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Colorado lawmakers seeking breakthroughs as 2018 legislative session comes to a close

May 9, 2018 Updated: May 10, 2018 at 6:00 am
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Rep. Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs, left, hugs Rep. Paul Rosenthal, D-Denver, after a tribute for Rosenthal Wednesday, May 9, 2018, during the final day of the Colorado State Legislature at the Capitol in Denver. It was the final day in the Colorado House of Representatives for both Lee and Rosenthal. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

Denver Zoo brought birds and reptiles to show off at the Colorado Capitol Wednesday - fitting for the last day of a four-month legislative session that was at times a wild kingdom of laws, policies and politics, and at others a close encounter with the #MeToo era.

Along the way, lawmakers put billions into transportation, wrestled with the public employees' pension system and better regulated the state's marijuana industry.

As a mandatory midnight deadline to adjourn the session loomed, members of the House and Senate debated a compromise with high stakes - the solvency of the Colorado Public Employees' Retirement Association for its more than 585,000 members, as well as the damage such a major unfunded liability could have on the state's credit rating. The latter could drive up the cost of government borrowing, from fixing roads to building schools.

The pension is facing a projected $32 billion shortfall over the next 30 years. The bill had not been resolved at press time.

On Tuesday night, however, the General Assembly resolved another major endeavor of the session: transportation funding.

Senate Republicans and House Democrats, who hold majorities in those chambers, agreed to put $645 million into roads, bridges and alternative transportation in the next two years, then borrow $2.33 billion without asking to raise taxes. Senate Bill 1 was the first piece of legislation introduced in the upper chamber on the first day of the session back in January.

The session was roiled by the #MeToo movement, as six male legislators were formally accused of harassment or misbehavior. One, Rep. Steve Lebsock of Thornton, was expelled, and another, Sen. Randy Baumgardner of Hot Sulphur Springs, survived an expulsion hearing, though he lost a flock of permanent and interim committee assignments (and an estimated more than $7,000 in per diem) after more allegations against him became public.

On the last day of the session, legislative leaders canceled an 8 a.m. meeting to discuss the path ahead on the Capitol's sexual harassment, because of a late night on Tuesday and a jammed scheduled on the final day of the session.

Another skirmish that engulfed the final hours was reauthorization of the state's Division of Civil Rights and Colorado Civil Rights Commission.

The agency has been a political football for almost the entire session, beginning when the Joint Budget Committee deadlocked over funding the agency in the next budget. That led to protests and eventually a bill from House Democrats that sought only a basic reauthorization of the agency.

That didn't fly with Senate Republicans, who wanted to find a way to amend the commission's mission to ensure there would never be another Masterpiece Cakeshop case, which conservatives said discriminated against the owner when he refused to make a cake for a same-sex couple on religious grounds. The case against the commission is before the U.S. Supreme Court.

A conference committee initially failed to come up with an agreement between the chambers, but late in the day, Sen. John Cooke of Greeley agreed to a compromise proposed by House Democrats and a second conference committee nailed down the particulars.

In other key action at the Statehouse (with some measures still to be signed or sent to the governor):

- A bill about beer, Senate Bill 243, went through more changes than a newborn baby. The measure was intended to put into place regulations tied to a 2016 law that will allow grocery and convenience stores to sell full-strength beer on Jan. 1.

The final compromise would allow 18- to 21-year-olds to sell beer in those stores, as well as liquor stores; require grocery and convenience stores to use their own employees to deliver beer to customers; and sets a 500-foot distance between schools and stores that sell beer.

- The Legislature passed several regulations and concessions to the marijuana industry, including allowing "tasting rooms" in existing stores, where customers can try a one-serving sample, a step toward public use that might eventually lead to consumption clubs similar to bars.

- Much of the day Wednesday was spent on tributes and humor. It's a tradition that lawmakers speak about those who are leaving, usually by term limits. And leaders say their formal goodbyes from the speaker's well, one last time.

Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert, R-Parker, said it had been a pleasure to serve the current Senate President Kevin Grantham, R-Cañon City, calling him "very gentle-hearted."

And Sen. Angela Williams, a rising-star Democrat from East Denver, said it was "a true joy to have that partnership" in Grantham's willingness to look for common ground and co-sponsor difficult bills with her.

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