While Republicans have reclaimed control of the Colorado House for the first time in six years, Boulder County’s Democratic legislators say they are confident they can work with the other side of the aisle to address rancorous issues like budget cuts and redistricting.
Even though Republicans will outnumber Democrats by only one in the House when the new session starts on Jan. 12, that majority will be felt significantly in House committees, where Republicans will have the majority and many Democrat-sponsored bills may perish.
“I expect a number of my bills to die in committee,” Rep. Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, D-Longmont, told Boulder Weekly. “I hope the Republicans play as fair as the Democrats did in the past five years. There were a lot of Republican bills that got out of committee.”
“Republicans are open and ready to work with Democrats in the House,” incoming House Speaker Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch, told Boulder Weekly. “To the Republican chair and Republican members what will matter most is good public policy. … It won’t matter whether there is an R behind the name or a D behind the name.”
Ã…sked whether Democrats treated Republican bills fairly in committees over the past six years, McNulty says, “I would say that to a large extent we were given a fair shake. I will also say that when I introduced bills, there were some that I knew would die, and they did.”
Left-leaning local lawmakers remain hopeful they can set partisan politics aside and find success with their agenda of creating jobs and stimulating the economy — not by cutting taxes, but by preserving as much funding for education as possible in the face of more looming budget reductions.
Then there will be the redistricting process. The last such effort ended in what Democrats call “the midnight gerrymander” of 2003. They claim Republicans took advantage of their majority to redraw districts in their favor. That plan was eventually thrown out by the Colorado Supreme Court. But in the following year’s election, in part due to financial support from a handful of wealthy Democratic donors upset by the Republicans’ redistricting effort, the Dems won enough races to take control of both houses of the Legislature, as well as the governor’s office.
In an effort to inject a conciliatory spirit into the upcoming negotiations over how new boundary lines will affect party numbers in each district, on Dec. 16 Senate President Brandon Shaffer, D-Longmont, and McNulty announced the creation of a joint committee charged with taking a first shot at redistricting — in a bipartisan way.
Boulder Weekly recently interviewed local state legislators to get their views on these and other hot topics in the upcoming session and to hear about bills they plan to propose.
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Shaffer says the redistricting committee he and McNulty launched is a new effort to work together and “see if we can get it done without huge acrimony. … We’re trying to avoid the midnight gerrymander.”
Sen. Rollie Heath, D-Boulder, adds, “The attempt is to not have us at a total impasse and screaming at each other.”
“I believe it gives us the best opportunity to pass a fair congressional district map that is passed by a Republican House and a Democratic Senate and signed by a Democratic governor,” McNulty says of the committee, adding that he doesn’t anticipate a repeat of 2003. “I don’t expect it to rise to that level. I’m not under any misconception that it won’t be a difficult process, but I hope it will take some of the heat out of one of the most partisan processes in the Legislature.”
Shaffer says the group won’t be officially formed until after the session convenes on Wednesday, but it will have an equal number of members from each party and will reflect geographic diversity.
Redistricting aside, Shaffer says the main theme of the 68th General Assembly is economic development and job creation, and one key to those is funding for education. To that end, he is proposing the creation of a “Prioritize Education First Fund” early in the session as a place to capture available money and use it to offset cuts in higher education, K-12 education and early childhood education. State agencies are undergoing audits to identify cost savings, Shaffer explains, and his plan is to put that money into the education fund. Another piece of legislation Shaffer is proposing would create a state tax check-off to allow Colorado residents to donate to the Prioritize Education First Fund.
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Hullinghorst says having a redistricting committee collect input from around the state will help ensure transparency in the process.
“The last thing we want to do is draw this in some back room,” Hullinghorst says. “I don’t think we should be cutting deals early on.”
Since the results from the latest U.S. Census won’t be available until later this spring, she says, redistricting may not get settled during this session.
“My prediction is that, especially if there are tough budget issues, we will have to deal with it in a special session,” she says.
Hullinghorst is also considering a bill that would create a “lean government” effort for state agencies to save money and change bureaucratic processes to improve service. In addition, because Colorado ranks low in its recycling efforts, she is mulling legislation that would require municipalities with more than 25,000 people to keep figures on how much trash is being diverted from landfills through recycling. There is also a proposal on her desk for a local improvement district in Niwot that would raise sales tax revenue for economic stimulation through promotions and events.
Democrats seem wary that some of the measures they passed last spring to eliminate tax breaks might be reversed by Republicans this year. Hullinghorst plans to introduce a bill that would require legislators to offset any tax cuts with an alternate source of revenue.
“We can’t do any more short-term budget killers,” she says.
McNulty agreed that while education is an important factor in job creation and economic recovery, there has to be some recognition that government has driven jobs away, and he says Republicans want to find common ground with the Democrats on tax breaks.
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Rep. Claire Levy, D-Boulder, says she is open to reconsidering any of those tax breaks if Republicans can produce evidence that the removal of the tax breaks did not generate enough tax revenue or caused job losses.
Among her proposed bills is one intended to help victims of the Fourmile fire. Those who lost their homes in the blaze could be assessed at a higher tax rate because they no longer have a structure on the property, and Levy’s bill would tweak state law to let the county assessor maintain their residential tax assessment status for a two-year period rather than recategorizing their properties as vacant land.
Other bills Levy plans to introduce include one that would allow behavioral health and addiction treatment professionals to administer a specific acupunctural ear treatment that has proven effective, and one that would allow juveniles tried as adults for first-degree murder and currently serving a life sentence without parole to be eligible for transfer to a community correction facility (like a halfway house) after 20 years if they meet certain criteria. She is also considering legislation to place approval of the placement of electric transmission lines into the hands of the state instead of cities and counties, in an effort to streamline Colorado’s ability to implement green-energy initiatives.
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Heath is all about fiscal policy issues. He sponsored a resolution last spring calling for a study on the state’s tax structure, a study that the University of Denver is winding up later this month. Heath says it’s clear the state is “on a path to nowhere” in funding things like education and transportation, and the question is how far Colorado residents are willing to go to raise state revenue. Possibilities include a slight boost to state income tax or sales tax, he says.
In addition to re-examining the Gordian Knot that is the multiple, overlapping constitutional restrictions on the state budget, Heath plans to rejoin an effort to make it more difficult to get constitutional amendments on the ballot, since the Colorado Constitution is one of the country’s easiest to amend.
Other proposals he is considering include measures to boost venture capital for growing the economy and an outcome-based higher education funding model based on an institution’s performance in areas like degrees produced and graduation rate.
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A couple of newly elected state representatives from Boulder County also have their agendas lined up. Rep. Deb Gardner, D-Longmont, who is taking over Jack Pommer’s seat, says she is drafting a bill that would encourage local companies to use locally recycled material to create their products. She is also considering legislation to create a “Blue Alert” system, similar to the “Amber Alert,” aimed at notifying the public when a law enforcement officer sustains a life-threatening injury from a suspect still at large, in an effort to apprehend such perpetrators faster.
As an accountant and an incoming member of the Legislative Audit Committee, Gardner also says she is looking forward to keeping state agencies efficient, effective and accountable.
Rep. Matt Jones, D-Louisville, who is succeeding Paul Weissmann in House District 12, says he plans to uphold a campaign promise by introducing a ClimateSmart-related bill that would extend the Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program to small businesses. The initiative would allow small businesses to access a loan pool for energy-efficiency improvements to their facilities. Payments on the loan would be made with property tax, so that the loan stays with the property, not the individual. (Boulder County had operated a similar program for residences until recently; Jones says his proposal would not run into the same roadblocks that the residential program encountered.)
Jones is also mulling legislation to make it easier for residents to charge their electric cars with solar power. He says current limits on the amount of electricity that can be generated from residential solar systems make car-charging an expensive and cumbersome process.
“I think it should be the policy of our state that we support using solar energy to power electric cars, because otherwise it’s a coal car,” Jones explains.
But he is quick to add that this bill may face an uphill battle in the House Agricultural, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee.
In that committee, Jones says, Dems are outnumbered by Republicans who are particularly conservative.