Garnett 260

House Speaker Alec Garnett, D-Denver, discusses Senate Bill 260 ahead of its final vote in the House.

As of 3 p.m. on Monday and with less than two days to go before the Colorado General Assembly must wrap up its work for the year, the House had gotten through just over a dozen bills – out of 150 left on its agenda – during its floor business.

That's due in part to House Republicans' decision to filibuster every bill, including asking for the bills to be read at length or seeking amendments to send some back to committees.

The move is aimed at getting House Democratic leadership to negotiate what House Republicans view as some of the worst measures left in the 2022 session: collective bargaining, recycling, and a bill on monitoring air toxins. The latter two are now in the Senate, but amendments will likely bring them back to the House if they win the other chamber's approval.

Complicating things is the fact Majority Leader Rep. Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo, who is in charge of managing the calendar, is working from home in Pueblo. 

The 150 bills on the House agenda make up almost two-thirds of the bills still awaiting final resolution in the 2022 session. 

Among the legislation briefly caught in the standoff is the state's retirement plan, a priority, in fact, for both parties. After five hours of little floor action, the House went into recess to allow the House Appropriations Committee to meet. On its agenda the repayment of PERA contained in House Bill 1029, which won the committee's approval and shortly after received a preliminary nod from the House.

It's high up on the list for House Republicans, including Minority Leader Hugh McKean, R-Loveland, who told Colorado Politics the state must keep its word to the state pension plan by paying the missed $225 million payment from 2020 and the interest the pension plan lost in that time. 

The two parties, however, have yet to find a way out of the gridlock

Negotiations between House Republicans and Speaker Alec Garnett, D-Denver, are ongoing, but the frustration is boiling over, with the speaker threatening to deploy a tool known as the "nuclear option" to force the majority's will through.  

Garnett told Colorado Politics these conversations take place every year toward the end of the session and he doesn't see this year to be much different.

"It has been a lot more big stuff at the end and my doors are always open," he said, adding he has been talking to minority party members, waiting for them "to get their thoughts organized" on what they want to work on.

"I'm hopeful we'll be able to come together and figure out a path forward," Garnett said. 

Garnett said he "expects the conversation to" ultimately end in coming together to end the session, but he also said he has tools to effectively force a resolution if the two sides "dug in" and cannot come to agreement.

The "nuclear option" works this way. The speaker would "call the question," which limits debate on any bill to no more than one hour. If the minority party asked for a bill to be read at length, for example, that could eat up at least some of that hour. In any case, House members must vote the bill up or down at the conclusion of the time-limited debate. 

The maneuver is rarely employed. The last time it happened was in 2019, when Senate Republicans sued Senate Democrats over reading a 2,023-page bill at length.

The problem with the nuclear option is the House has more than 125 bills still on its calendar – and there aren't 125 hours left in the session.

At risk of not making the cut, if the gridlock lingers on, are several other significant measures, notably policymakers' response to the fentanyl crisis and collective bargaining.

For now, both sides appear stuck to their positions.   

Garnett, for example, acknowledged Republicans want to kill Senate Bill 230, which seeks to grant collective bargaining rights to county workers. SB 230 is among the bills awaiting a final House vote Monday.

"Killing bills is not something that makes a lot of sense to me," he said. 

The speaker said there seems to be a lot of different conversations going on, adding, "It's not as organized a conversation with the minority as I've seen in the past."

Democrats are also contemplating another option – which is just as "nuclear" as calling the question – effectively ending the right of any legislator to have a bill be read at length.    

House Democrats decided to allow that concurrent resolution, which Rep. Mike Weissman, D-Aurora, introduced on Jan. 28 but was never reviewed, to go to a committee hearing Monday, setting off House Republicans. That resolution would ask voters to eliminate the constitutional right of lawmakers to have a bill read at length.

HCR 1002 could win approval in the House State, Civil, Military & Veterans Affairs Committee, but it would need the support of three Republicans, plus all 41 Democrats, to get out of the House, an unlikely scenario.

"This is how things always come down to at the very end. You always have a stack [of bills], not as big as this one, and the challenge we have this year is that there are some really bad things on the calendar," McKean told Colorado Politics.

The small ways the minority can influence things is to "throw a little sand into the wheels," and ask if things can be negotiated, he said.

But, so far, the answer is "no," McKean said, adding, "My door is also open." 

By rule, the majority has the ability to call the question and limit debate on each bill to an hour, but McKean argued against deploying it. 

"This is exactly when the minority has the ability to speak for the people who have been heretofore unheard. This is when rural Colorado has its loudest voice, when southern Colorado has the most strength, when the Western Slope can stand up and fight," he said.

The minority leader also blamed the majority for how it has managed the chamber's calendar. With their 41 votes, Democrats have had the ability to take care of their issues all session long, he said.

"They can do anything they need to do," he said. "There is no reason why things are where they are now."  

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