A dramatic legislative session ends with Democratic victories, and some defeats
The Colorado legislative session wrapped up Monday night at the State Capitol, marking the end of a lawmaking term characterized by a historic Democratic majority and, at times, dramatic Republican opposition.
“Without a doubt this has been one of the most impactful sessions in recent memory,” House Democratic Majority Leader Monica Duran said Tuesday. “As a Latina in leadership, I was proud to see how we fought for inclusion of all voices throughout this session. Our diversity is our strength, and as a result, we passed legislation that represents all Coloradans whose voices have too often been left behind.”
Democrats were able to pass some major legislative priorities. In the face of resistance from Republicans—and at times from within their own party, however, Democrats were not able to get through everything on their agenda.
Land-use legislation backed by Gov. Jared Polis and many Democrats failed to pass just hours before the session ended. The final version of the bill focused on increasing residential density around transit corridors by requiring cities to allow for multi-unit zoning around bus and train routes. The Senate’s more moderate lawmakers were unwilling to approve changes made in the House, handing Polis a major defeat over his flagship housing policy.
“We have a lot of work ahead to better protect the rights of homeowners, to make Colorado more affordable to purchase or rent a home,” Polis said. “We need to make sure that we are able to rise to the occasion to change the status quo, which simply isn't working for too many Coloradans, whether it's a senior looking to downsize [or] whether it's a young family looking to have a home close to where their job is.”
A controversial last-minute bill that would provide property tax relief for Coloradans next year was passed by both chambers, but voters will still have to approve the measure on the ballot in November.
The 10-year plan would reduce property valuation rates and allow property owners to exempt part of their property’s value from taxation. Proponents say the plan could cut property taxes by more than 60% on average next year, and it would make up for losses in tax revenue by reducing refunds under the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR. Property taxes in Colorado fund schools, fire departments and ambulance services.
“After all of this work, we all deserve a little bit of a break, but it's going to have to be a short one,” Senate President Steve Fenberg said. “Before we know it, we have to get back to work and have conversations with voters about this November's election. That's because we're sending the historic proposition to the ballot to make major long- and short-term property tax reductions.”
Another bill tied to the tax relief plan would amend TABOR refunds by mandating flat-rate refunds for all tax filers as opposed to the default system, which varies amounts based on income level. Sponsors also say the change is meant to help lower-income Coloradans, who often rent instead of own and thus won’t benefit from the property tax relief.
Other significant policy victories for Democrats include historic new gun regulations and protections for people seeking abortions and gender-affirming care.
Republicans, on the other hand, struggled to assert influence during the session with such a small minority. Senate Republican Minority Leader Paul Lundeen criticized Democrats for introducing some bills so late in the session.
“That's not the way it should be done,” Senate Republican Minority Leader Paul Lundeen said. “The policy conversation should be held over the course of the session, not rammed through in the last few days.”
Republicans were often frustrated over Democrats’ policies this year, and they used the few tools at their disposal to oppose them, especially in the House of Representatives.
House Republicans staged a campaign of delay tactics and filibusters throughout the session. Those delays, combined with the large number of bills on the calendar, drove lawmakers to work late nights and through weekends. Their opposition culminated in the last hours of the session when all of their members stood up and walked out of the chamber in protest over the tax relief bill.
“This process is truly designed to take the voices from all corners of the state, meld them into one room and come out with answers,” Republican Minority Leader Mike Lynch said. “Whether you agree with them or not, those voices should at least be heard, and we feel that didn't happen much this session. That culminated, unfortunately, with us finally to say, 'There's really nothing we can do.'”
The eleventh-hour Republican protest did not change any outcomes. Democrats held such a significant majority that they simply continued voting, finishing off the session without their GOP colleagues in the chamber. Democratic leadership pushed back on claims that they sidelined Republican voices during the session, though.
“We are hired to do one specific thing in this General Assembly, and that is to cast a vote. Yes, I hear the concerns about the process, but at the end of the day our responsibility is to represent our constituents with our voice through the voting process. The Republicans made a choice, and I am disappointed,” House Speaker Julie McCluskie said in reference to the walk-out. “I am committed to working with our minority party and making sure that we all get back to the table to do good work for this state next session.”
The conflicts were not only between parties, however. Democrats experienced infighting within their own caucus, which reached a peak on the last night of the session. With Republicans absent from the chamber, exhausted House Democrats held an emotionally-charged meeting that became heated at times. Some members of the party criticized their colleagues for introducing major legislation so late in the session. Others said the party put too much energy into collaborating with Republicans instead of looking out for their own members.
It remains to be seen whether lawmakers will be able to repair the fissures within the Democratic party and improve relations between Republicans and Democrats by the time the session begins again next January. For now, Gov. Polis has 30 days to sign into law or veto the bills passed by the General Assembly. At a press conference this week, he declined to say whether he plans to veto any of them.
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