Colorado's 2023 legislative session got off to a somewhat slow start on Monday due to shenanigans in the speaker of the House race. But in the Senate, it was much smoother sailing.
The Senate, now at a 23-12 Democratic advantage, saw eight new members added, six Democrats and two Republicans.
"I always start on time," quipped Senate President Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, who called the Senate to order nine minutes late.
The color guard came in to a bagpipe rendition of Scotland the Brave while the Star Spangled Banner was performed by the Denver band Devotchka, who also performed several other tunes.
There are two empty seats in the General Assembly on opening day: Sen. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale, whose resignation takes effect on Tuesday, did not attend opening day activities; and former Rep. Tracy Bernett, D-Louisville, who resigned on Sunday in the wake of allegations and felony and misdemeanor charges that she falsified her residency for purposes of running for the General Assembly.
In his opening day remarks, Fenberg paid tribute to the victims of the Club Q shooting in Colorado Springs, as well as to the late House Minority Leader Hugh McKean, R-Loveland, who died suddenly on Oct. 30.
Fenberg noted improvements and changes to the Senate chamber, making it more accessible for those with disabilities.
Onto the business of the legislature, Fenberg announced the chamber will prioritize preventing gun violence.
That is set to start off with a bill from Sen. Tom Sullivan, D-Centennial, to expand and improve the state's red flag law. When local law enforcement "can't or won't be the ones to bring the issue to a judge," Fenberg said others, such as district attorneys and counselors, will be able to.
Despite almost immediately throwing down the gauntlet to pro-gun rights Republicans, Fenberg also tried to sound a note of conciliation.
"Will we play politics and preen for the cameras? Or will we put those differences aside, roll up our sleeves, and govern?," he asked. "Let's do what the Senate was designed to do. Let’s not rush to judgment because of who the sponsor is, the title of the bill, or the party that’s supporting it."
Fenberg asked his chamber's members to become friends and get to know each other. "Build those relationships" despite the polarized political atmosphere, he said.
Over in the House, Speaker Julie McCluskie's election as speaker was delayed by first-year Republicans who launched a failed attempt to nominate one of their own. Still, the Dillon Democrat also paid tribute to the Club Q victims and to McKean. McCluskie thanked McKean's partner, former Rep. Amy Parks, for her efforts to promote heart disease screenings.
In a speech focused on the Colorado dream, McCluskie noted the role of women in the House, pointing out that all four of the Democrats representing the Western Slope are women, and that for the first time, the speaker is a Western Slope woman.
As of opening day, the General Assembly is 50 women and 49 men, with one vacancy due to Bernett's resignation.
McCluskie also noted the diversity of the House, with 30% members of color.
"While we were elected by voters from individual districts, we must now come together to serve every person in our state–those that voted for us and those that did not," McCluskie said. "It's time to take what we've heard from our constituents and transition from public figures to public servants. It’s time to govern on behalf of everyone in our state."
McCluskie identified affordable housing as among the most pressing issues of the 2023 session, but said health care, including behavioral and mental health; child care, education, water, protecting abortion access and public safety — including addressing gun violence — also will be priorities. She did not identify specific bills that would address those issues.
In her remarks, McCluskie also said they must focus on legislation addressing diversity.
"As we craft our legislation, offer amendments, and vote on bills, I want us all to recognize not only the historic diversity of this body, but also the importance of centering policies that are anti-racist and which combat antisemitism and hatred targeted at Colorado’s LGBTQ community."
It is not enough to listen to people from diverse backgrounds, she said. Policies must reflect "the experiences and priorities they bring to this chamber."
She challenged members to "truly see" the diversity of the House, and how that diversity "must be put into action" to build a state that supports the dreams of every Coloradan.
Gov. Jared Polis will on Tuesday take the oath of office for his second term, a ceremony that begins at 10:30 a.m.