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Insights: House GOP leader Neville pivots from expectations to be a principled dealmaker

May 14, 2017 Updated: May 14, 2017 at 11:54 am
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House Minority Leader Patrick Neville sits with his family Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017, during the opening day of the 2017 Colorado State Legislature at the State Capitol in Denver. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

When Rep. Patrick Neville won the House Republican leadership last November, most of us in the state Capitol expected the caucus to take a hard slide to the right.

Neville had never seen a fight where he thought the odds were against him since he took office in 2015. And it would have been so easy for the Castle Rocker to be the pugnacious leader his detractors expected, throwing roundhouse minority party punches and connecting with nothing but hot air.

A week into the session, as could be expected, Neville fired off a press release about how House Speaker Crisanta Duran already was going back on her opening-day call for bipartisanship by assigning Republican bills on religious liberty, guns and a business tax break to the House's "kill committee."

A couple of weeks after that, he called out Duran again over wasting time on resolutions supporting abortion and refugees instead of transportation, education and affordable housing.

In the weeks that followed, however, House Republicans showed tremendous influence over the legislation that made it to the governor's desk.

They held the line all session against raising taxes for transportation, without enough votes to do anything about it. When Neville said new taxes were unnecessary on the opening day of the session, it seemed like an outlier position from a tax-hating partisan. On the last day of the session, transportation had an extra million bucks a year without a tax hike.

House Republicans, led by Rep. Paul Lundeen of Monument, also delivered on funding charter schools like other public schools and created a bipartisan task force to hold hearings on school finance.

Thursday, 12 hours after the 120-day session adjourned, Neville sat a table surrounded by reporters and sounded like the smartest guy under the gold dome, the player who had no hand to play when the session began but held all the cards by the end.

Neville's brain and tact benefited from House Minority Leader Cole Wist, a whip-smart attorney with a self-deprecating wit. He sat at Neville's right at the long conference table in the chamber the day after the session.

Wist lives and dies by win-win propositions, statesmanship over partisanship, you could say. He orchestrated what was the biggest bipartisan win of the session, the breakthrough on construction defects litigation.

"If you're going to be pragmatic about lawmaking, those of us here to get legislation to the governor's desk recognize we need partners on the other side of the aisle," he said. "And, frankly, there are Democrats who feel the same way."

To pass the construction defects litigation reform, Wist said he "locked arms" with the bill's co-sponsors, Democratic Rep. Alec Garnett and Republican Rep. Lori Saine. That made it harder for astroturf grassroots organizations backed by business interests or trial lawyers to carve up this legislation the way they had others.

That's a road map House Republicans would like to follow into next year's session, Wist and Neville agreed. Easier said than done, however. In election years, donors and strategists turn bipartisanship into toast and cover it with butter and jam. Next year, many legislators will be looking at higher office that November, as well.

Republicans created bipartisan wins, but they also created political baggage.

Foremost, led by Senate Republicans, they made a deal to move a fee on hospital beds out from under the constitutional spending cap, robbing taxpayers of potential refunds for the next 20 years. This, after they pushed back against Democrats doing that for years, citing the Taxpayer's Bill of Rights.

Republicans made that deal this year. In exchange they got money for rural roads and schools . Libertarian thought leader Jon Caldara called it Senate Republicans' "grand betrayal." GOP dealmakers also won higher Medicaid co-pays, lowered state government's spending limit by $200 million a year and included, not coincidentally, that business tax break scuttled by the Democratic kill committee as the session began.

Nonetheless, some Republican legislators who voted for the compromise said messing with TABOR means they probably would have a primary opponent next year. The deal was too good to say no to, they said.

Neville, the crown prince of Colorado's conservative base, said Thursday he would make the case for more political nuance to voters next year, He won't support any primary challengers against his caucus, and if you're running to the right of a Republican incumbent, his name and his father's, state Sen. Tim Neville of Littleton, are critical endorsements.

"If we have to compromise our principles to get stuff done, I don't think that's the right way to do it," said Neville, just as I noticed the first signs of gray in his hair. "If we can move the ball on some issues, we can do that without compromising our principles."

The House Republican leader has matured in his views on principles and the art of the deal. That's a pragmatic view facing an election year in which the Republican president's brand of partisanship could grind up candidates all the way down the GOP ticket. Democrats are counting on that.

Either way, Neville and Wist are running a smart operation at the Capitol.

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