10 things to know about the 2021 Colorado legislative session

A new legislative session is kicking off this week in Colorado, but it won’t really get going until February.

A batch of new Colorado state lawmakers will be sworn in Wednesday, and the legislature plans to pass about seven mostly minor bills this week. When they return Feb. 16, there will be backlogs of popular bills that were sidelined in the pandemic-shortened 2020 session, plus many new priorities.

Democrats are still in control, now with an expanded Senate majority. That means until at least 2022, the GOP will have its say but rarely its way.

“I think we have, as Democrats, a new opportunity to work alongside our partners at the federal level to really address the root causes of problems that so many of our constituents have been navigating,” said Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Denver Democrat.

Here are 10 storylines you’ll want to know about during a legislative session filled with unknowns:

Short, distanced start

Lawmakers will work quickly this week to pass time-sensitive bills and meet constitutional requirements before their break.

Democratic leaders hope by mid-February, the state’s coronavirus case counts will have gone down and more vaccines will have been distributed, including to legislators, making it safer to return.

The legislature still expects to socially distance, require visitors (though not lawmakers) to wear masks and have their temperature checked. It will also provide rapid COVID testing for lawmakers who want it. Representatives’ and senators’ desks will be separated by partitions, and capacity will be limited in various areas of the building.

In the three first days of the session, lawmakers hope to pass a bill that will allow them to participate remotely in committee hearings, according to House Speaker-elect Alec Garnett, D-Denver. They can already do that remotely for floor votes.

“We’re really not going to be focused on a robust policy agenda for these three days,” Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg of Boulder added. “These are time-sensitive things we need to get done.”

Fenberg said leaders reserve the right to change the February return date, depending on the COVID conditions. To see a list of some of the initial bills that lawmakers will take up this week, go to leg.colorado.gov/2021-bills-authorized-sponsors-pre-release.

Colorado Representative Julie McCluskie is surrounded ...

Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Colorado Rep. Julie McCluskie is surrounded by protective plastic barriers that reflect the names of the representatives from the monitor on the wall in the House chambers at the Colorado Capitol in Denver during an emergency legislative session on Nov. 30, 2020. Reflected in the plastic barriers are the names of the representatives coming off the monitor in the room.

COVID relief

Ask nearly any lawmaker what they’re plotting for 2021, and they’ll tell you they want to do everything possible to address the coronavirus’ ripple effects.

But the public should temper its expectations, budget officials say, because there’s a limited pot of money for grants, direct payments and new programs.

The legislature enters this session with about $1.5 billion in uncommitted funds for COVID relief and any other bill that comes with a price tag. That may sound like a lot of money, but it’s misleading; lawmakers budgeted conservatively last year during the early months of the pandemic, so this is money that’ll only be spent once. There almost certainly won’t be as much to spend in the coming years, which means lawmakers will have to be strategic.

“The good news is we have more resources than we expected to work with,” said state Sen. Dominick Moreno, D-Commerce City, who chairs the Joint Budget Committee. “The bad news, or at least the cautious news, is that the budget is still in a very tenuous place.”

Restricted ambitions

It is often the case that bills die — or never get introduced in the first place — not because of their merits but because lawmakers are nervous about how much they cost.

We’ll likely be seeing a lot of that in 2021, given the budget outlook. Take, for example, the bipartisan and generally popular proposal to eliminate the wait list for state-funded in-home care for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Last year was supposed to be the year they committed more than $160 million over seven years to the program, but pandemic hits, plan scrapped.

Moreno said they’ll probably push it back yet again this year because “it would be really difficult to have a conversation about ending the waiting list given the dynamics that exist right now.”

It’s the same story for any number of proposals that might have been viable a couple of years ago, but may not even see daylight until Colorado’s economy recovers from the pandemic.

Is the momentum for social justice still there?

The legislature last year repealed the death penalty and passed a police reform package inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. Lawmakers vowed then that they would not relent on matters of criminal justice and law enforcement.

There’s plenty on the table for 2021, including banning no-knock warrants and restricting the use of ketamine against people detained by police. The latter is particularly close to home: First responders injected Elijah McClain with ketamine after he was violently detained by Aurora police in 2019.

Democratic State Rep. Leslie Herod of Denver is a lead sponsor of the police reform bill and many others related to criminal justice. She said she expects the legislature will work to reduce the prison population in 2021 and reprioritize some funding that would result from a reduction of prisoners. She also said lawmakers will push for alternative, non-police responses to nonviolent cases at the local level, building off a Denver program that allows mental health professionals to respond to certain calls.

“I believe that the energy and momentum behind criminal justice reform and, more recently, police accountability, will continue in the upcoming session,” Herod said.

Among the other reforms being floated: eliminating qualified immunity for some officers untouched by the package that was passed last year and eliminating driver’s license suspensions for people with outstanding court debts, as well as changing the law to allow prison firefighters to work in that field once they’re released.

Kathryn Scott, Special to The Denver Post

Rep. Leslie Herod arrives just outside the balcony of the House of Representatives to give Sheneen McClain, right, the mother of Elijah McClain, a copy of police reform bill SB 20-217 after it passed with bipartisan support on June 12, 2020.

Public participation

Members of the public will have the opportunity to testify on bills in person, remotely or submit written testimony as they were able to do during the special legislative session, but it will likely be limited. People interested in testifying will need to sign up ahead of time at leg.colorado.gov.

They can also contact their lawmakers directly. To find out who your legislator is, go to leg.colorado.gov/find-my-legislator. To contact lawmakers by phone or email, go to leg.colorado.gov/legislators.

You can also watch televised sessions of the work conducted on the Colorado House and Senate floors at The Colorado Channel: coloradochannel.net.

And check out The Denver Post’s guide for ways to follow and interact with your state government.

Transportation funding, finally?

Plenty of people on both sides of the aisle have sought and failed to obtain a funding boost for Colorado’s chronically underfunded transportation system. This year, there’s real optimism for a breakthrough.

The latest plan involves raising certain fees — remember, Colorado lawmakers can’t raise taxes, but they can raise closely related fees — on things like gas and electric vehicle usage in order to generate money for transportation projects.

It’ll get pushback from Republicans who believe fees are akin to taxes. But Democrats control the legislature, and powerful figures back the current proposal; likely lead sponsors include the chairs of both the House and Senate transportation committees, incoming House Speaker Alec Garnett and Fenberg. Gov. Jared Polis is also pushing them to reach a deal.

State Rep. Matt Gray, D-Broomfield, who chairs the House Transportation and Local Government Committee, does caution against too much optimism: “There’s no such thing as a sure thing. All we have going for us is united will.”

Can House Republicans get along?

Democrats have a strong 20-15 advantage in the Senate and in the House, it’s not even close — 41 of the 65 seats.

Having hemorrhaged power and influence in the House in recent years, GOP state representatives turned on last year’s minority leader, Rep. Patrick Neville of Castle Rock, and replaced him with Rep. Hugh McKean of Loveland.

McKean has a major challenge ahead of him aside from the 17-seat deficit because this caucus is split between relative moderates like him and far-right figures like Neville, who generally spend more time protesting Democratic policies than finding compromise. His task is to unite a party that’s been relatively irrelevant when it comes to policy-making, rebuild its credibility and, ultimately, its sheer numbers.

McKean told The Denver Post he was unavailable Tuesday for an interview.

Kathryn Scott, Special to The Denver Post

Senators and other participants sit far apart in chairs to listen to testimony before the Senate Finance Committee inside the Old Supreme Court at the State Capitol in Denver on Dec. 1, 2020.

Public option, take two

Last year, sponsors shelved an effort to implement a hybrid public health insurance option that would have provided Coloradans who buy insurance on the individual market another option.

Its return in 2021 amid the coronavirus pandemic will likely bring more conflict between supporters and hospital groups. But one of its sponsors, Avon Democratic Rep. Dylan Roberts said the bill will look very different, because it takes into account the changes to health care due to COVID.

“We think it’s just as important as ever that people have access to the security of health care coverage, particularly during the time of a pandemic,” Roberts said. He added that many people have health coverage through employers and with increasing unemployment, the need is clear.

The opposition, including powerful groups like the Colorado Hospital Association, argued last year a public health option would be so costly for hospitals that some may have to close or reduce their quality of care.

A renewed push for gun legislation

Colorado House Rep. Tom Sullivan was beyond disappointed last year that proposed gun reforms were shelved when COVID arrived. The Centennial Democrat pledged last year to bring gun legislation to the forefront of the 2021 session, and he plans to make good on that promise.

“Gun violence is a crisis that affects our communities on a daily basis,” Sullivan said. “I believe, us in the legislature, should talk about it daily.”

He expects to sponsor a bill to implement a mandatory waiting period of potentially up to five days for gun buyers. That’s shorter than some other states, but is still guaranteed to get pushback from Republicans. Backers of such measures say waiting periods can help reduce suicides and crime.

Democratic lawmakers plan to bring two other bills, similar to those introduced last year, which would require safe storage of guns and mandate that people report lost or stolen firearms within a few days.

Rep. Mark Baisley, R-Roxborough Park, said he hasn’t heard specifics on the bills, but he believes the Republicans in the legislature will stand together on defending the Second Amendment.

“The Second Amendment is pretty specific about ‘shall not be infringed,’” he said.

Baisley opposes a mandatory waiting period for gun purchases in particular, citing his previous purchase of a gun after break-ins of his home. “I would have been furious if they said you had to go without a weapon.”

Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Colorado Sen. Don Coram walks down the steps in an empty Capitol in Denver on March 30, 2020. Colorado lawmakers had recently decided to extend their session break as the novel coronavirus pandemic escalated.

Climate response

After a year of raging wildfires, shrinking water flows and record heat, Colorado’s Democratic lawmakers are planning to address climate and environmental policies.

“Unfortunately, it’s been a big issues for years and I think we’re sort of behind in where we need to be,” Fenberg said. “We basically don’t have the luxury of being able to take a year off of thinking critically about getting our emissions under control.”

Topics on deck include air-quality issues, improving the electric transmission grid in Colorado, addressing issues of methane leaks, a greenhouse road map and increasing the use of energy storage equipment in Colorado.

Westminster Democratic Sen. Faith Winter said climate mitigation is also important for communities of color and others who are disproportionately affected by pollution. She’s working on a bill to better define environmental justice and impacted communities, and also intends to address issues of environment in transportation funding bills.

“Climate change is a huge threat to our state,” she said. “It’s a threat to individual people’s health,” she said. “It’s a threat to our economy.”