DENVER – Will Rogers once said, “I’m not a member of any organized political party. I’m a Democrat.”
Well, the Oklahoma humorist wouldn’t recognize the Democrats running the show at the Colorado State Capitol.
During the last 120 days, Democrats used their majorities in the House and Senate to push through a progressive agenda that’s been pent up for a decade.
Election Day voter registration. Background checks for guns. Renewable-energy mandates. More health care for the poor. A $100 million tax break for low-wage workers. Civil unions for same-sex couples, and in-state tuition for students in the country illegally. Democrats in many other states can only daydream about the goals that Colorado Democrats achieved during the 2013 legislative session, which ended Wednesday.
For good or ill, Capitol veterans called it the most consequential session in memory.
“Each one of these things was epic,” said Senate Majority Leader Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora. “We were (able) to do public-safety measures with commonsense background checks that Congress couldn’t get done. Any one of these things by themselves would have been historic and epic for a session, and we did one after another after another.”
Republicans staged numerous filibusters that went late into the night in an attempt to block rural renewable-energy mandates, gun bills, elections reform and school funding that will require a billion-dollar tax increase. But unlike the U.S. Senate, in Colorado the minority can’t kill a bill by delaying it. Only rarely were Republicans able to peel off a few Democrats and kill bills favored by party leaders.
“Their agenda was running full steam, and our only ability to counter them was to find a few folks who weren’t buying into all their agenda all the time,” said Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs.
Democrats displayed a high degree of party discipline – the not-so-gentle art of making sure skittish legislators cast their votes for bills the party wants. When a debate over gun bills in February brought the heat of national media attention, Democrats in competitive districts – such as Durango Rep. Mike McLachlan – didn’t defect.
But Democrats did lose two gun bills – a long-shot attempt to impose liability on assault-weapon owners, and a ban on concealed guns at college. The second bill died only after two Democrats’ remarks about rape on campus overshadowed the bill itself.
The only time Democrats were thwarted was when other Democrats – especially Gov. John Hickenlooper – got in the way.
It was Hickenlooper’s pressure that killed a repeal of the death penalty. And late in the session, his Department of Natural Resources sided with the natural-gas and oil industry to scuttle bills that would have imposed minimum daily fines on polluters, required more water testing and added dozens more well inspectors.
The biggest bipartisan achievement came on an issue few legislators wanted to handle: marijuana legalization. The Legislature set up regulations for growing and selling pot and will ask voters in November to approve taxes on the psychoactive plant.
The repercussions of the 2013 session will be heard well into the 2014 election, and both sides think the last 120 days has given them winning campaign issues.
Democrats point to surveys showing strong public support for their signature accomplishments, such as gun background checks and civil unions.
Senate President John Morse, D-Colorado Springs, said the only major Democratic bill that wasn’t so popular with the public was granting in-state tuition to kids who crossed the border illegally with their parents.
Republicans like Cadman are ready to put Morse to the test at the next election.
“I think this was such an aggressive agenda that they believed they had to do it now so they could get a little breathing room so that maybe people would forget (by 2014). Our job is to make sure they don’t. Because we’re pretty sure most of this is way out of touch with what Coloradans believe,” Cadman said.