Democrats brought an end on Tuesday to an historic legislative session that included landmark bills on pandemic recovery, health care, and transportation infrastructure.
With the 2021 session officially in the books, here is our look at the Winners and Losers from the last couple of months…
If you don’t want to read ahead, the TL;DR version is this: “Winners” include basically all living people in Colorado. Actually, it even includes some dead people, considering the passage of a bill that allows for human composting.
People Who Live and Breathe in Colorado
As John Frank of Axios wrote on June 4, “This is the most significant legislative session in years.”
If you could say only one thing about the 2021 legislative session, this would be it.
Democrats kicked off the year with an ambitious list of policy goals — and even added to it in response to events — and they checked off damn near every single one of them…
♦ Jump-starting Colorado’s economic recovery post-COVID ✓
♦ Saving people money on health care ✓
♦ Reducing the cost of prescription drugs ✓
♦ Much-needed transportation infrastructure funding ✓
♦ Real solutions for combatting Climate Change ✓
♦ Gun safety ✓
♦ Tax reform ✓
Democrats were even able to craft an historic state budget that includes $800 million in economic stimulus funding, $480 million for K-12 education, and $1.5 billion set aside in the state reserve fund.
The 2021 #coleg session will be remembered as the most ambitious & productive in recent memory.
As I return to Pueblo to be with my wife & welcome the newest member of our family, I’ll go home knowing our work will make life better for our child & Coloradans across the state. pic.twitter.com/NN0p984MPI
— Daneya Esgar (@Dlesgar) June 9, 2021
New House Speaker Alec Garnett and Majority Leader Daneya Esgar did a masterful job of keeping the trains running on time, policing the crazy rants of unhinged right-wing members, and handling backroom negotiations among various interests. Garnett had plenty of help from his Senate brethren; Senate President Leroy Garcia and Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, who had a much narrower margin to work with in the upper chamber.
Leaders in both chambers also did an admirable job of keeping everyone in the building safe in the midst of a global pandemic. The 2021 session started a month later than usual to allow for enough time to get more lawmakers and staffers fully vaccinated. Legislatures in states such as Idaho and Alaska dealt with serious COVID outbreaks on more than one occasion, but Colorado made it through a full session without any notable delays or concerns related to the pandemic.
Garnett, Garcia, Esgar, and Fenberg deftly managed delicate negotiations on a number of important issues, including a compromise on a Climate Change bill that had been a concern for Gov. Jared Polis.
Members of the Joint Budget Committee also deserve a special shout-out for the work that they were able to do on the one thing that lawmakers are constitutionally-mandated to complete every year: A balanced budget. As Dominick Moreno, chair of the JBC, commented in May:
“There is so much good in this budget that will help Colorado recover, that will prioritize communities that were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic and set Colorado onto a more fiscally sustainable future. This is one of the best budgets we’ve produced.” [Pols emphasis]
Sen. Kerry Donovan and Rep. Dylan Roberts
These two Democratic lawmakers were the key drivers behind the success of a heavily-lobbied health care bill (HB-1232) that will ultimately cut premiums for Coloradans by 15% over the next three years. It took a lot of twists and turns, not just in this session, but after years of trying and failing, for the artist formerly known as “The Colorado Option” to reach its final form, and while critics may decry what the bill doesn’t accomplish, there’s no question that the end result will be hugely beneficial to Coloradans. Different versions of this legislation were attempted in 2019 and again in 2020 — before the COVID-19 pandemic cut everything short — but this bill is essentially the result of 3+ years of intense debate and discussion.
It is even more remarkable that Democrats were able to get this bill across the finish line when you consider how much outside money was spent trying to kill ANY attempt at reform. According to The Colorado Sun, more money was spent on trying to destroy this effort than on any other proposal in state history (it wasn’t money that was WELL spent, however).
This line from The Denver Post is a great summation of the health care legislation:
Despite the changes to the bill, which needs only final approval from the House, Democratic sponsor Sen. Kerry Donovan of Vail said she’ll be proud of it “for the rest of my life.”
People Who Purchase Prescription Drugs
The artist formerly known as The Colorado Option got most of the health care headlines, but a couple of prescription drug-related bills could be just as beneficial to many Coloradans. Senate Bill 175 creates a prescription drug affordability review board; you know it’s a good idea because big Pharma spent big bucks trying to kill it. Coloradans spent $6.7 BILLION on prescription drugs in 2019 alone, so the purpose of SB-175 is to set price limits on drugs deemed “unaffordable.”
Lawmakers also approved HB-1297, which enacts the “Pharmacy Fairness Act” to make it harder for so-called “Pharmacy Benefit Managers” (PBM) to restrict access to needed medication. Similar legislation (HB-1237) creates a competitive PBM marketplace and helps to create a process to review prescription cost claims from providers.
Last but not least, Colorado became one of the few states in the country to cap the cost of insulin.
Governor Jared Polis
Polis celebrated a number of huge victories in his first full legislative session in 2019. The COVID-19 outbreak halted any potential legislative momentum in 2020, and it would have been understandable if Polis had more trouble getting big things accomplished with a packed schedule and the ongoing threat of the virus. But Polis and his staff remained laser-focused on fulfilling many of his 2018 campaign promises.
Colorado Drivers and Commuters
Every year lawmakers kick off a new session by talking about how important it is to find some sort of agreement on repairing, maintaining, and improving Colorado’s transportation infrastructure. And every year, one argument or another gets in the way of finding some sort of resolution to fix our roads (and it’s usually a Republican obstacle).
But not this year.
Thanks to the efforts of lawmakers such as State Sen. Faith Winter, Democrats were able to swiftly pass an ambitious plan that was rolled out with one of the most impressive bipartisan lists of supporters that we’ve ever seen in Colorado (this apparently made no difference to House Republicans, all of whom voted NO on the final bill).
Here’s the best thing that House Minority Leader Hugh McKean can take away from the 2021 session: He didn’t actually end up being killed by a member of his own caucus. But Republicans did try to oust him as Minority Leader just hours after the end of the 2021 legislative session.
Check out this coverage from Alex Burness of The Denver Post for the full breakdown on Tuesday’s failed attempt to oust McKean:
Hugh McKean survives in a 15-8 vote. So that means for all this fuss McKean actually has 2/3 support of his caucus.
— Alex Burness (@alex_burness) June 9, 2021
McKean was elected House Minority Leader shortly after the November election. It’s safe to say that every day since Nov. 9, 2020 was worse for McKean than the day before.
In fairness to McKean, he took over a comically-dysfunctional caucus that former Minority Leader Patrick Neville had ground into dust over the course of three straight disastrous election cycles. It didn’t help McKean that he was constantly undermined by a bitter Neville (who likes this sort of thing) and a few lawmakers and interest groups that remained loyal to the former Minority Leader, but McKean still proved to be woefully unprepared for the job of caucus leader. He also offered a real-time test for the ethical question of whether it’s better to believe crazy things or just pretend to believe them for the sake of your political career.
McKean has served in the House since 2017, yet he didn’t seem to really understand how the legislative process works. We could point to his bizarre attempt to introduce legislation that would literally have been impossible for the state to implement, or his apparent inability to distinguish the difference between green and red buttons. McKean also couldn’t (or wouldn’t) stop Republicans from introducing idiotic proposals that did more harm than good for their respective cause (thanks for the anti-voucher talking point, geniuses).
Less-experienced Republicans, such as Rep. Mary Bradfield of Colorado Springs, were left out to dry after being tasked with sponsoring legislation that they didn’t understand on an even basic level. The only decent press that McKean received in the last couple of months came from this now unintentionally-hilarious profile from The Colorado Springs Gazette titled, “The Craftsman.”
McKean was so weak as a leader that he couldn’t even muster up the courage to say SOMETHING about racist remarks made by House Republicans on multiple occasions [more on that below]. McKean’s message was basically that racism is just a different viewpoint.
It’s little wonder that McKean spent much of the 2021 session hearing whispers about an internal coup, which might have been more of a threat if the rest of his caucus weren’t so equally inept. It’s tough to say whether McKean is more “winner” or “loser” after managing to keep his hold on a terrible job.
According to an estimate from The Washington Post, in 2021 alone there have been hundreds of bills introduced in 48 states by Republicans trying to restrict voting rights. Republican-controlled legislatures in states such as Georgia and Florida were able to pass new laws that even prohibit people from distributing water to voters standing in line at polling places. Republicans tried to do something similar in Colorado, but the effort led by Sen. Paul Lundeen met a swift death.
Ron Hanks, Richard Holtorf…and Republicans In General
If Colorado Republicans had a marketing slogan for the 2021 session, it would be this: Now With Extra Nuts!
You could use the word “loser” to describe Rep. Ron Hanks (R-Penrose) and Rep. Richard Holtorf (R-Akron) both literally and figuratively. That both men were essentially the face of Republicans in the legislature in 2021 tells you a lot about the current state of the GOP.
Overt racism? You bet!
Mansplaining history incorrectly? Got you covered!
Time after time after time, either Hanks or Holtorf (or both) would grab the microphone on the House floor and barf out some of the most vile statements we can remember in the last 20 years. For example:
♦ Hanks made national headlines for his completely inaccurate lecture about the history of slavery.
♦ Holtorf got into trouble for calling a colleague “Buckwheat” on the House floor, and then pretending that the slur was actually a compliment. This was around the same time that Holtorf was telling everyone that he had a friend in college who was both gay AND black, so therefore…
♦ Holtorf didn’t limit his offensive comments to racist remarks; he infamously told Rep. Tom Sullivan (D-Centennial), whose son was killed in the 2012 Aurora Theater Shooting, to just “get over it.”
Hanks and Holtorf weren’t alone in their buffoonery — we know you tried hard, Rep. Mark Baisley and Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg — but they were the most prominent Republicans in the 2021 legislative session. Which is not good.
That Hanks would turn out to be a gutter-mouthed fool surprised nobody who had heard his name before. Remember, this is the same guy who was RIGHT THERE in Washington D.C. during the January 6 insurrection.
Over the years, legislative Republicans have returned again and again to the only play in their playbook: Pointless Performative Obstruction.
And how did it go? Here’s a brief tidbit from the June 8 edition of “The Unaffiliated” newsletter from The Colorado Sun:
As the Colorado legislature prepared to adjourn as soon as Tuesday, what did House Republicans’ accomplish with their stall tactics?
“Very, very little,” said Rep. Patrick Neville, a Castle Rock Republican.
In previous years, GOP efforts to delay work in the legislature have led to negotiations, amendments and, in some rare cases, the death of Democratic policies. That did not happen often in 2021, a year in which Democrats passed major gun control legislation, a fee-raising transportation measure and a bill to require private health insurance carriers operating in Colorado to offer a state-regulated plan.
“It seems like when we’ve done it, there hasn’t been a sense of purpose behind it. There’s been no objective,” Neville, the former House minority leader, said of the delay tactics.
Later in this same story, State Rep. Colin Larson (R-Littleton) admits that his participation in GOP stall tactics primarily led to a loss of respect among Democratic colleagues.
Republicans also made sure to plant their obstruction efforts firmly in the historical record, the continuation of a “strategy” from 2020. Only 6 Republican Senators voted YES on approving the state budget; ZERO Republicans in the House supported the budget. Not one House Republican voted in support of the transportation bill. Most of the House Republicans even voted NO on a bill to set money aside for another rainy day. And we’re not even going to mention the time that Hugh McKean promised that opposing cheaper health care was the hill that Republicans were going to die on (SPOILER ALERT: They didn’t die, but neither did the bill).
It was almost as if Republicans were using the 2021 legislative session to PROVE their own irrelevance.
Conservative Republican Narrative in 2022
What, exactly, are Republican lawmakers planning to say to appeal to voters in 2022?
Look at all of these really popular and successful policies that we opposed!
Between this and the lame “war on rural Colorado” narrative that many Republicans are obsessed with, there’s going to be a lot of “white space” on GOP campaign mailers in 2022. Even when Republicans accidentally do the right thing and support smart legislation, they have trouble figuring out how to pat each other on the back.
— Jason Bane (@jason_bane) June 9, 2021
The path of new ideas runs in opposite directions when it comes to the political parties in Colorado. Republicans, again, ran cookie-cutter bills that had no chance of succeeding. Democrats pushed forward legislation that became models for other states.
As Colorado Public Radio reports in a story about the GOP’s extra-dysfunctional final day of session, don’t expect much of a change from Republicans in 2022. We’ll leave you with this remarkably tone-deaf statement from Rep. Matt Soper (R-Delta):
“I think the people of Colorado want a year where not much is done.”