The Colorado General Assembly came to a dramatic close last week with some unfinished business (always the case), but also with some wins for a Democratic governor that would have been impossible a decade and longer ago. I know something about it because I worked through no fewer than 15 legislative sessions serving Govs. Roy Romer and John Hickenlooper.
Among Gov. Polis’ wins: Expanding health care (a signature issue for the Polis-Primavera administration); funding universal pre-kindergarten enrollment; gun violence restrictions, and protection for women’s reproductive rights. The governor also made some incremental progress on the always thorny issue of water.
The governor did not get land-use legislation passed, but for the first time in modern memory, a Colorado governor has made affordable housing the centerpiece of their legislative agenda, and that is to be applauded.
When a governor aims for the bleachers with a big, ambitious and controversial bill that fails, pundits are anxious to say the session was a failure. But for the reasons cited above, that’s a biased reading of the productivity of this legislative session.
Bold proposals invite the risk of loss. We still expect the state’s chief executive to act boldly in addressing problems, and I expect this governor to pick up the pieces and come back swinging.
My hope is that after a deep breath, the governor, mayors, county commissioners and other stakeholders will go back to the table and secure changes in state law that will help, and not hinder, local government ability to support density, transportation-oriented development, overcome NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) obstruction to workforce housing and more sustainable development.
This session will most certainly not be the last word on this deeply complicated challenge.
Also left undone was passage of bipartisan legislation to help district attorneys go after drug dealers more effectively and unhindered by a loophole in last year’s law that makes prosecutions difficult. Kudos to Adams County District Attorney Brian Mason for his courage in guiding this legislation. Politicians might think they are done with fentanyl, but sadly, fentanyl is not done with us, nor is it done wreaking criminal havoc on our streets.
As a veteran of 15 legislative sessions, I remember every one as exhausting, frustrating and momentous all at the same time. There are plenty of unprecedented moments to be had, but this legislative session seems to me (as an outsider this time) to have had more than its share of these moments, including starting the session in January with an unprecedented veto-proof Democratic super majority.
Then there was a rare Sunday session; unprecedented deployment of Rule 14 to limit debate; an obstructive request by Republican legislators to read the Long Bill at length — not for understanding, but as a delay tactic; a permanent walk-out by Republican legislators protesting the majority’s property tax/TABOR fix; an inexplicable decision by some Democratic legislators refusing to support a resolution honoring law enforcement officers, and an overall level of acrimony at the end that does not bode well for the emotional well-being of legislators who return next year.
From a policy perspective, whether the session was positively or negatively productive depends on whose ox was gored.
It was a mixed bag — but that is always the case with legislative sessions.
Beyond policy and procedural precedents, I am mostly struck by the ugly political precedents that were normalized in this last session, including truly obnoxious behavior by a narrow fringe of legislators (on both sides of the aisle) who seem to believe that their job is live tweeting insults, hurling invective at colleagues, and otherwise acting corrosively because they mistake political theater for political action.
The future prosperity of our state depends on functional compromise and collaboration by those elected to office. There are those who understand this, including Speaker of the House Julie McCluskie, who sees her job as fostering function and not dysfunction. For continuing to be a patient, thoughtful and hard-working legislative leader, I nominate her to be the role model for others who wish to serve people and not their egos. The inexcusable abuse she endured by members of her caucus are beyond troubling, and we should all hope that will not be normalized in future legislative sessions.
Unfortunately, I fear that one looming precedent from this legislative session will be a hardening of deep blue/deep red congressional-style politics that will discourage what every healthy legislative process requires, and that is respectful debate, room for compromise and colleagueship across the aisle and within partisan caucuses.
Trump-style politics is not confined to Republicans; it seems to have inspired some Democrats as well. Let’s hope this ugly precedent is short-lived.
Alan Salazar is chief of staff for Denver Mayor Michael Hancock. Salazar has served as chief strategy officer for Democratic former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper; as chief of staff to former U.S. Rep. and later U.S. Sen. Mark Udall; as deputy chief of staff and policy director for former Colorado Gov. Roy Romer, and in key staff posts for former Colorado U.S. Sens. Tim Wirth and Gary Hart. He also served in senior-level positions in President Bill Clinton’s election and reelection campaigns and in Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Comments are open to Gazette subscribers only