Fighting both Republicans and the clock, Colorado Democrats face the prospect of having to kill many of their own bills in these waning weeks of the 2022 legislative session.
It’s a problem largely of their own making: by waiting until late in the session to introduce and advance many of their topline bills, the Democrats have handed substantial leverage to the GOP, which through extended debate and various other delay tactics can force its opponent to pick certain battles and abandon others.
Thursday marked day 100 of the 2022 session, set to end at midnight on May 11, the 120th day. As of this writing there are still hundreds of bills pending, mostly in the House. The unsettled heap includes some big-deal proposals: the bill to combat fentanyl (HB22-1326); an election security bill (SB22-153); a still-unintroduced but already highly controversial bill to grant collective bargaining rights to tens of thousands of public workers; and a slew of bills that make use of a historic influx of federal aid money through the American Rescue Plan Act.
Senate Majority Leader Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat in charge of calendar management in the upper chamber, said the federal funding bills, fentanyl bill and the public-sector collective bargaining bills are all “must-pass.” The latter two are particularly likely to produce heavy debate — Republicans believe the state must do more to criminalize fentanyl possession and they wholly disagree with the idea that workers in the public sector deserve greater union power.
“Perhaps that means fights picked on smaller issues, … maybe those do become casualties,” Moreno said. “If they’re going to be a huge fight on the floor and they’re not needed for a very specific purpose this session, maybe those are at risk.”
Meeting with reporters on Tuesday, Moreno also said his worry about GOP leverage “increases by the day.”
It’s normal for legislative sessions to end in sprints, as this one will, with bills passing and failing at furious pace ahead of adjournment. There is much precedent for lawmakers out of power to gain leverage in these frenzies; as recently as 2019, Democrats in the majority were forced to abandon a pro-vaccination bill in order to calm the GOP and pass the rest of their agenda.
Lawmakers and lobbyists seem split as to whether this year’s calendar management has been typical, or worse than usual. Many believe that in this election year, the Democrats have been so cautious that they’ve waited longer than necessary to advance big parts of their agenda. Several interviewed for this story said they were bewildered by the Democrats’ decision to wait until halfway through the session to introduce a landmark reproductive rights bill, HB22-1279, despite the fact that the bill was written and the votes were counted well before the session began. That bill alone dominated a couple of weeks of legislative time.
Moreno’s House counterpart, Majority Leader Daneya Esgar, sponsored the reproductive rights bill and is responsible for her chamber’s calendar. She said she’s not panicking.
“We’ve got nights. We’ve got weekends. We’ve got time,” the Pueblo Democrat told reporters. “I think we say this every single year, where we stress out. … We’ll find the time.”
Even those Democrats more confident, like Esgar, acknowledge that some Democratic legislation is going to die. It’s too soon to tell which specific bills will fall, but the general rule is that those that cost the most and are deemed least urgent by their caucuses are at highest risk. For example, HB22-1064, which proposes to ban flavored nicotine products, may never even reach the Senate floor. HB22-1121, a bill to dedicate $9 million annually for tax credits that support local media outlets, seems a long shot.
In the Senate, Minority Leader Chris Holbert said his caucus is prepared to make use of its increasing power. His party doesn’t have the votes to stop bills, but it can and will force lengthy debates.
“We’d rather do things in an amicable way, but, yeah, as the clock ticks down, with so many bills, it really does start to give us a significant amount of leverage,” the Douglas County Republican said.
“We’ve been thinking about it and talking about it as a caucus,” he added. “If they (Democrats) are willing to not have bills come out of Senate committees, that would be easier.”
The House minority leader, Loveland Republican Hugh McKean, said his side is “always” ready to stall if necessary. Like Holbert, he called out the collective bargaining bill as particularly upsetting.
State Sen. Bob Gardner, a Colorado Springs Republican and a loquacious veteran of many partisan filibusters, said the GOP is grateful Democrats left so much work for the end of the session. In these final few weeks, he said with a smile, “Things may need to be debated.”
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