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Despite historic majorities, Colorado Democrats have big hurdles to overcome this legislative session

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Posted at 3:30 PM, Jan 19, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-19 20:35:27-05

DENVER — When voters headed to the ballot box in November, the message was clear. Instead of a projected red wave, Democrats made historic gains in both the Colorado House of Representatives and Senate.

In the house, the Democratic caucus gained a supermajority, gaining 46 of the 65 seats in the chamber and controlling two-thirds of the chamber. In the Senate meanwhile, Democrats gained 23 of the chambers 35 seats, one shy of a two-thirds majority in that chamber.

The legislature’s makeup this session is also the most diverse in state history and for the first time, women make up the majority of lawmakers.

There are also a lot of new members in the legislature with 32 lawmakers who have never served in state capitol before.

However, with this new legislative makeup, there are new challenges and what might seem like a sure session for Democrats could be anything but.

Denver7 takes a 360 look at the hurdles Democrats could face during the 2023 legislative session, even with their historic majority.

Dreams versus reality

From their promises on the campaign trail to opening day speeches, the Democratic majority has laid out a long list of priorities for the 2023 legislative session, from housing to affordability to safer streets.

However, one of the biggest challenges state lawmakers will face this legislative session will be reconciling big dreams with a harsh reality.

That reality includes an expensive housing market, high inflation, crime and more. Democrats have promised to tackle legislation addressing all of these areas.

On the same token, the caucus has also made big promises on combating climate change.

“This year we will continue to bring down our emissions, prioritize getting our air quality under control,” said Sen. Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder.

In the previous two legislative sessions, lawmakers have taken steps to address climate change, transportation challenges, natural resources and more. However, the steps came with a cost to consumers.

One example: a 2-cent-per-gallon fee on gasoline that was supposed to go into effect last July but was delayed until April 1, 2023. That 2021 law also added new fees on car-shares, deliveries, ride-shares and more.

Another example: a statewide 10-cent plastic bag fee that went into effect on Jan. 1 to encourage more shoppers to use recyclable bags rather than petroleum-heavy plastic bags.

Next year, Styrofoam takeout food containers will also be banned in the state.

“These things add up,” said Rep. Mike Lynch, R-Fort Collins. “Now's not the time for us to be playing around with even the smallest of expenses that we have to pass down to the citizens.”

During the election and as the legislature gets started, Democrats said they know that affordability is a big topic of concern for many families in the state.

In his State of the State address, Gov. Jared Polis called for more tax breaks to help families, from making the senior homestead exemption portable to addressing property taxes and cutting income taxes.

While promising to keep their focus on affordability, Democrats have also laid out a big agenda, from tackling the housing crunch to making the streets safer to funding for schools. The challenge will be balancing big promises with a tightening fiscal belt.

Controlling the calendar

Another hurdle Democrats will inevitably face: their Republican counterparts. Though small in numbers, Republicans do have some limited tools available to be able to slow things at the capitol down significantly.

“Republicans have limited tools but one probably is really little things like trying to get the full reading of the bill. But Democrats should be able to overcome that with some reasonable planning,” Preuhs said.

In recent legislative sessions, Republicans have filibustered some of the most controversial bills to come up from gun reforms to fentanyl to reproductive rights. In some cases, the holdup forced conversations and compromise.

In other cases, the filibusters were merely a delay on the inevitable passage of the bills.

In the House Republican elections before the legislative session began, Rep. Richard Holtorf, R-Akron, compared his caucus to the movie "300" and the small group of Spartans taking on the Persians. He was selected to be the Republican whip.

He called himself a filibuster champion and said he will bring those tools, promising, “Democrats will grow weary and tired of what I bring to town. But that's OK. Let them be tired and let the bad bills die on the calendar.”

During the first day of the legislative session, a sort of preview of what could be to come happened when a couple of freshmen lawmakers bucked tradition and decided instead to try to nominate another freshman Republican lawmaker to serve as speaker of the house even though they didn’t have the votes and were in the minority.

The move caused a minor delay to the opening day proceedings and even split Republicans, since half voted for the Democratic legislator who eventually took the gavel.

Preuhs said if Democrats are serious about accomplishing their agendas this session, they’re going to need to manage the calendar carefully.

“Our legislature has been notoriously bad, whether it's Republicans or Democrats that are in control of controlling that calendar,” he said. “The Democrats ought to — if they’re strategic — really try to line up those big bills, get them on final calendar for final vote, you know, well before the last week or two.”

Outside pressure

The opposition to certain legislation won’t only come from within the capitol this legislative session but also from outside of it, particularly when it comes to some of the social reforms like protecting LGBTQ+ and reproductive rights.

Gun reforms also promise to be a big area of debate with Second Amendment groups promising to turn out to the capitol in full force to testify against any potential legislation.

“I do think there's absolutely room for conversation around common sense gun reform,” Moreno said.

Already, the majority has discussed making changes to the Extreme Risk Protection Order law to allow people like district attorneys to be able to request a gun seizure. Democrats have also discussed ideas on raising age limits to purchase certain guns, extending the wait period from purchasing a gun to picking it up and more.

While there are many areas of disagreement, Rep. Jennifer Bacon, D-Denver, insists there are areas where Republicans and Democrats can agree on the issue of guns.

“The thing that we do find synergy in is our issues around suicides,” Bacon said.

She said she hopes the two parties will be able to come together to find some areas of agreement in that realm.

Lynch, meanwhile, said Colorado is already one of the strictest states in the nation when it comes to gun control and so he would rather see better enforcement of the laws already on the books rather than adding new ones. He said he would also like to see more focus on mental health.

“We don't like shootings any more than anybody else, and we want to do whatever we can to address those issues. But I would say that some of that is a mental health crisis,” Lynch said.

In previous years, major gun reforms have resulted in expensive recall efforts and even lawsuits to try to block the legislation. Any new reforms are likely to bring similar actions from gun rights groups.

Duran said not all of the gun reforms need to happen this year but could be built into a three- or five-year plan. Democrats are expected to hold the majority for at least the next four years.

Division within

While Democrats may hold historic majorities, another challenge they could face is divisions within the party about what message the voters were really sending in November.

Moreno and Bacon said the voters were decisive in their mandate about the actions they expect to see taken at the capitol this legislative session.

“We are under pressure to deliver on what it is that we promised to do. So, it's not lost on anyone to say that if we're the biggest caucus that we've ever had, we better get the job done,” Bacon said.

However, Preuhs said the message may be a bit more muddled than that because of the way voters cast their ballots on issues other than candidates in the November election.

“If you consider things like a tax decrease that passed and a few other elements, it's not clear that the public itself is overwhelmingly supportive of a broad liberal agenda but maybe some sort of balance between regulatory and some social policy benefits,” he said.

Some within the Democratic party are already pushing for more progressive policies like an expected bill to try to ban the sale of assault-style weapons in the state.

“I think that'll be the biggest challenge that the speaker deals with this year, is some of the dissenters in our own party that want to go a different direction,” Lynch predicted.

Others are likely to take a more moderate approach, understanding that the governor has shown a willingness to use the veto pen on multiple occasions. Polis has also shown that he is willing to listen to business interests in the state.

Because the margins are so large between the political parties in both chambers, Democrats do not necessarily need to have every member voting in favor of every piece of legislation they propose in order to get it to pass.

Duran insists, though, that nothing is off of the table and the majority is willing to consider any bill that comes across their desk.

In his opening day speech, Fenberg made a similar promise, encouraging colleagues to cover up the names of the cosponsors on the top of a bill they come across and to read it for what it is rather than who it was written by.

Money matters

Of all of the hurdles, the single biggest challenge Democrats could face this legislative session is whether they will have enough money to get all of their priorities passed and funded.

Over the past couple of years with the COVID-19 pandemic, a massive infusion of money from the federal government into Colorado has led to the state having money to fund many of its current and future programs.

“We don't have as much money. So, we have to think about it a little bit differently than we had in the past. And the good thing is, we now have a breadth of experiences across the state topples also help us focus,” Bacon said.

However, with that well of federal funding starting to slow significantly, the state will have to rely more on its own revenue to fund current and future programs.

During his budget proposal presentation, Polis acknowledged the fiscal realities and called for the legislature to be deliberate in its spending.

“There’s very little in the budget for new programs,” Polis said. “I would really recommend that if legislators have ideas for new programs, they offset them by eliminating or reducing other programs.”

Inevitably, balancing priorities with fiscal realities will be a challenge.

Finding Compromise

In the end, the leadership in both chambers has promised to work with members of their own party but also to reach across the aisle to find compromise where they can on legislation.

“We are not in the position to disregard whole communities because perhaps they didn't vote for Democrat. There are a lot of issues that touch us all,” Bacon said.

Republicans like Lynch say that despite their small numbers, they are more cohesive than ever in their message and serious about tackling the issues that their constituents face.

“We need to have a meaningful conversation because a breadth of perspectives and different ideas, help us find the best pathways forward. Best legislation that comes through here is true bipartisan legislation,” Lundeen said. “And when I say bipartisan legislation, I don't mean I mean a bill that simply has a Republican name on it and a bunch of Democrat names on it.”

With only 120 days in the legislative session, there are a lot of things lawmakers on both sides want to get done. Now, it’s a matter of putting words and promises into action.

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