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2018 Colorado General Assembly preview: Lawmakers resume debate over roads, schools, pension fund in tense political times

January 6, 2018 Updated: January 8, 2018 at 7:17 am

After the Colorado Legislature gavels in Wednesday morning, the Gold Dome in Denver will be home to four months of rancorous partisan debate, and just maybe some compromise on roads, schools, the state pension plan and marijuana.

But don't count on that last part.

In an election year when President Donald Trump's performance and Republican tax cuts will color the national mood, November's election could be the subtext to how the governmental sausage gets made in Colorado this year.

In the era of #metoo, sexual harassment allegations loom large over Colorado House Democrats and Senate Republicans, both with members under suspicion, dividing up intraparty loyalties in a building that runs on relationships.

Five of the 100 members are running for state treasurer, and though no current legislators are running for governor, nine Republicans and nine Democrats hoping to lead their party's ticket means plenty of lawmakers have rooting interests.

Three legislators dropped out of the General Assembly recently - two to work for the Trump administration and one, Rep. Diane Mitsch Bush, the Democratic chair of the House Transportation Committee, to run for Congress. And last week, Sen. Cheri Jahn of Wheat Ridge said she's no longer a Democrat but will finish her term as unaffiliated.

The biggest challenge for the new session might be whether these fractured parties can pull themselves together to make headway on the issues facing everyday Coloradans. If history is any guide - history in much better times - they won't.

For example, last year lawmakers almost universally agreed that transportation was their top priority. House Speaker Crisanta Duran, a Democrat from Denver, and Senate President Kevin Grantham, a Republican from Cañon City, co-sponsored a bill to let voters decide on a sales tax increase for roads and transit.

Republicans on the Senate Finance Committee killed that bill in favor of one to pay back bonds with tax money already flowing into the state budget. That bill never made it out of the Senate.

This year there's a big curve on roads.

The fast-growing economy could deliver the next state budget an extra $300 million. Republicans say that's new money that should be used to pay back bonds for major transportation improvements, such as widening Interstate 25 between Monument and Castle Rock and also north of Denver, as well as addressing traffic jams on Interstate 70 through the mountains.

Gov. John Hickenlooper wants to spend most of the windfall on transportation but also spread some of it around.

"Our budget amendments have continued to focus on the state's primary needs: Education, infrastructure and increasing the reserve to make sure we're ready in case things go down," the governor said Thursday. "Most of these are down payments, Not very often do you get the chance to revise up in a cautious, prudent manner."

Duran was all on board.

"I thank the governor for making a thoughtful proposal," she said in a statement. "House Democrats remain committed to prioritizing investments that will help hard-working Coloradans, including K-12 and higher education as well as affordable housing, transportation, rural broadband and other infrastructure."

Grantham is not amused.

"I think they don't want to talk about roads," he said of Democrats. "They want to hold roads hostage for their precious transit. I tried to strike a deal last year that would take care of both. I couldn't get that across the finish line, but we still have to deal with the crisis that is roads right now."

With all the positive economic news for Colorado's budget, it doesn't make sense to ask taxpayers to pony up more, said Grantham, who wants a lasting commitment to fund roads in the budget, not an annual plea that Democrats have ignored.

"If it doesn't happen now under these circumstances, then when?" he said.

Grantham also expects an offense and defense around the energy issue again this session.

Energy development promises to be one of the questions candidates will encounter this year. Senate Republicans are siding with the industry in opposing more regulations.

Sen. Matt Jones of Louisville, the Democratic caucus leader on environmental issues, is promising bills to give local communities more say in regulating future oil and gas wells. Those bills will die before a Republican-led committee, guaranteed.

"We like cars that drive, we like homes that get heated and it's an important industry for everyone in this state - not just the economy but the practical aspect of what the industry does for us - so the constant barrage of attacks on them will be met with that in mind," Grantham said.

Grantham has some agreement with Hickenlooper. In his budget proposal for next year, Hickenlooper asks state employees to pay more into their pensions to help fill in a shortfall the fund faces over the next 30 years.

However, the Public Employees Retirement Association wants taxpayers to chip in on the gap, as well.

"I think the governor's solutions or recommendations are an improvement over what PERA recommended," Grantham said. "I think at the end of the day if we end up only with the governor's suggestions, we're better off."

Grantham expects to see PERA legislation early in the session but doesn't expect it to sail through.

"It's going to take a lot of wrangling," he said.

The evolution of marijuana laws are expected to sprout tentacles. Lawmakers will again consider creating public social clubs - "pot clubs" - where people can gather to get high, the same way they gather in a bar to lift a drink.

The industry also is expected to push for cannabis tasting rooms at existing dispensaries, delivery of cannabis and the usual series of bills that would streamline regulatory structures, industry proponents tell us. All of this while there are new rumblings about a federal crackdown.

Hickenlooper and Attorney General Cynthia Coffman, a Republican, sought to calm Colorado's billion dollar industry Thursday after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded a Obama administration policy that allowed states where voters have legalized pot to operate outside the federal law, as long as they comply with state laws.

The governor surmised Sessions is "firing a shot across the bow" about his views on drugs and the need for stronger state laws. The Justice Department doesn't have the staff or money for massive raids, prosecutions and lawsuits, Hickenlooper said.

"Don't freak out," Coffman advised.

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