DENVER – The 2017 legislative session wrapped up Wednesday, and the consensus just hours after adjournment was relayed in an ad hoc mixture of sports metaphors with a sprinkling of culinary ones.
“The ball moved,” “runners are on base,” “we’re going into halftime,” “this is how the sausage is made” or “we didn’t score a touchdown, but we did get a first down.”
And perhaps that’s an appropriate way to look at the first session of the 71st General Assembly, which made progress on pre-session promises but left plenty on the table. Each General Assembly has two sessions.
With Democrats holding a majority in the House and Republicans narrowly owning the Senate, both parties were forced to come to grips with the dreaded “C” word of American politics: compromise.
“I’d love to be able to prance around and spike the ball, but guess what, we have a Democrat governor and a Democrat House and we took some victories, and they weren’t complete, but we’re happy we were able to move the ball down the field,” said Senate President Kevin Grantham, R-Cañon City.
While big-ticket bills that could have changed Coloradans’ lives and others that were meant to grab headlines were pulled off the field on stretchers, meaningful bills were passed.
“I think it’s the most productive session since I’ve been here,” Gov. John Hickenlooper told reporters Thursday less than 12 hours after the session adjourned.
Hickenlooper quickly followed with a comment about the possibility of a special session, which set off alarm bells among the Capitol press corps and twittersphere.
“I did tell several people last night at Stoney’s (the restaurant and bar where the post-session celebration is held by lawmakers) that they probably shouldn’t make any vacation plans for May, just to be safe,” he said.
He said he would consider over the weekend if there is a need for a special session to address pre-session priorities, such issues as transportation funding.
So what were those priorities and where did legislators grind out some tough yards?
Construction defectsOne area where progress was made was on construction defects laws, where a bipartisan, bicameral group of lawmakers took a swing at Colorado’s affordable housing.
“They literally went into rooms, had conversations, they argued, they disagreed, they tested each other and they found ways to trust each other and move the ball forward,” said Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert, R-Parker.
A half dozen bills were introduced, each tackling a different facet of the issue blamed for condo construction in Colorado dwindling to just 2 percent of total construction. All but one of the bills grounded out at different points in the game.
What rounded the bases was House Bill 1279, which raises the consent threshold for a lawsuit over faulty construction to a majority vote of unit owners as opposed to the smaller homeowners association board.
Assistant House Minority Leader Cole Wist, R-Centennial, was among the lawmakers who reached compromise after failure in previous years.
“The message we wanted to send to stakeholders outside the building, and that is, we had unity in terms of the importance of the issue,” Wist said.
While HB 1279 made it through, the issue of defects is hardly over, and more legislation is expected next year.
Transportation and Hospital Provider FeeAt the beginning of the session, finding a transportation infrastructure funding solution seemed like a sure bet, but hospital fee reform was deemed a longshot.
“I started the session off talking about this (provider fee) being a non-starter,” Grantham said.
But the issues converged into the casserole that is SB 267, which contains provisions to:
save hospitals from a $264 million budget cut;lower the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights revenue cap by $200 million, restricting the amount of tax dollars the state can keep; bond for $2 billion for transportation and construction across the state, 25 percent of which must go to projects in rural Colorado;raise sales tax on retail marijuana to fund rural schools;provide a tax break for small businesses, andrequire state departments to cut 2 percent from their 2018 budgets. While SB 267 contains some money for transportation, it falls short of the estimated $10 billion needed in the next 10 years. Unless there is a successful ballot initiative in November, more legislation will be presented in 2018.
House Bill 1242, a comprehensive transportation funding measure that would have generated hundreds of millions of dollars annually over the next 20 years by raising sales tax by half a cent, was cooked up at the session midway but was burned by fiscal conservatives on the Senate Finance Committee who believed the state could do better.
Even in death, HB 1242 served the purpose of starting a hard conversation about how the state will maintain its crumbling roads and turned up the heat on the lawmakers crafting SB 267.
But now it’s halftime, and while conversations on topics that will likely dominate next year’s session, such as the deployment of broadband infrastructure in rural Colorado, have started, the work has only just begun, said Speaker of the House Crisanta Duran, D-Denver. “I think there is a lot more to do, and I hope the conversation will continue.”