A trifecta of Democratic control on Colorado’s Capitol Hill changed state law in significant ways in 2019. From upending oil and gas regulation to green-lighting so-called “red flag” legislation, and so many more topics in between, it was a busy year.
The 2020 legislative session, which begins Jan. 8, is shaping up to be just as bustling. With a major election on the horizon, however, it’s sure to be four months of bills that aim to show voters what issues really matter to lawmakers and party leaders.
Then, there’s the budget
The Colorado Legislature is tasked with one major job each year: approving the long bill, better known as the state budget. Gov. Jared Polis has already unveiled his draft, which includes six weeks of paid family leave, expanding free preschool and highlighting fiscal responsibility.
Polis and his staff said the budget saves the state $238 million and puts forth $31 million to boost reserves to 7.5 percent, an ask that Polis said isn’t “politically glamorous” but important if the state experiences a recession. Legislators will have to decide whether to approve Polis’s budget, and they’re facing some tough decisions with projected growth to be slower in the near future.
“Ongoing job gains, rising wages, and moderate consumer spending continue to sustain the economic expansion. Business activity remains elevated. However, several clouds have emerged on the horizon,” state economic forecasters wrote last month. “Trade tensions and slower global economic demand continue to hamper manufacturing, the energy industry, and export activity. Additionally, higher wages and slower economic activity are expected to put mounting downward pressure on business profits, leading to restructuring in a growing number of industries. Risks remain skewed to the downside as both the state and national economies move further into the late stages of economic expansion.”
Joint Budget Committee Vice Chairman Dominick Moreno, D-Denver, is among a bevy of Democrats who are pointing to the Taxpayer Bill of Rights as a hitch in state finances.
“Both revenue forecasts anticipate growth, which is welcome news for the services that Coloradans depend on. But the real story behind both forecasts is how TABOR hamstrings essential spending for critical priorities like education, health care and transportation,” Moreno said in a statement in December. “As cash fund revenues increase, so do TABOR refunds. It’s important to continue looking for solutions to problems posed by TABOR in order to preserve the most basic services government provides.”
Voters declined Amendment CC in November, which would have removed revenue caps. Democratic leaders supported the amendment. It lost by a solid margin.
In 2019, state lawmakers approved nearly 460 bills, some of them big-ticket items, but more commonly they were housekeeping measures, like directing money to help fight the opioid epidemic (SB19-228), or adding new traffic offenses (SB19-175), or exempting fertilizer from sales and use tax (HB19-1329).
There are sure to be similar types of bills come January. House Rep. Jovan Melton, an Aurora Democrat who is term limited in 2020, said he’s introducing a bill that creates a license for automotive recyclers “to ensure that non-recyclable parts and fluids are disposed of properly and reduces environmental impacts.”
Melton is also taking on the criminal justice system, an issue that rings close to home in Aurora after a year of intense encounters involving the police department, which some advocates and local lawmakers say needs an independent review board.
Melton told the Sentinel he is introducing a bill that would create a statewide Law Enforcement Independent Monitor. While details aren’t entirely sorted out yet, Melton said the monitor would intervene in police involved shootings.
Some Aurora City Council members have recently expressed their desire for an independent review board in Aurora to oversee police actions, such as shootings and other controversial incidents.
“I would like both our police and community to feel like we have a fair process to address transparency and accountability,” said Councilwoman Nicole Johnston, who first announced her plans for a new review entity on the Brother Jeff web series, in a statement in November. “ … The community is telling us that they need this.”
Calls for such a review board have ramped up following the in-custody death of 23-year-old Elijah McClain in August.
Polis called for an independent review of a fatal police-involved shooting of a black teenager in Colorado Springs, but stopped short of sending an official order to Attorney General Phil Weiser. Instead, Polis said he wanted to work with state lawmakers to examine how the state handles officer-involved shootings.
Similarly, Rep. Mike Weissman, also an Aurora Democrat, is working on sentencing reform, creating a new judicial district to handle a ballooning population and court caseload in Arapahoe County and continuing work on criminal record sealing. Weissman said he plans to build on HB19-1275, which passed last year. It created a simplified record-sealing process.
Another frequent champion of criminal justice reform under the Gold Dome, Democratic Aurora Sen. Rhonda Fields said she plans to pursue several new proposals in the law enforcement arena this session, from bolstering resources for 911 operators to updating the state’s AMBER alert system.
Fields, who successfully passed a bill expanding the criminal statute of limitations for filing felony sexual assault charges in 2016, said she plans to run a measure seeking to expand civil statutes of limitation for sexual assault, too.
Several of Fields’ proposed bills are the result of her work with a legislative interim committee on behavioral health earlier this year. One proposal spun out of that group relates to allowing 911 operators to be eligible to receive workers’ compensation benefits to cover treatment for PTSD spawned by the job, Fields said. Such resources are currently offered to police and other law enforcement investigators, but not 911 operators.
“I don’t want to say they’re forgotten, but they’re not recognized like many other people you see in law enforcement,” Fields said of 911 dispatchers. “They don’t come down the road with sirens, they don’t wear uniforms, and we don’t know who these people are. But we know every time someone calls 911, someone answers the phone. They dispatch the services, but we don’t give them the recognition they deserve, so I think this is long overdue.”
Fields, whose son was shot and killed beside his fiancee days before he was slated to testify in a 2005 murder trial, said she’s also planning on introducing a bill that would make interfering with a witness in a criminal case a crime. The measure would bolster the current prohibitions on intimidating a witness.
Rep. Tom Sullivan, a Democrat who represents parts of Aurora’s southeastern edge, said he’ll be returning to the legislature with a bill for victims of crimes. His bill would create a fund that would help pay fees for people who are victims of a crime and consequently get their vehicle impounded.
Health care is there, but just there
Like in 2019, health care and housing will continue to be important issues among legislators, particularly in the Aurora delegation. Democratic Reps. Dominique Jackson and Janet Buckner are putting health care at the top of their legislative wishlists.
“Specifically, I am again running the Prescription Drug Price Transparency Act. This bill will look at what is driving up the costs of prescription medications throughout the entire supply chain,” Jackson told the Sentinel. “The legislature will then be able to enact policy to bring down those costs.”
The lawmaker said she’s personally experienced the sometimes unrealistic hike in drug prices.
Buckner is taking on the pharmaceutical piece as well with a bill that aims to create more transparency among pharmacy benefit managers.
“Drug companies and health insurance companies must come to the table and we must work together to make health care affordable for everyone,” she said.
Buckner is also running a bill that would lower the age for insurance-covered colorectal screenings from 50 to 45.
Fields, too, said she’s planning on introducing several measures related to health care, including a bill seeking to allow students experiencing behavioral health crises to claim excused absences just as they would for illnesses or other physical maladies.
“Right now only physical health is considered an excused absence, so if you have the flu or if you break your arm, that can be excused,” she said. “But if someone for example is feeling sad today beause they lost their grandfather, or whatever the situation is, right now our statute doesn’t allow for behavioral health instances to be an excused absence.”
On housing, Jackson said she plans to introduce a bill that would prevent evictions that are settled from appearing on a person’s record.
“I’ve heard about folks making a deal with their landlord and staying in a property, only to find out months or years later that there’s an eviction on their record,” she said. “Clearly, this can make it really hard for great tenants to find affordable housing again.”
Fields said she plans on running a measure that would provide a cost of living increase to recipients of the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, program, which is administered by county governments to qualified individuals. Fields said she would like to bump disbursements by 8 or 10 percent to supplement the average $500 a month awarded to local program recipients.
In Arapahoe County, Fields said families stay with the program for an average of about five months. Cost of living increases haven’t been addressed since the late 1990s.
The longtime Aurora legislator said she’s also planning on supporting a bill spearheaded by Democratic Denver Rep. Leslie Herrod intended to prohibit landlords from refusing to rent to tenants on fixed incomes. A similar measure sponsored by the two lawmakers fizzled in 2018, though the City of Denver successfully outlawed the practice at the beginning of 2019.
“If it’s good enough for Denver, it should be good enough for the State of Colorado,” Fields said. “Both of my parents are retired military (service members) on fixed incomes, and I would hate for them to be in a position where they couldn’t find a place to live because my father’s 30-year-service in the military is not good enough.”
The legislative session will also be the last for Aurora state Senator Nancy Todd — at least, for four more years.
Todd will be term-limited in the Senate after eight years of representing Aurora under the gold dome. At the helm of the Senate education committee, she’s mulling over major changes proposed to address a broken school finance system, keeping teachers in struggling schools and training them to support student mental health after a rash of suicides.
Last week, Todd — a retired teacher representing much of southeast Aurora — told The Sentinel she’s pumping the brakes on possible changes to Colorado’s school finance system. The funding arrangement is widely believed to be a hellish quagmire governed by conflicting constitutional requirements that benefits some wealthy districts at the expense of others.
“I’m not in lock-step with either one of the bills moving forward,” she said. “I’m being very cautious, obviously because of Aurora and Cherry Creek (school districts).”
Schools are funded by local property taxes, called mill levies, and the state picks up the rest of the tab in districts. All of the state’s about 170 districts levy different amounts of taxes, leaving some districts in the dust in a complex system that isn’t working as intended across the state and is now in the sights of state legislators.
Last year, staff for the legislature Joint Budget Committee recommended standardizing mill levies across all districts. That move would mean markedly different things for different school districts, including Aurora Public Schools and the Cherry Creek School District, in a state where education funding is always highly coveted.
Todd said she’s “dragging her feet” on this bill, which officials in Cherry Creek have said could drain the district’s coffers of about $40 million in state funding. That initiative is being led by Pueblo state Rep. Daneya Esgar, Todd said. She’s particularly worried that this massive change to education funding would come alongside another gargantuan bill aiming to change the criteria on which state dollars go to local school districts — without raising more money.
But she’s got bills of her own to push through as well, she said.
Todd said she wants to unify various incentives the state offers to teachers that fill hard-to-staff positions in rural and urban schools. A national teacher shortage has proved difficult for districts to attract teachers, especially in rural areas.
Seeing cluster of student suicides in the Cherry Creek School District and others, Todd also wants to give more funding to districts for teacher trainings on student mental health. She’s also got her eyes set on a bill setting up a unified system for sterilizing surgical tools at all hospitals, and another that would give Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights refunds not to Colorado residents but to film crews — an effort to get the Centennial State in more feature films.
— The Associated Press contributed to this report