Any time one party controls the legislature, as Colorado Democrats have since 2019, inevitably some people will think it overstepped its boundaries and others will be frustrated the party didn’t do more.
But Democratic leaders say those wanting more may still get their way. They’ll just need to be patient. It’s a reminder that Democrats aren’t always in step — and that sometimes lawmakers have to wait for the votes, the money and the political will to align.
Before the 2021 session ended Tuesday, the party coalesced on policies that will be felt for years to come in the state’s tax code and transportation system, at marijuana dispensaries and gun shops, in courtrooms and classrooms. Lost in the mix were several big-ticket proposals on things like policing, school discipline and workplace harassment.
“In the grand scheme of things, obviously these are very important issues and they’re very personal to a lot of people and it feels very urgent,” Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat, said of the few big Democratic policies that died this year. “Grand scheme of things, getting some of these bills done and making sure we get the policy right over the course of two or three years I think is probably better than rushing something before it’s ready in one year.”
Democratic state Rep. Susan Lontine is familiar with this process. She’s on the cusp of her final year in the House, and watched a bipartisan panel kill SB21-176 in the final days of session. It was an attempt she cosponsored to add more protections against workplace harassment.
“Sometimes you run up against policies that are really big things to do and sometimes it’s better to take them apart and do them in pieces,” the Denver politician said. “Maybe that’s a strategy for us, but I really need to talk to folks to see what they think. I kind of think that’s that way to go.”
It can take a while, she said, to find the right ingredients to get a bill passed. She said she’s now thinking about reviving a 2017 bill of hers next year would eliminate the state tax on feminine hygiene products. With Democrats in control, the state flush with cash and the legislature increasingly willing to knock down barriers to accessing those products, she would seem to have a good shot in 2022.
The death of SB21-176 was preceded minutes before by the death in a separate committee of SB21-273, the most heavily debated criminal justice policy of the session. It would have had police issue tickets more and arrest less and drive down jail populations in part by requiring greater leniency in bond-setting.
Police organizations, Republican lawmakers, some district attorneys and business lobbyists can claim victory in stopping its passage; four Republicans and two Democrats joined to reject it at the committee level.
“Shocked, disappointed and saddened” by the defeat, the bill sponsor, Colorado Springs Democratic Sen. Pete Lee, vowed in an open letter that he would “continue fighting for justice.”
“While a certainly demoralizing setback, my commitment remains unbroken,” he said.
Gov. Jared Polis suggested SB21-273, which Lee and his cosponsors changed several times in order to secure votes, had changed enough to win his support.
“Many of the issues we raised were addressed early in the process,” said Polis, who supported another controversial bill that was withdrawn earlier in the session, SB21-182, aimed at overhauling school discipline procedures. “I would hope they’d continue work with stakeholders and include a broad group of community voices. That means listening to school districts and charter schools and law enforcement and figuring out these issues.
“They certainly don’t solve themselves.”
Denver Democratic Rep. Leslie Herod said SB21-182, meant to limit police interactions with schoolchildren, would “absolutely” be back next year. It had come under heavy criticism by some who felt it would leave dangerous behavior unpunished. Others pointed out that schools often lack the behavioral health supports that would theoretically replace law enforcement.
“I was disappointed to see it couldn’t be worked out,” said Polis, who called for the bill’s passage in his State of the State address.
Since Democrats took power in Colorado, they have a track record of pushing fizzled policies through, eventually. They did so with the death penalty repeal, the bill to expand union rights for state workers and the bill to improve school immunization rates.
But Republicans argue that when certain Democratic bills die, the sponsors should take a hint.
“There were bills that were bad for business, there were bills that were bad for public safety, there were bills that were bad for kids and education,” GOP House Minority Leader Hugh McKean of Loveland said of this session.
“Those bills lost on the merits of why they were bad ideas.”
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