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Insights: Time isn't on the Colorado Legislature's side as session winds down

May 7, 2017 Updated: May 8, 2017 at 7:43 am
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Colorado State Capitol Building

Wednesday's end of the Colorado legislative session feels a little like Christmas, but with liquor and bitterness instead of the milk of human kindness. It's not going to be a happy new year.

Lawmakers knew they had to get big things done before May 10, because that's 120 days from when they started, just like Christmas follows Thanksgiving.

The session opened on Jan. 10 full of promises about finding bipartisanship. They would find billions of dollars for transportation. They would bury talks of restructuring a fee that means critical federal matching dollars for rural hospitals. They would rally around the common cause of education.

Now, 117 days later, none of those things are yet true.

House Bill 1242, the months-in-the-making transportation compromise everyone hoped would unclog traffic jams, died in a political street fight in the Senate. Simmering intraparty tensions among Republicans over asking voters to approve a sales tax in November was the fuse. "The knives are out," a Senate Republican told me of his caucus as the bill Senate President Kevin Grantham signed his name to was being killed in front of him.

The School Finance Act - legislation that must pass to fund schools each year - is in turmoil. The bill's sponsor, Republican Owen Hill of Colorado Springs, inserted language to give charter schools an equal share of tax dollars that normally favor traditional public schools.

That was the ghost of legislation not-past. Senate Bill 61, Hill's bipartisan effort to accomplish the same thing passed the Senate on March 14 and has been waiting in the House ever since. It's on the Monday House Education Committee calendar, but it's doubtful it will survive.

Hill has played a gambit with the School Finance Act, but that's a bill where deals will have to get done in a hurry as the session slips away, or else 178 school districts across the state are going to be in a world of hurt and lawmakers will be coming back to Denver for a special session.

Then there's reclassifying the Hospital Provider Fee, the thing we were told by House Democrats in January was never going to happen, because Republicans wouldn't budge.

In January, House Speaker Crisanta Duran all but laid a wreath on the idea Democrats had pushed for two sessions. The idea was to reclassify the state's Hospital Provider Fee, paid on using a hospital bed, to an enterprise fund. That would move it out from under a revenue cap that triggers refunds under the state Constitution's Taxpayer's Bill of Rights.

That had been a nonstarter for Republicans. This session it's been embraced by some on the right, but not all, thanks to plums Democrats have put into the conservative pudding: a $20 million tax break for businesses, tapping marijuana for more money, doubling Medicaid co-pays and reducing the TABOR spending cap by $200 million.

If they're selling out TABOR, as they've characterized fiddling with the Hospital Provider Fee in the past, the GOP dealmakers got a very good price.

The deal would put $1.9 billion over 20 years into transportation, while keeping $528 million for hospitals and providing aid to schools.

Supporters say they have the votes to pass it in both chambers. They better be sure, because the clock is against them. The Senate gave preliminary approval to the bill Friday. It still has to pass on a roll-call vote in the upper chamber.

When it bounces quickly to the House, it has to pass at least one committee then twice on the floor with no amendments. Just one amendment lands it in a conference committee to work out a compromise, then both chambers have to pass it.

In its favor is the notion that lawmakers are within days of having to explain what they accomplished this session, and nothing breeds bipartisanship like shared desperation.

Meanwhile, those most engaged on the state's transportation needs say the bill won't do what voters are expecting, which is to relieve interstate traffic. Both transportation bills, they contend, steer way too much money off the interstates and into transit, bike trails and communities more familiar with cattle crossings than rush hours.

The truest quote I've heard this session was on Friday by Sen. Lois Court, the college government instructor and Denver Democrat who schools me and the Republicans often about the Constitution.

"I tell my students all the time that the most important letter in the word democracy is not the d," she said in support of the Hospital Provider Fee deal. "It's the two c's, for complex and compromise. If you don't acknowledge the complexities of the issues that face our state and aren't willing to compromise to address them, nothing's going to get done."

That can still happen. Last year the biggest change to state liquor laws since Prohibition went down to the wire. 'Tis the season.

Year after year this happens. And year after year, the Legislature delivers more tube socks than model trains.

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