Thursday, January 11, 2018

Talk of compromise under the Gold Dome as session begins

Republicans will introduce a bill to lock $300 million a year into the state budget, and then refer a ballot measure to Colorado voters in November to allow the state to borrow money against it for transportation, Senate President Kevin Grantham said on the opening day of the legislative session Wednesday.

That would get the state rolling on expanding two clogged sections of Interstate 25 — from Castle Rock to Monument and north of Denver — as well as addressing the I-70 mountain corridor.

Securing money in the state budget for transportation is at the top of the GOP agenda, but Democrats hope to steer more money budget money into schools, affordable housing and other needs, as well as to share the expected revenue surplus next year on roads and bridges.

House Speaker Crisanta Duran talked about what lawmakers did last year for transportation. Senate Bill 267, a compromise to save rural hospitals, also will put $100 million in transportation that could be leveraged for $1.9 billion. The Colorado Department of Transportation said the state needs $20 billion over the next two decades.

“From Johnstown to the Four Corners, from Rifle to Pueblo, you will see investments in transportation infrastructure from this important bill,” she said. “Some of the most significant improvements will be felt on our interstate highways.”

Last year Duran and Grantham co-sponsored a failed bill to ask voters to pass a sales tax to pay back bonds to speed up a long list of transportation ideas, including transit and giving money to local government.

Republicans, including House Republican leader Patrick Neville of Castle Rock, stood firm on a plan to use existing state revenues, and no sales tax request, to fund transportation.

In his speech, Neville also acknowledged the challenging political times.

“House sessions during election years are always more politically charged than off-year sessions,” he said, a nod to the November election when all 65 chamber seats are on the ballots in their districts. “It’s especially true this year given the high-profile statewide elections and the many candidates for those offices here today. I know several of you in this room are vying for positions that will influence the direction of our state as a whole. That said, and knowing how strongly I feel about serving Colorado, I think this is the best time to announce that …. I too am throwing my name in for … more road funding and government efficiency.”

Senate Minority Leader Lucia Guzman, a Democrat from Denver who is also a pastor, challenged fellow senators to take their responsibility to others seriously.

“As electeds, we are dared to heed the call to risk the unknown for the promise of greatness,” she said, “not for the greatness of ourselves but for the greatness of our state, the greatness of our people and the greatness of our society.”

The atmosphere at the Capitol Wednesday was much like the first day back at college, awash in handshakes and ebullient greetings, as 100 lawmakers and a legion of lobbyists and wonks gathered in the Gold Dome in Denver to kick off the second session of the 71st General Assembly.

The morning included some good-natured elbows between the chambers, the governor’s office and the parties.

Except for a small protest on sexual harassment, the mood was light for the 120-session, as lawmakers face plenty of issues that will divide the chambers and the parties in this election year.

Grantham, who is serving his last opening day in the Senate because of term limits, asked lawmakers to rise above Washington, D.C., politics. He called for a different political tone, after a moment of silence to honor Douglas County Sheriff’s Deputy Zackari Parrish, who died in the line of duty when four deputies and a Castle Rock police officer were fired upon on Dec. 31.

“Fellow senators, citizens of our nation view a darkened horizon, a horizon where divisiveness and partisanship have become the norm, where even our political party can be a label of shame,” Grantham said. “Many find difficulty with seeing a brighter tomorrow for America and for Colorado. The heart of our nation, civil discourse is under continual attack. The feelings of community, neighborliness, that was once the backbone of our communities is quickly becoming a distant memory, and our willingness to engage one another has diminished.”

He added later in his speech, “Let’s not fall to the temptation of blaming the other side for incomplete work.”

Duran said in her speech Wednesday, “There’s still more that binds us together than will ever divide us.”

The fire in her speech came when Duran began to address the sexual harassment allegations that dog the General Assembly in its opening day: ”We must confront these issues head on and successfully reform the culture of the Capitol.”

One lawmaker was noticeably in his seat: Rep. Steve Lebsock, a Thornton Democrat who is the focal point of harassment complaints that have embroiled four lawmakers, two Republicans, two Democrats, two in the Senate, two in the House.

Duran got the first of several standing ovations for those remarks, and that included House Republicans as well as her fellow Democrats.

Duran’s priorities this session also include affordable housing, criminal sentencing reform and a package of bills addressing the opioid epidemic. For her, the latter is personal. A 40-year old cousin, just three years older than Duran, died in November after facing a lifelong struggle with substance abuse, both alcohol and opioids. Duran’s voice broke while she told his story.

“He was smart and thoughtful and loved to laugh and joke around,” she said. Every member of the House stood as she spoke of his struggles.

The morning got off on a jovial, if not taunting note. Each chamber must dispatch a committee to the other to report their respective chamber “organized and ready for business.” As the Senate was sending over its committee — Republicans Bob Gardner and Owen Hill of Colorado Springs, with Leroy Garcia of Pueblo — the House committee was already in the Senate.

Rep. Joe Salazar, a Democrat from Thornton, delivered a message from Duran, “We are not going to wait for you.”

Senators didn’t take that without firing back.

When he returned, Gardner said he told the Senate was ready, which was met with “dubious chuckles.”

Garcia didn’t let it go at that. “I saw a different picture. Instead, I saw total chaos. Members couldn’t find their seats. The House being true to the style the House is. Colleagues, Mr. President, I think we’re in for a long year.”

Grantham sent Republican Sens. Don Coram of Montrose and Kevin Lundberg of Berthoud, with Democrat Andy Kerr of Lakewood to inform the governor.

“We reported to the governor, and she thanked us, because the governor isn’t down there. Seriously,” Lundberg said, referring to Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne. Hickenlooper is in New York City for a Bloomberg Philanthropies Education to Employment event. “… I trust the … guy who sits down in that office will show up tomorrow, because I understand he has a report to give to us.”

Coram said if Hickenlooper doesn’t show, “I will initiate a photo on a milk carton saying that he is missing.”