This year’s legislative session set a new high-water mark for the number of bills introduced. The General Assembly’s previous record had been 703 bills introduced during the annual 120-day session. State legislators beat that number by 37 this year, introducing a total of 741 bills — a hair over 74 bills per legislator. More than four out of 10 bills failed to pass, in part because many were introduced solely for political “messaging” in a divided legislature where each party anticipates November’s election will be a referendum on the other party. Still, 432 bills passed, a few of which will meet their demise under the governor’s veto pen.
As expected, the highest priorities were also the most politically fraught and were saved for last. Dramatically, compromises between the Senate Republican and House Democratic leadership were crafted at the 11th hour to address — at least partially — the issues facing transportation and the Public Employees Retirement Association.
On transportation, the state is looking down the barrel of a $9 billion project list, topped by an estimated $20 billion maintenance need over the next 20 years. Early in the session, it appeared doubtful the Republicans, who introduced their transportation proposal as the very first piece of legislation introduced in the Senate chamber, Senate Bill 1, were going to get Democrats to vote yes. But in a series of negotiations aided by a favorable spring revenue forecast, the Senate Republicans agreed to reduce the total amount of transportation funding infused into the budget, which Democrats balked at, to $645 million over the next two years. The Republicans also agreed to wait until 2019 to ask voters for $2.34 billion in bonding authority to allow the business community to first send other transportation options to the ballot in 2018.
While the compromise on transportation did not fully address that $29 billion problem, the PERA compromise promises to fully restore the system’s $32 billion unfunded liability and to bring it into solvency in 30 years. Some of the key provisions include a direct distribution from the state budget of $225 million; increasing employer contributions by a quarter of a percent; increasing employee contributions over time by 2 percent to a total of 10 percent of pay; reducing the annual cost of living adjustments for retirees from 2 percent to 1.5 percent; and increasing the retirement age to 65 for most new members.
In addition to the transportation and PERA measures, there were other bipartisan legislative accomplishments. For example, the General Assembly agreed to reassign approximately $115 million in funds from a grant program to subsidize rural telephone lines to a similar grant program to subsidize rural broadband. In addition, the legislature passed a comprehensive package of bills to address the state’s opioid crisis, notably tapping into federal monies and directing state dollars to expand access to treatment and requiring continued study of the issue by a special legislative committee. According to the Colorado Health Institute, Colorado had 912 overdose deaths in 2016 — the most ever in the state — with preliminary 2017 data showing the number increasing even more to 959.
Two constitutional amendments were referred to voters by the legislature to change the way Colorado’s state legislative and federal congressional districts are drawn and approved by creating independent commissions made up of Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters in an attempt to depoliticize the process and rid the state of gerrymandering. Although the steady stream of K-12 teacher protests for increased salaries as the session drew to a close amounted to little, Republicans viewed $29.5 million in grants for school security upgrades as a win. On the other side of the aisle, Democrats touted renewal of the Colorado Civil Rights Commission and reinstatement of the Colorado Energy Office as two of their victories.
All of this occurred against a backdrop of sexual harassment claims that colored the tenor of dialogue in both chambers. In the House, Democrats expelled Rep. Steve Lebsock (D-Thornton). In the Senate, Sen. Randy Baumgardner (R-Hot Sulphur Springs) was stripped of all of his committee assignments. A workplace survey requested by the legislative leadership of both parties revealed that sexual harassment and misconduct are widespread at the Capitol, but are rarely reported.
The Investigations Law Group queried over 1,200 legislators, staff and lobbyists and found that just under one-third of the over 500 respondents had observed or experienced harassment at the statehouse. Almost half of the respondents had seen sexist behavior. More than any other category, female legislators reported seeing or experiencing harassing behavior, sexual harassment or sexist behavior. In an attempt to address the issue, the Legislative Council Committee approved the formation of an interim committee with authority to address issues such as modifying the legislature’s workplace harassment policy and complaint procedure, and whether to allow documents pertaining to workplace harassment investigations to be discovered under Colorado’s open records law.
In a speech to the business community two days after sine die, Gov. Hickenlooper characterized the 2018 legislative session as the “most productive” in his time in office. Whether or not you agree with the governor’s pronouncement, it was certainly one for the record books.
— Sarah Mercer, senior policy advisor and counsel; Melissa Kuipers Blake, shareholder; Michael Feeley, shareholder; and Audra Robitaille, policy advisor, practice at Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck.