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From fire prevention to fentanyl: 5 highlights from Colorado’s latest legislative session

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Scott Franz
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Capitol Coverage
The final days of the 2022 legislative session were marked by fierce negotiations over a fentanyl bill.

The dust is just starting to settle in the aftermath of Colorado’s legislative session. Lawmakers were frantically working Wednesday night to pass dozens of bills just minutes before a midnight deadline. But not everything got through. Here are some of the highlights from the final weeks of Colorado’s legislative session.

A big year for wildfire response

The session opened just days after the Marshall Fire destroyed entire neighborhoods and became the state’s most destructive.

Lawmakers responded by creating a new government office dedicated to helping communities prepare for wildfire risks.

They are also making insurance companies pay more money to people who lose their homes and allowing displaced residents to continue voting in their hometowns while they wait to rebuild.

But even as these bills were being passed, fire danger in Colorado got even worse in April, and the Front Range experienced an unprecedented 19 consecutive red flag warnings.

Lawmakers responded by saying they were investing an additional $20 million to call in more air support and launch a new statewide firefighting dispatch center.

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Scott Franz
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Capitol Coverage
Colorado will continue to rely on infrared cameras aboard a Pilatus PC-12 aircraft that can detect a campfire from as far as 25 miles away.

“We are going into the summer months with the most aggressive and most resourced fire response team we’ve ever had,” Sen. President Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, said at the time.

But that response will not include new cameras that other states like California are using to spot blazes in remote areas more quickly.

A panel of Colorado lawmakers unanimously agreed in February to advance a $2 million plan this year to start deploying them.

But the bill did not get another hearing. Sponsor Dylan Roberts, D-Avon, said this week he ran out of time and could not find the money for them this year.

He also blamed Republican filibuster attempts in the final days of the session for the bill’s demise.

A separate bill aiming to boost the state’s ability to investigate the causes of wildfires also died.

An emotional debate over fentanyl deaths

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agreed they needed to intervene in a worsening fentanyl crisis in the state.

More than 900 Coloradans overdosed and died from the drug last year, according to state data.

But lawmakers clashed over whether to toughen criminal penalties for people who possess less than a gram of the drug.

Sen. Julie Gonzales led the effort to keep low level possession a misdemeanor.

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Scott Franz
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Capitol Coverage
Lawmakers talk outside the Senate chambers on the final day of the 2022 legislative session.

But many Republicans said it was time for the state to “get tough” on fentanyl.

Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, R-Weld County, said lawmakers would be complicit in overdose deaths if they did not make it a bigger crime to possess even smaller amounts of the drug.

In the end, lawmakers agreed only to toughen the penalties for possessing at least one gram.

The bill will also spend more than $30 million on programs treating addiction and promoting recovery and life-saving interventions.

Pandemic lessened its grip

The session started with many lawmakers still wearing masks as the omicron variant of the coronavirus led to a spike in cases. For the first weeks, there was also a free testing station outside of the Capitol entrance. But as the session progressed, most lawmakers ditched their masks and started focusing beyond the pandemic.

A historic budget

In April Gov. Jared Polis signed the biggest budget in state history. The $36 billion spending plan for next year will pay for a new program covering college tuition for the state’s foster youth.

“We’ve recovered more than 100% of the jobs we lost in the pandemic,” Polis said at the signing ceremony. “And as a result, there are a lot of funds coming in.”

The budget also includes funding for many other new initiatives, including the ongoing efforts to reintroduce gray wolves and the rollout of free preschool classes starting next year.

The new program will offer 10 hours per week of free preschool for all children the year before they start kindergarten.

An immediate pivot to election season

Groggy and tired from three days of late night work, lawmakers did not waste any time on Thursday in the immediate aftermath of their session to start looking ahead to the November election.

Democrats, standing in front of banners saying Colorado was moving forward and becoming more affordable, said they passed policies to speed up the state’s recovery from the pandemic.

I said my number one priority this session is to bring down the cost of living in Colorado, to make life more affordable, to help get money in the pockets of families across our state, and I can say without hesitation, without a doubt, that is what we did,” House Speaker Alec Garnett, D-Denver, said Thursday.

But Republicans held a very different press conference and blasted Fenberg and other Democrats. They blamed them for expanding government programs, and displayed charts and graphs focusing on rising crime rates and housing prices in Colorado.

I do wonder why Democrats, with a legislative agenda that borrowed heavily from ours, didn't do more to address issues of affordability, educational choice and rising crime,” Sen. Minority leader Chris Holbert, R-Parker. said.

Scott Franz is a government watchdog reporter and photographer from Steamboat Springs. He spent the last seven years covering politics and government for the Steamboat Pilot & Today, a daily newspaper in northwest Colorado. His reporting in Steamboat stopped a police station from being built in a city park, saved a historic barn from being destroyed and helped a small town pastor quickly find a kidney donor. His favorite workday in Steamboat was Tuesday, when he could spend many of his mornings skiing untracked powder and his evenings covering city council meetings. Scott received his journalism degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is an outdoorsman who spends at least 20 nights a year in a tent. He spoke his first word, 'outside', as a toddler in Edmonds, Washington. Scott visits the Great Sand Dunes, his favorite Colorado backpacking destination, twice a year. Scott's reporting is part of Capitol Coverage, a collaborative public policy reporting project, providing news and analysis to communities across Colorado for more than a decade. Fifteen public radio stations participate in Capitol Coverage from throughout Colorado.