DENVER – Leadership from both parties say transportation, the state’s pension fund, and education will be top priorities in this year’s legislative session, which starts Wednesday.
And though the GOP-led Senate and Democrat-led House spent much of the past several months, after last year’s session, fighting over errors made in crafting a comprehensive spending measure and accusations of harassment, leadership said Monday they were hopeful for a productive session.
“I understand it’s easy to underestimate us and say that we’re going to have a partisan divide and gridlock, but we did pass 62 percent of the bills last year,” Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert, R-Douglas County, said Monday.
Holbert and Senate President Kevin Grantham, R-Canon City, laid out their legislative priorities Monday morning, saying that reforms to PERA, the state pension system, and transportation initiatives topped their lists.
Specifically, the Republicans said they believe that the state needs to start addressing the $9-billion backlog of Colorado Department of Transportation repairs, expansions and new highways.
They also said that Senate Republicans would be pushing bills related to the Colorado Energy Office and rural broadband expansion, saying they were “confident on many fronts” but also that there was “a lot of work to do.”
“From the moment I walked into the doors of [the state Capitol] in 2011, rural broadband was an issue, and telecoms were an issue. We might get that big piece done this year,” Grantham said.
House Speaker Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, pointed to similar initiatives last week, saying House Dems would be focusing on education, affordable housing, transportation, rural broadband and general infrastructure this session.
Duran told Denver7 that a better economic forecast, which led to additional budget requests for transportation and education from Gov. John Hickenlooper, would free up much-needed money for lawmakers this session while looking at budget items for this year and next year.
In a news conference last Thursday, Hickenlooper seemed to address asks from both parties.
“Our budget amendments have continued to focus on the state’s priorities. I think infrastructure, education, increasing the reserve, making sure we’re ready for when things go down,” Hickenlooper said of his legislative priorities for his last year in office. “Most of these are down-payments. Often times you don’t get the opportunity to revise up, but we’re trying to do so in a cautious, prudent manner.”
He specifically pointed to transportation and rural broadband as things both parties have hoped reforms would be made to over the past several years, and said it was his job to listen to all parties involved in the discussions.
“I’ve never appreciated the image of a lame duck. Over the next 11 months, everything I do is going to be criticized by somebody, and half the time it’s going to be my own party,” Hickenlooper said. “I think that the goal is here—and when I say it, I mean it—I need to listen a little harder to exactly what [Republicans’] concerns are. Ask them to say it in different ways—maybe I’m not hearing it right.”
And Monday, those comments appeared to have echoed into the offices of Grantham and Holbert.
“I appreciate the governor – both on transportation and PERA – I don’t want to say coming our way, but being a little bit more reasonable,” Holbert said. “We have leaders in each chamber who have been here for the same eight years, and Gov. Hickenlooper isn’t just sitting back and letting a lame-duck year happen with nothing happening. I think he’s going to be a leader on transportation and PERA.”
Regarding PERA, whose economic outlook is suddenly in question over the past several months, which has led to at least three competing fix proposals, Hickenlooper said last week the state was still looking for answers. But Republican leadership praised Hickenlooper’s request.
“Here’s a Senate Republican saying something nice about our Democratic governor: ‘Thank you governor for being more conservative or more fiscally-responsible than the PERA board,'” Holbert said Monday. “I appreciate his solution more than the PERA board’s. But at least we’re having the conversation.”
He and Grantham said they were looking at different contribution rates and payout rates as a way to find somewhere for the parties involved to meet in the middle, as well as eyeing an elected board member or advisor with experience handling large public pensions.
Both parties have also been working on a series of bills to address the opioid crisis, and Democrats have made clear they are trying to bring more money into education, which has been underfunded by millions of dollars. Hiring teachers in rural areas is expected to be a major point of focus.
While the legislature will first have to tackle the pot-funding error in last year’s spending bill, which left RTD and others without a funding mechanism, and House Republicans are requesting documents from the governor’s office related to that bill, Hickenlooper said last week that he hopes to bring open ears to the session.
“My goal is to listen hard and not say right and wrong, just that I don’t understand,” he said. Hickenlooper will deliver his final State of the State address on Thursday.