveland Republican said his party would oppose any legislative effort to increase gas taxes or fees to pay for transportation infrastructure or to mandate more reliance on renewable energy. “Treating the state with a set of solutions that work for Front Range Colorado is increasingly seen as a war on our rural areas,” he said.
In the Senate, where Democrats hold a 20-15 edge, the body’s president, Pueblo Democrat Leroy Garcia delivered a thematic speech that did not delve into details of his caucus’ goals for the session. Instead, Garcia spoke of the challenges facing Colorado in the aftermath of the pandemic. “We will turn the page of this disaster to one of replenishment and renewal,” he said. “We will eliminate the threat of this virus, returning to our loved ones and embracing our community. We will revitalize our economy, creating jobs and planting seeds for new growth. We will restore our community pillars: strengthening our schools and supporting our kids.”
Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert attacked Democrats’ “blue sky promises” and reiterated implacable GOP opposition to any tax or fee increases and commitment to more school choice options. The Parker Republican also accused Gov. Jared Polis of using executive authority to address the coronavirus crisis with too much abandon. “We must be willing to have a conversation, however uncomfortable it may be for those in the same political party as our current governor, regarding the balance of power in our state government during the next prolonged statewide disaster emergency,” he said. Republicans have opposed mandates to promote social distancing and require mask wearing that are aimed at lowering community risks of viral transmission.
Gov. Jared Polis signaled the significant details likely to draw the General Assembly’s attention during his State of the State address Thursday. He urged legislators to provide tax relief and loans for small businesses, improve wildlife management, begin the transition of the state’s transportation infrastructure to electrification, assure more multimodal transportation options, increase education funding and continue a focus on criminal justice reform.
Transportation is expected to be a prime concern as the legislative session gets underway. Efforts to find consensus on ways to pay for needed expansion and repair have foundered in recent years. Polis said he hopes a shift away from motor vehicle registration fees will open a path to a method of financing that would incentivize traffic reductions. “My budget request moves forward vital projects, starting with much-needed repairs on roads across Colorado — from the Eisenhower Tunnel to the rural roads that our farmers and ranchers rely on,” Polis said.
The governor also asked the General Assembly to expand rural broadband access, provide veterans benefits to former members of the armed forces who were discharged as a result of their sexual preference and continue efforts to make healthcare more affordable. “We look forward to adding an affordable Colorado Option that will give Coloradans — especially in rural communities — more choice and savings when it comes to selecting a healthcare plan,” Polis said.
Polis also emphasized the importance of climate change mitigation policies and stressed his goal of reaching 100% reliance on renewable energy by 2040. “The private sector is already turning away from fossil fuels and looking forward to a clean energy future. To date, we’ve successfully secured commitments from electric utilities representing 99% of generation in our state to reduce emissions 80% or more by 2030,” he said. “Colorado is a national leader in green energy jobs, the fastest growing job sector, precisely because we have embraced renewable energy.”
Among the hundreds of bills introduced Tuesday and Wednesday — the first two days on which legislators could launch proposals outside the narrow scope of the few considered during the three-day gathering last month — are measures that would create a statutory framework for surrogacy agreements and provide a civil cause of action for youth victims of sexual misconduct.
Other bills would reform the redrawing of county commission district boundaries, institute ranked-choice voting in nonpartisan elections, impose consumer protection requirements on pet stores, allow composting of human bodies and strengthen civics instruction in public schools.
— Hank Lacey