May 11, 2011
DENVER • The Legislature capped the 2011 session on Wednesday by avoiding a special session and bringing to a close four months of political battles and historic agreements.
It appeared for hours on Wednesday that a legislative standoff would bring Colorado’s 100 lawmakers back this summer to finish their work on an arcane state rules bill. On Tuesday, Republicans amended the bill to strip out a rule that capped the amount of interest payday lenders can charge borrowers and Democrats rebelled.
The Senate rejected the change Wednesday, and it took a final round of closed-door talks before Republicans conceded.
In that sense, the last hours typified the entire session, four months of contentious battles and compromises.
But adjourn they did, ending the first split-chamber legislative session since 2004.
Because Republicans this year controlled the House and Democrats the Senate, fewer controversial bills were passed and political fights were noisier, but on the last evening, legislators were shaking hands and smiling together at what they had accomplished.
Reps. Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, and Jerry Sonnenberg, R-Colorado Springs, flew toy remote helicopters around the House during a recess, and Senators shot rubber bands at each other.
“It was one of the best sessions I’ve had in my five years at the Capitol. We had sex, drugs and prostitution. That’s one for the books,” laughed Rep. Marsha Looper, R-Calhan, referring to a bill that (had it passed) would have repealed an antiquated law that made adultery a crime, bills that regulated cold medicines often used to make meth and a bill to increase punishment for those who solicit prostitutes.
“In the end, it was productive,” said Rep. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs. “We were able to do the single most important thing, which was balance the state budget.”
There was, of course, plenty of conflict. Legislators battled for weeks on a redistricting bill and failed to reach a compromise. They fought tooth and nail over a bill to create civil unions for same-sex couples and over another that would allow in-state college tuition to students in the country illegally.
But as Gardner said, there was an impressive compromise on the state budget, which many Capitol-watchers thought would devolve into a political bloodbath. The two parties bartered hard and reached a deal in which both sides made concessions.
There are still plenty of hard feelings on many bills.
House Majority Leader Amy Stephens, R-Monument, got half of what she wanted on a pair of tax bills. Democrats agreed to reinstate a software tax exemption, but shut her down on Wednesday when she tried to repeal the “Amazon tax,” which requires out-of-state retailers to collect sales tax on their products and deliver it to the state.
“For me, that was a huge and unnecessary loss. I’ll run that again next year,” she said.
Sen. Mark Scheffel, R-Parker, has suffered defeat for years on his signature issue — repealing the business personal property tax — and this year was no different. Democrats stonewalled him on four bills he offered to roll back the tax.
“My goal on this tax is to continue the discussion until we successfully give businesses relief on this onerous tax,” Scheffel said. “I’ve been encouraged to run a repeal of the tax again, and I’ll probably do that next year.”
A bill that would have allowed grocery stores and convenience stores to sell full-strength beer, by Rep. Larry Liston, R-Colorado Springs, went down in flames.
Freshman Rep. Janak Joshi, R-Colorado Springs, was essentially ignored late in the session when he introduced a bill last week to permanently prohibit state employees from collective bargaining.
But plenty of bills made it through. Ironically, the Senate and the House teamed up against Gov. John Hickenlooper on the last day and overrode eight of Hickenlooper’s footnote vetoes on the state budget.
Joint Budget Committee Kent Lambert, R-Colorado Springs, said that wasn’t a surprise, but that it’s a good example of how the Legislature can work together.
The two parties did that on other bills as well.
Gardner got a bill passed that reforms the state sex offender management board, despite a few small changes. Senate Majority Leader John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, got bipartisan support for the tow truck bill inspired by the death of Allen Rose, who was dragged to death in February in Colorado Springs.
There was the controversial health care exchange bill, which Stephens got passed with broad Democratic support. And Rep. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs, got his restorative justice bill approved with unanimous support.
And next January, the fun will begin again.