By Joey Bunch and Marianne Goodland (June 19, 2020)
The 2020 legislative is marked as much by what didn’t pass as what did.
Some of the hottest items on the Democratic majority’s Christmas wish list had melted away by the time summer approached.
Coming into the session in January, for example, the public option insurance was supposed to be the biggest bill of the session. Going out, it was only a possibility for 2021, legislative leaders said, and they didn’t sound optimistic.
This session, roughly half, or about 300 bills, were scuttled to make room for pandemic relief, a rescue for the state’s budget and pet projects lawmakers were wed to, such as new restrictions on school immunization waivers that took up days.
The public option, though, was characterized as a game changer by Democrats just a few months ago.
The public-private insurance was supposed to pull down insurance premiums by offering a below-market rate built on price caps on hospitals and doctors, which proved not a politically palatable idea in the wake of a global pandemic.
Sponsors withdrew the bill, which managed to pass one committee in March before the shutdown.
“I think so,” said Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg of Boulder told a group of reporters on the last day of the session. “This is something that we went into this session wanting to work on. We’ve never said a public option is the only solution. We’ve said we want to bring down the cost of health care.
“And for us, the public option was a vehicle for us to do that, and I think it’s still on the table, but we’re making sure we’re approaching the problem with an end goal, not with an obsession over a very specific policy.”
Senate President Leroy Garcia said “there are a lot of different options we might look to, and that’s one option.”
House Speaker KC Becker is done after this session because of term limits, leaving a deep legacy of legislative success. House Majority Leader Alec Garnett of Denver, in a farewell tribute to Becker last week, pointed out that three bills define her legacy: Senate Bill 19-181, on oil and gas regulatory reform; Senate Bill 18-200, which attempts to shore up the Public Employees’ Retirement Association; and the most significant bill affecting rural Colorado in many years, Senate Bill 17-267.
“It’s been a wild ride, certainly an unexpected and unprecedented session,” she said.
Becker cited protests that spurred on major police reforms in the legislature in three weeks’ time, as lawmakers were simultaneously cutting or back-filling nearly a quarter of their operating budget.
More budget cuts and higher taxes and fees could be on tap if the deep recession continues. A revenue forecast from state economists is slated for Friday.
“We still accomplished the majority of our goals that we set out, and we had challenges we never expected,” Fenberg said. “We passed the parts of our agenda we thought were most critical and wanted to get across the finish line.”
He lamented the need to do more on education, which legislators say almost every year. But the 2020-21 budget takes the General Assembly, and K-12 education, backward almost a decade. The spending plan that takes effect July 1 adds $621.4 million to the budget stabilization factor, the debt to K-12 that started after the Great Recession. The debt is now $1.18 billion, and higher than it’s ever been.
“We knew that going into this crisis and we know that even more so now,” he said of underfunding schools, adding about the progressive agenda, “There’s more work to do, and that’s what begins tomorrow,” Fenberg said.
Among the other bills that failed to reach the finish line:
- Conservation easements. For 17 years, landowners, primarily on the Eastern Plains, have complained that they have been defrauded of their lands and tax credits by the state Department of Revenue, which canceled millions of dollars in tax credits claimed by those landowners for donating portions of land for conservation purposes. A working group tasked by 2019 legislation spent last summer and fall coming up with reparations and plans for restructuring part of the program’s provisions on orphan easements and a new way to determine land valuations. The cost of $147 million would have been covered by tax credits from revenue, but that part of the bill ran into trouble even before the pandemic. Rep. Dylan Roberts of Avon told Colorado Politics a new bill had been in the works before the recess that would have covered only the orphan easements and valuation piece. That never happened.
- An effort to expand the state’s laws allowing importation of prescription drugs from Canada died in the session’s final days.
- Senate Bill 125, which would have banned exotic animals in events such as the circuses and the Colorado Renaissance Festival, was among dozens of scuttled bills after the session resumed.
- Two bills on guns, one that would require guns be stored in a safe, and another that requires the reporting of a stolen firearm, both died after the General Assembly returned.
- Republicans’ perpetual efforts to ban abortions and throw out 2013 laws on guns got the same result they’ve been getting for the past six years: postponed indefinitely by Democrats.
- So did two bills on plastics, one that would ban the use of polystyrene (Styrofoam) containers, another that would ban single-use plastics such as straws and grocery bags.
- A bill banning the use of handheld cellphones while driving also went by the wayside.
- So did a bill extending the statute of limitations on sex abuse, tied to clergy abuse within the Catholic Church.
- A bill to remove the ability of county commissioners to draw their own district maps, which ran into trouble with commissioners in Arapahoe County, also died.
- Health insurance providers won’t have to pay for the annual cost of a mental health exam, a bill passionately defended by Rep. Dafna Michaelson-Jenet of Aurora, who sought public support to keep it off the list of bills destined for elimination.
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