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The Colorado State Capitol building during the final day of the legislative session on Tuesday, June 8, 2021 in Denver, Colo.

The second regular session of the 73rd Colorado General Assembly will convene on Wednesday at the state Capitol in Denver, where, for the next 120 days, Democrats will tackle American Rescue Plan Act spending while Republicans will target fees and taxes to provide Coloradans economic relief as prices of commodities surge.       

The legislature will meet at a time when the economy is poised to rebound, although the threat from COVID-19 could derail that, and the state will have plenty of cash — $3.2 billion more compared to the current budget — to spend.

Colorado legislature convenes this week, with ambitious, competing goals

Lawmakers will also convene knowing many of their colleagues, including some of their leaders, won't return to their respective chambers next year. Whether that means the exiting legislators will risk wading into more controversial subjects remains to be seen.

For the leaders who are departing, 2022 is their last chance to pursue the changes they ran on in previous elections.

Senate President Leroy Garcia told Colorado Politics that this year, the focus will be on prioritizing the spending of ARPA money for affordable housing and behavioral health. 

Colorado Springs-area law enforcement, Mayor Suthers criticize Colorado legislators' approach to crime

“There are things to be excited about,” he said, noting the economy is coming back and confidence is gaining, but major challenges remain. Garcia said he’s not under any false illusion the work ahead will not be difficult.

Garcia hopes that spirit of collaboration continues with the spending of federal pandemic dollars in 2022.

The Senate President said if lawmakers truly want to address the crisis in behavioral health, “we need to treat mental health illness and substance disorders like any other illness, with evidence-based treatment methods, and to expand the access to care,” which he added will save lives and cut costs in the health care system.

As to his individual priorities, Garcia is looking at efforts to tweak some of the policies he’s already been able to put into law, such as the 2021 law setting up a veterans’ suicide prevention pilot program. He’s also planning to work more on transitional job opportunities for rural veterans, such as the one at the Fort Lyons facility near Las Animas.

Finally, Garcia wants to continue to find ways to support the Colorado State Fair, including ways to draw in a newer, younger audience.

Majority Leader Sen. Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, noted how challenging the last few years had been for Coloradans and said that situation will consume a lot of lawmakers' energy in the coming session. 

The Democrats' agenda will focus on three issues: affordability, primarily tied to the ARPA money; investments in education; and dealing with community safety.

Fenberg said the community safety portion will deal with providing grants to local police forces to invest in co-responder programs and investment in forensics and investigatory resources to break up crime rings.

He said the majority agenda will also address how to stop crime from happening in the first place, which means funding for behavioral health, housing and combatting substance abuse, factors that he said lead to why people commit crimes.

"People are desperate," Fenberg added.

While it's not atop the agenda, Fenberg also said funding the $225 million payment, missed in 2020, to the Public Employees Retirement Association, is in the works, although adding in the interest payment of around $87 million appears to be unlikely. 

The state's water plan, which has never been fully funded at the $100 million level sought when it was rolled out several years ago, is likely to see some investment, as well.

Finally, Fenberg said lawmakers will be looking at ways to ensure that the unemployment trust fund, now $1 billion in the red but shored up with a federal loan, receives substantial investments to avoid sticker shock, through big premium hikes to small businesses. 

Although lacking in numbers, Republicans vow to fight for law enforcement and crime victims, and push for economic relief, noting the surge in the price of basic commodities.  

Among the ideas Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert of Parker is considering is whether the state has enough teeth in its consumer protection laws for regulated industries, how people reach out to regulators and what to do when regulators don’t respond.

Holbert said, however, he doesn’t want to create a “private right of action.”

Meanwhile, Senate Assistant Minority Leader John Cooke of Windsor, formerly sheriff of Weld County, intends to focus on the same issue he’s carried during his two terms in the Senate: public safety.

“You can’t stop anything in the minority, but we can fight like hell for law enforcement and victims of crime,” he said, pointing to the sharp rise in crime rates. 

Cooke said he also intends to carry legislation addressing driving under the influence, specifically to incentivize those convicted of DUIs to wear ankle monitors instead of sitting in jail.

Another priority among the Senate GOP caucus: affordability.

It’s the most beautiful state in the nation, but it’s getting harder to live here, said Sen. Paul Lundeen, R-Monument.

A legislature that adds fees on top of escalating costs is a legislature that is disconnected, he said. 

Lundeen’s signature issue — education — is also on the agenda. When 50% of the students are not proficient in math and reading, that’s a problem, he said.

Lundeen wasn’t ready to elaborate on what he plans for 2022, saying only that parents are the ones who see those challenges and they need to have “their thumbs on the scale” to help their children catch up. 

House Minority Leader Hugh McKean echoed those perspectives.

Colorado has become too costly a state to live in, McKean told Colorado Politics, also noting the growing crime rate and cracks in the education system that prevent kids from getting an education. 

The focus this year is to make the state more affordable, including getting state government out of the way by reducing fees, he said, adding, “Let the market work."

“We ought to look at getting people back to work," McKean said. Part of that is making sure the unemployment trust fund is solvent. McKean worries that the trust fund will rely on a massive hike in unemployment insurance — he estimates it could be as high as 72% — to put it back on stable footing.

McKean said he has been talking to human resources groups and business owners, and heard that the increase in unemployment insurance, paid leave and unlimited sick pay, among others, add to the balance sheet, making it impossible to raise wages.

As for tackling crime, McKean believes the legislature has lost its way.

“We haven’t been thinking about victims and neighborhoods,” and instead focused on police accountability or bills that help inmates, he said, adding the message is that the legislature puts more emphasis on individuals who run afoul of the system." 

Pandemic recovery will continue to be key in 2022, according to House Democratic leaders. 

House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar of Pueblo noted that low-wage workers, in particular, still struggle. She echoed themes also coming from the governor: reducing fees for starting a business, reducing professional licensure fees for nurses and others in health care, and making housing more affordable.

The latter could look like financing the development of affordable housing, particularly in rural parts of Colorado, she said.

The majority's agenda also includes saving money on prescription drugs, including ensuring that drug rebates are passed along to consumers, and investments in education, which include expanded access to universal preschool, providing up to three mental health counseling sessions for each school student, and attempting to provide more quality teachers for the classrooms.

Meanwhile, Speaker of the House Alec Garnett of Denver intends to appoint Republican Rep. Marc Catlin, R-Montrose, as vice-chair of the House Agriculture, Livestock and Water Committee for 2022, if the latter wants the job. Initially, the appointment was just for the 2021 session.

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