DENVER – The Colorado Legislature began its 2014 session Wednesday with calls for unity, but starkly different visions of what that word means.
Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, took over as Senate president after Colorado Springs voters recalled Sen. John Morse because of his support for gun-control bills. Carroll is the second woman in state history to lead the Senate.
“We are here to work to create good-paying jobs, so families can have a roof over their heads, afford day care, send their kids to college,” Carroll said in her opening-day address. “I have every reason to believe that we can and will work together to achieve that end.”
She referred briefly to the 2013 session, in which Democrats approved with few or no GOP votes same-sex civil unions, in-state tuition for children who immigrated illegally, all-mail voting, gun restrictions and increased renewable-energy standards.
Most Coloradans supported even the most controversial of those laws, Carroll said. For example, a law requiring background checks for private gun sales receives more than 80 percent support in most polls.
Carroll thanked the few Republicans who crossed the aisle and voted for some of the controversial bills, including Durango Sen. Ellen Roberts, who supported civil unions.
“Ninety-five percent of all we did in Colorado last year, we did with bipartisan support,” Carroll said.
That’s not how the Senate’s top Republican saw it.
Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman decried the formula of dividing Democrats against Republicans to get bills passed.
“That formula produced a hyperpartisan toxin that infected this entire institution, those who visit here, and those who serve here,” Cadman said.
He blamed the Democrats’ willingness to pass bills over Republican objections for the recall of Morse and Sen. Angela Giron and the resignation of Sen. Evie Hudak.
“When the left side of this chamber is divided by the right side of this chamber, this place does not represent the outside of this chamber,” Cadman said.
Only Republicans applauded the line.
Carroll spent most of her speech looking ahead to this year’s Democratic agenda, which is much less controversial than last year’s.
The top priority is making college more affordable by adding financial aid funding and capping tuition.
She spoke tearfully of her mother, who was the first in her family to go to college even though her physically abusive father told her she would never have an education or a career.
“Freedom for my mom was an education. My mom’s path to independence was an education,” Carroll said.
Even before Carroll’s passionate speech, this year’s battle for colleges had been won almost as soon as it began.
The top priority bill, Senate Bill 1, would add $100 million in college and financial aid funds and limit tuition increases to 6 percent. Gov. John Hickenlooper already had proposed the same idea in his budget last November, and it has gained bipartisan support.
Rep. Mike McLachlan, D-Durango, will be the House sponsor of SB 1.
Cadman also called for education reform at the K-12 level.
“A quarter of our kids head to a school every day that is failing to provide them the education guaranteed to them by our constitution. This is unacceptable and inexcusable,” he said, but he did not outline specific proposals to fix failing schools.
Hickenlooper gets his turn to set the agenda today with the State of the State address. It will be his fourth address to the Legislature and his last before he faces re-election in November.