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So Many Bills, So Little Time

I’m sure that all of us really were paying attention in Civics class (remember that?) but what follows is just a quick review of the process for how a bill becomes law in Colorado. Bills can be introduced in either the House or the Senate. For the sake of simplicity, we’ll start with the House. After a legislator introduces a bill, it has its first reading by the House clerk and is then assigned to the appropriate committee by the Speaker of the House. That committee has a hearing that includes both public and expert testimony and the addition of amendments. The committee then votes to either pass on the bill or “kill” it, which stops its progress. If the bill passes “out of committee”, it has a second reading, which can include debates and additional amendments. The bill then has its third and final reading. If it passes, it goes on to the Senate where it follows basically the same process. If the bill passes the Senate without amendments, it goes to the governor to be signed into law or vetoed. That veto can be overridden by 2/3 vote from each house. If it doesn’t pass the Senate, it goes to “conference committee”, comprised of 3 members from each house where they come up with a bill that can pass both houses. The majority of members must agree on the bill before it goes back to each house for an up-or-down vote. Any bill that requires funding is sent to the Legislative Legal Services—non-partisan staff who analyze the bill to determine its effect on state spending. Appropriations Committee is also part of the process, which includes an appropriations clause that includes the amount of funding. One note: people have the right to review all laws passed by the legislature unless the law as a “Safety Clause” that says the law is necessary for public safety. As a result, most laws now include the “Safety Clause”.

Committee hearing for National Popular VoteThe Colorado legislature is set to adjourn on Friday, May 3, and it’s been a session with more contention and drama than usual, ranging one party accusing the other of having an “evil” agenda to standing-room-only public comment sessions that lasted until four o’clock in the morning.

And now, with hundreds of bills still under consideration, Colorado lawmakers are on the clock with just a few days left before the General Session’s end. The pressure is so great that legislators from both houses worked last Saturday, the first time that’s happened in 30 years.

As such, this seems like a good time to take stock: what major bills passed, what failed and what is still to be determined?

With Democrats retaining control of both the House and the governor’s office plus winning the Senate by a slim margin, several bills were passed that had been listed as top Democratic priorities during the 2018 midterms.

The most notable bills addressed gun safety, the Electoral College and regulation of the oil and gas industry. Specifically, Governor Polis signed a controversial bill known as the “red flag law” that allows a judge to order the temporary removal of firearms from individuals who are believed to be a threat to themselves or others. In protest, a number of counties deemed themselves to be “Second Amendment Sanctuary Counties”. Polis also signed legislation that, pending passage in enough other states, could someday award Colorado’s electoral vote to the candidate who wins the national popular vote, prompting citizen groups in parts of the state to begin circulating petitions for the bill to be put on the state ballot in 2020. Despite loud protest and a well-funded opposition campaign from the oil and gas industry, legislation became law that empowers local communities to have more control over drilling in their counties and includes the most significant update of regulations to the industry in almost 70 years.

Despite pushback from some Republicans who voted against its passage, legislation that Bans Conversion Therapy ultimately received support from five Republicans in the House and Senate, paving the way for it to clear both chambers. It is now awaiting Polis’ signature to become law. This bill bans licensed professionals from attempting to “cure” LGBTQ youth through therapy, a practice that has received a significant amount of criticism from a number of different professional psychological associations.

So, what issues are still on the table? Well, you might want to grab another cup of coffee (or whatever) because what follows are just the highlights.

FULL DAY KINDERGARTEN: Currently, Colorado provides funding for half day kindergarten. Nonetheless, some districts already have full day kindergarten, accomplished by charging parents for the other half day not covered by state funding. Other districts allocate funding out of their budget to cover the difference. This was a key campaign issue for Polis, which he continued to push once elected. The bill, which would prohibit school districts from charging parents, sets aside $175 million to pay for kindergarteners at the same rate as older students.

STATUS: This bill passed the House and is waiting for the final vote in the Senate.

SCHOOL IMMUNIZATION REQUIREMENTS: In the midst of an outbreak of measles that is the worst since the disease was listed as “eradicated”, this bill was met with substantial opposition and was debated until 3:30am in the House and 4:00am in the Senate. Currently, parents who want to exempt their children from vaccines for non-medical reasons can submit the required form directly to the school. This bill would require parents to take the form in person to the local public health department the first time they claim a non-medical exemption. Proponents of the bill cite Colorado’s low ranking in vaccinated kindergarteners and the risk posed to other students by non-vaccinated children. Opponents to this bill contend that vaccines aren’t effective or safe, and this proposal infringes on parents’ right.

STATUS: The bill passed the house with one Democrat and all Republicans voting against it. Recently, even if the bill passed the Senate, Polis stated he would not sign it “in its current form”.

COMPREHENSIVE SEX EDUCATION: This legislation updates the K-12 sex education curriculum and includes the provision that schools offering sex education would need to teach about consent, STD prevention and healthy relationships while being inclusive of LGBTQ sexual experiences. The bill also bans “abstinence only” sex education. The bill has met fierce opposition from religious and conservative groups, many of whom packed the chamber during its first hearing and object to requiring students to learn about same-sex relationships.

STATUS: The bill passed the house along party lines and has both a Republican and Democratic sponsor in the Senate but a very strong opposition from conservatives. The Senate has not yet debated the bill.

PAID FAMILY MEDICAL LEAVE: If passed, this bill would have provided every Colorado worker with 12 weeks of paid time off based on specific eligibility criteria and paid for in equal parts by businesses and employees. The business community strongly opposed this, wanting changes to provide employers flexibility, small business exceptions and more narrowly defined terms.

STATUS: There was not adequate support from Democrats to pass the bill, which was amplified
by concerns from Polis. Final result: the bill has ended up as a task force to study the idea.

TOBACCO TAX INCREASE: The bill, introduced at the last minute, would ask voters to significantly raise taxes on cigarettes and vaping devices with proceeds from the increased tax being split between education and health programs like tobacco prevention and mental health services. Opponents say it will only fuel a black market business, which would cause harm to small businesses.

STATUS: The bill was introduced 10 days ago and is awaiting its first committee hearing in the Colorado House.

GREENHOUSE GAS EMISSIONS: The legislation sets new goals for Colorado to reduce greenhouse gas emission 30% by 2030 and 90% by 2050 and uses levels in 2005 as the basis for comparison. The bill does not include fees for emissions exceeding those levels but does direct air quality regulators to come up with rules to meet the goals.

STATUS: The bill has cleared committees in both the House and the Senate and is now before the full Senate, where it’s likely to meet strong opposition, especially considering the slim majority in Democratic rule.

TABOR REFORM: As Colorado residents well know, TABOR puts a cap on the amount of money the legislature can spend with any revenue collected over that amount returned to the taxpayers. This bill would ask voters in November to let the state keep any surplus revenue. A companion bill would split the extra funds equally between transportation, K-12 schools and higher education. Despite a Republican co-sponsor in the Senate, this bill will probably go through a bitter fight as conservatives say the plan violates TABOR and the government should learn to live with current revenues. Proponents say that TABOR limits the implementation of much needed improvements and programs, and amounts returned to individual taxpayers is typically a minimal amount.

STATUS: The bill made it through both houses and is now awaiting a vote of the full Senate.

PUBLIC HEALTH INSURANCE OPTION: Lowering insurance premiums—especially in rural areas of Colorado--was a key focus of Polis’ gubernatorial campaign, and a public health insurance option was one of many approaches he’s promoted. Passage of a public health insurance option would make Colorado the first state to offer state-run insurance with the goal of competing against private insurers and, hopefully, driving costs down, especially in those rural areas Polis had identified is a priority. However, this legislation does not exactly do that; instead, the legislation directs state agencies to study the idea and report back to the legislature when it reconvenes this fall. Although the bill has enjoyed largely bipartisan support, implementation of a public health insurance option would likely face serious obstacles from federal regulators whose sign off is needed to proceed.

STATUS: The bill has made it through both houses and is expected to be signed by the governor before the legislature adjourns.

SPORTS GAMBLING: This bipartisan bill, which was in negotiations for months prior to introduction, would ask voters to legalize in-person betting. If passed, it would allow betting in-person at mountain casinos and provide online betting licenses. It also calls for 10% of all proceeds to go to the state, which would be used for water conservation projects.

STATUS: The bill is making rapid progress on the legislative track and has already passed the Colorado House.

REDUCING DRUG POSSESSION PENALTIES: Another bipartisan bill, this legislation would make drug possession for all Schedule I and Schedule II substances—which includes heroin and cocaine—misdemeanors instead of felonies. Opponents view this bill as “a rebuke to the war on drugs”, citing concerns it will “limit judges’ sentencing abilities which undermines the court’s ability to encourage different treatment options”. Advocates for the bill, which are on both sides of the aisle, say it will save taxpayer money and help steer people toward treatment. Currently, five other states have passed similar legislation.

STATUS: The bill has passed the House and is awaiting a vote on the Senate floor.

Other legislation that is circulating the legislature includes Bond Reform, Collective Bargaining for State Workers, Rent Control and Workplace Harassment Policies. As happens during each General Session, there remain dozens of additional pieces of legislation too numerous to list here but are, nonetheless, being circulated in advance of adjournment. By Friday, Colorado voters will know which of these bills made it through the legislative track and which ran out of time. As the saying goes, “time stops for no one”, not even Colorado state politicians.

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