DENVER — Around the halls of the Colorado state legislature, it feels a bit like doomsday. Lawmakers, their staff and lobbyists look a little like zombies given their lack of sleep. The end is near. And yet, there’s a lot of work left to get done before the final gavel.
“We have big bills left around school finance and affordable housing and mental and behavioral health. These are things that are important to Coloradans,” said House Speaker Alec Garnett, D-Denver.
Despite the hundreds of bills needing action, the House decided not to meet over the weekend, surprising many around the capitol building.
Then Monday, a marathon--members of the House worked through the night, not stopping their work until nearly 6:30 a.m. Tuesday. They took a break to get some sleep and then came back at 11 a.m. to resume their work. As of Tuesday morning, there were still 199 bills that needed action.
Between bills, some lawmakers boasted with one another about how little sleep they got and where they were able to sneak in a couple of hours of rest.
Part of the reason for the marathon was a nearly 18-hour filibuster initiated by house Republicans to either force Democrats to compromise or run out the clock.
One by one, Republicans asked bills to be read at length or called for a division vote, common stall tactics among members of the minority that don’t have the votes to kill a bill.
“I've always served in the minority. And that means you have to figure out how to get things done. You don't have control over the budget, most of the time. You don't have control over time. You have to fight for your policy. You have to fight for your financing,” said House Minority Leader Hugh McKean, R-Loveland.
The filibuster eventually forced Republicans and Democrats to come together to negotiate several big bills.
“The majority and the minority always run into difficulties during a session. That happened yesterday. I engaged in very long, intense negotiations with the other side,” Garnett said. “I think you see when we work together what we can accomplish, and you saw that this morning.”
One of the compromises is a middle ground for the fentanyl bill.
Garnett tells Denver7 that the deal they reached was creating a process in the courtroom where defendants would be able to present their case that they didn't know that the drug they possessed contained fentanyl.
The compromise comes after the Senate passed an amendment to take the word knowingly out of the possession portion of the bill and sent it back to the House. Garnett says the compromise will allow defendants to receive a reduced sentence if they can convince the court that they did not know about the fentanyl.
The bill will head to a conference committee for the two chambers to reach a deal before both chambers get a final vote on it.
Other bills were killed, like a flavor nicotine ban that Democrats introduced early in the legislative session. Another bill to provide free, healthy lunches for public school students also failed to garner enough votes to pass, as did one to create a grant program for safer neighborhoods.
Others will die by inaction, like a bipartisan effort to set up a wildfire camera detection pilot program.
McKean insists that Republicans can’t spend all of their time running out the clock because there are still some bipartisan efforts that need action.
“If you just say, 'well, we're just going to run out the clock.' Then the clock runs out on some really good ideas, too. So, it's that balance,” he said.
Over at the Senate, where bills are moving through more quickly, Senate President Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, and Senate Majority Leader Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, offered their thoughts and prayers to the members of the House for all the work ahead and placed the blame squarely on the House Republicans for the holdup.
“I also think we need to remember that the minority caucus over there is not a group of people that it’s easy to negotiate with and to have productive conversations,” Fenberg said.
However, he defended the House leadership’s decision not to come in over the weekend, saying sometimes giving people 48 hours off can be more productive than plowing through the agenda.
He was also adamant in saying that Democrats, who hold the majority in both chambers, will not cave on their priorities.
“We’re not going to allow the Lord of the Flies caucus to keep us from passing a couple of incredibly important bills for Coloradoans,” Fenberg said.
Already, though, there are questions about whether a special session will be called to pass the remainder of the priority bills. While Fenberg and Moreno insist there are no concrete discussions around the idea, both say one is possible, particularly if some of the bills dealing with the American Rescue Plan Act Money aren’t passed.
That money has strict deadlines for state allocation. To call a special session, either two-thirds of lawmakers would need to agree or the governor would need to call one.
For now, lawmakers are focusing on the work that they can get done in the next day, hoping to negotiate their way past the finish line.