Colorado legislatures final day ends in acrimony, chaos

Long-simmering frustrations among Colorado lawmakers erupted into public view in a chaotic ending to the 2023 legislative session Monday night, as major legislation died and Democrats vented frustrations with their Republican colleagues and with each other.

In the span of an hour, House Republicans walked out of the Capitol in protest of a late Democratic effort to rush through changes to state tax policy. Gov. Jared Polis’s sweeping land-use reform bill died. In a meeting of the entire caucus, some House Democrats publicly questioned their party’s achievements for the session and wondered aloud if it was worth working with Republicans.

The chaos that unfolded in the legislature followed a grueling session of lengthy debates, previously rare weekend work, and a growing sense of acrimony among lawmakers in both chambers. Progressive lawmakers grew frustrated as their priority housing, gun violence, and substance use bills died in a Capitol that’s fully controlled by Democrats. Their moderate colleagues chafed at suggestions their party wasn’t doing enough after passing sweeping gun and abortion packages.

In the House, Democratic leadership, leery of Republican obstructionist tactics that had nearly derailed their agenda in last year’s legislative session, dusted off rarely used procedures to limit debate. In turn, Republicans — with historically low representation in the chamber — howled that they were being silenced and their constituents ignored.

Down the hall in the Senate, Democrats similarly sought to thread major policy proposals through a narrow window of deadlines necessary to make them law.

All of those dynamics collapsed Monday night.

Democratic frustration

In protest of Democrats’ last-minute proposals to address property taxes and flatten TABOR rates, House Republicans first refused to vote and then walked off the floor in protest Monday night. House Democrats then met together to process the death of the land-use bill, announced moments before, and to take stock of the session.

Frustration of varying types had been building, and it boiled over when House Speaker Julie McCluskie opened the floor for lawmakers to speak.

Rep. Elisabeth Epps criticized McCluskie at length and urged her to better support the full caucus. Epps had previously criticized McCluskie over delays related to the assault weapon ban bill, which Epps pushed despite internal resistance. Rep. Judy Amabile, of Boulder, stood to defend McCluskie and praise how the speaker had navigated the time constraints.

Amabile told the group that they had passed “really meaningful legislation” and that the House had learned from mistakes of previous years. Her sentiment is shared by others in the caucus, who point to Democrats’ successes on abortion and gun violence — like raising the age limit to purchase firearms, limits on ghost guns and strengthening the state’s red-flag law — as landmark wins this year.

Still, some progressive Democrats felt they had underachieved, given the historic size of the majorities the party wielded in the Capitol.

“I’m just having a really hard time saying that we feel like we did better because I honestly don’t feel that we did,” Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, a Denver Democrat, said, shortly after Amabile spoke. “ … We said we did things for renters, we did things to help keep people housed. We did not. I don’t see that we did it.”

Gonzales-Gutierrez had just watched two of her bills fall apart in the Senate, where Democrats hold a near-supermajority. One, to give more protections to renters, fizzled out as the clock ticked down over the weekend. The second, a bipartisan effort to raise the age at which children can be prosecuted for many crimes, had been gutted over opposition from police.

On Tuesday, McCluskie told the Denver Post that her job was to support every member of the Democratic caucus and that she needed to work on that goal in the coming months.

The frustrations were also influenced by tensions between Democratic lawmakers, their leadership and Republicans. In early March, House Republicans previously invoked transphobic rhetoric during a routine and symbolic vote over the federal Equal Rights Amendment. Rep. Scott Bottoms had accused Democrats of fascism and likened their decision to blunt Republican filibusters to a biblical stoning.

Several House Democrats — predominantly women of color — said they’d faced death threats and had been called racial slurs earlier this month after Republicans publicly and falsely accused them of walking off the floor during a symbolic show of support for police.

Republicans, meanwhile, say that Democrats silenced them. After Republicans were able to successfully slow Democratic progress to a crawl last year, House leadership has more proactively limited debate and worked weekends to ensure key gun and abortion bills passed.

“This process is truly designed to take the voices from all corners of the state, meld them into one room and come out with the answers,” Minority Leader Mike Lynch, the top Republican in the House, said Tuesday. “Rather, whether you agree with them or not those voices should at least be heard. We feel that that didn’t happen much this session.”

When McCluskie on Monday night pledged to work with Republicans and mend broken relationships, some Democratic lawmakers questioned if she should even bother. Rep. Stephanie Vigil, a Colorado Springs Democrat, referred to some of her colleagues from El Paso County as “very, very, very, very bad men” and said they weren’t in the legislature to work together or pass laws.

“With all respect Madam Speaker, I understand how much institutionally that this means to you, I love that about you and I love that you value that — I think there’s a point at which we need to stop acting like trying to get along with our enemies is going to preserve this institution because I think we’re past that,” Vigil said.

Asked about those comments and the threats faced by Democratic lawmakers, Republicans on Tuesday said they, too, had faced threats and said that Democrats needed to toughen up. Rep. Ty Winter, a Trinidad Republican, said threats faced by Democrats were disgusting but that the respect they wanted was a two-way street.

“This is a game where you got to kind of have some thick skin and unfortunately, whenever they had any pushback from us, their thick skin got pretty thin,” Lynch, the minority leader, said. “We had members who literally had somebody arrested because of death threats. We deal with the same thing. We just happen to take it a little better than they do.”

McCluskie said that the rhetoric from Republicans had become “more hateful” in recent years and that she’d tried to work with specific legislators “to try and help them frame their debate differently, speak to issues differently so that (their comments aren’t) dripping with so much sarcasm or disrespect.”

“We didn’t even have the bill on our desk when they’re making the motion”

Helping to push the tensions to a boil were a series of major bills seeking to remake state land-use policy and reshape state tax policy.

The land-use bill had been introduced in March but languished until the last day of the session as Democratic majorities sought to reconcile significant differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill. The bill’s fate hung over much of the day, and it would later die after Senate Democrats couldn’t come to an agreement on various upzoning provisions.

Meanwhile, the main part of the tax proposal, SB23-303, was introduced in the final week of the session and was more expansive than had been publicly anticipated. A companion bill, HB23-1311, was introduced and proposed to flatten TABOR rebates for all Coloradans. But it was unveiled Saturday, giving lawmakers just three days — the bare minimum — to pass it.

The Republican minority in the Capitol launched a legislative battle on the tax proposal in particular. Republicans railed against the bill to the point that it ran up against death-by-deadlines, and Democrats threatened to invoke rules seldom used in the Senate — but commonplace in the House — to ensure its passage. Shouting and cursing broke out on the Senate floor Sunday night as each side-eyed the clock, leading one Democrat to lament to a colleague, “This is why everyone hates politics.”

“We didn’t even have the bill on our desk when they’re making the motion (to pass the bill),” Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, a Brighton Republican, said. She had been shut from speaking on the bill Monday night.

The same bill provoked the Republican walkout in the House late Monday night, Rep. Gabe Evans, a Fort Lupton Republican, said. Republicans wanted to go tit for tat on last-minute amendments to the bill, while Democrats — keenly aware of the narrowing window to pass the measure — denied the ask and shut down debate, he said. With limited moves available on a bill Democrats saw as must-pass, and Republicans staunchly opposed, the walkout was telegraphed hours before.

“They’re the only people that are controlling this,” Evans said. “Then you know we’re just going to give you a visual depiction of how this legislative process has happened by showing you that we didn’t have a seat at the table.”

The walkout was the final in a months-long string of tense moments between the two parties in the chamber. As House Republicans filed in protest Monday night, Adams County Democratic Rep. Lorena Garcia filmed them on her cellphone. Rep. Richard Holtorf, an Akron Republican, put his hand in front of the camera lens, prompting Garcia to tell him to “get the (expletive) out of my face.”

Senate President Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat, said Democrats wanted to move quickly to respond to county assessors’ late-session warning about the severity of coming property valuation spikes, and corresponding property taxes. While Republicans objected to the last-minute stream of changes to the proposal, Fenberg said it was proof Democrats were listening to concerns.

“Once the assessors came out and painted that picture for us in a way, that’s when it was obvious that we needed to sort of press go and get it done before we get to the 120th day,” Fenberg said. “We obviously listened to feedback because the bill and policy changed quite a bit in the final days.”

The tax proposal will go before voters in November. It would retool the property valuation and tax formula for the next decade to blunt the increase in what owners owe; equalize the tax rebates owed to Coloradans next year so lower-income residents receive more money; allow qualified Coloradans to keep their homestead property tax exemption if they move in the state; add money to a rental assistance program; and create a new funding stream for education. It would also up the amount of money the state can keep under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights to inflation plus 1%.

Speaker McCluskie, a Dillon Democrat, said she heard Republicans’ process concerns — but that those in her chamber ultimately abdicated their responsibility by walking out without voting.

She also defended her party’s use of House rules to shut down debate and hasten the bill’s passage. House Republicans, unable to overcome the sheer numbers of a Democratic supermajority, often turned to long debates to try to fight policy. Democrats responded with the rule book and a drumbeat of weekend work unseen for years.

“Mid-session, we began to recognize that what was happening in our chamber was no longer respectful and productive,” McCluskie said. “Filibustering and delay tactics by having bills read at length is not why we were voted into office.”

Despite the last-day drama, Democrats celebrate session wins

With the ashes from the previous night’s various blowups still smoldering, Polis and the Democrats’ legislative leaders gathered behind a placard reading “real results” and touted the year’s successes.

Lawmakers passed a “historic tax credit package” that will knock about $5,000 off electric vehicle purchases; a first-in-the-nation right-to-repair law for agricultural equipment; abortion and reproductive health care protections; a slate of new rules and regulations around firearms; and increased per-pupil funding by 10%, among other accomplishments, they said.

The 120-day session was more than last-day drama and frayed nerves, even if Senate Majority Leader Dominick Moreno joked that now, “the trauma healing begins.”

Even bills that failed to cross the finish line or lost the most substantive portions — Moreno was a sponsor of the failed land-use bill and carried a marquee bill focused on eating disorder treatments that was substantially amended — served a purpose, he said.

“This was a session where we started a lot of conversations,” Moreno said. “We maybe didn’t quite get around to finishing all of them, but we started the conversation.”

Stay up-to-date with Colorado Politics by signing up for our weekly newsletter, The Spot.

Source: Read Full Article