PNC Winners and Losers of the 2021 Colorado legislative session

THE WINNERS

People who want to save money on health care

In 2021, Colorado lawmakers made progress on two key fronts in the fight to make health care more affordable. The first is legislation spearheaded by mountain lawmakers Sen. Kerry Donovan and Rep. Dylan Roberts designed to reduce the cost of insurance premiums on the individual and small group market by 15% within three years. The second is reducing the cost of medication Coloradans depend on: creating a prescription drug affordability board, putting ceilings on the rate of increase of medication costs, and capping the price of insulin for patients with diabetes.


Rep. Tom Sullivan

Rep. Tom Sullivan by any objective measure is one of the unsung heroes of the Colorado General Assembly. After his son Alex was killed in the 2012 mass shooting at an Aurora movie theater, Sullivan devoted himself to reducing gun violence across America in Alex’s memory. This year, Rep. Sullivan helped shepherd six new important gun safety bills into law, several introduced in direct response to another mass shooting in Boulder this March. Rep. Sullivan continues to set the standard for honesty and common decency in the Colorado General Assembly.


Sen. Faith Winter

Sen. Faith Winter is one of the most capable and hardest-working leaders in the Colorado Senate, but like many of the best public servants she doesn’t take as much credit for her accomplishments as she deserves. In 2021, Sen. Winter worked tirelessly to find a solution on legislation to meet Colorado’s aggressive climate change reduction goals. The result was a compromise that begins that process and that Gov. Jared Polis was willing to sign, instead of giving up on crucial environmental justice objectives.


Rep. Garnett and Sen. Garcia

Speaker of the House Alec Garnett and Senate President Leroy Garcia have different management styles and different challenges as leaders of the two respective chambers of the Colorado General Assembly. But in marked contrast to previous sessions in which Republican obstruction of the majority agenda became a massive problem in both chambers, in 2021 leadership kept control through better relations with the minority leadership and a mastery of the rules of debate. Speaker Garnett’s leadership was essential in forging sensible compromise on hot-button issues like marijuana regulation while pushing through the major goals of the session. Senate President Garcia kept his smaller Senate majority together through the difficult votes in the most productive session of the legislature in many years.


Public education

After too many years of short-changing Colorado’s public schools to count, in 2021 an improving economy allowed lawmakers to finally make some badly-needed investments and backfill historic budget cuts. Lawmakers increased K-12 education funding by $480 million and higher education funding by $494 million, while renewing Gov. Polis’ commitment to full-day kindergarten and preschool for all students.


Farmworkers

Historic new legislation to give farmworkers in Colorado basic rights (that most people thought every worker already enjoys) is on its way to Gov. Polis. Did you know that farmworkers are regularly not paid Colorado’s minimum wage, overtime pay, or even allowed to take breaks for meals and rest on the job? Senate Bill 87 sponsored by Sens. Jessie Danielson and Dominick Moreno solves all of these problems and more. It’s the least we can do, especially after the pandemic, for the labor force that provides the food we all depend on.


Homeowners

Home values in Colorado are skyrocketing. Ordinarily this would mean a massive increase in property taxes, which in a lot of cases homeowners can’t afford. At the same time, property tax revenue is critically important for local schools. This year, Colorado lawmakers took action to reduce Coloradans’ property tax bills by $200 million to take the pressure off homeowners while heading off more radical and harmful measures that right-wing groups are proposing at the ballot.


Gov. Polis

Some governors are hands-off in dealing with the legislature, but that’s never been Gov. Jared Polis’ style. Ever since taking office in 2019, Gov. Polis has worked closely with lawmakers to ensure his priorities are reflected in the final product. The result over three years has been landmark achievements in early preschool and full-day kindergarten, environmental protections, and transportation funding. This session, the governor’s active role encouraged Democrats to keep fighting for the Colorado Option health plan. And despite tense negotiations with lawmakers to address climate change, the final compromise added to one of the most productive legislative sessions in Colorado history.


Everyone who goes places

In Colorado, infrastructure week is a thing, and not a joke. The Colorado legislature broke through a logjam of obstruction and funded billions of dollars worth of long-delayed repairs and improvements to Colorado’s roads, bridges, and other transportation infrastructure. This isn’t as easy a task as it sounds, since Colorado’s budget for transportation spending is complicated and heavily restricted by laws on the books that sometimes outright contradict each other. Coloradans don’t want to hear excuses about laws from 30 years ago, they just want the roads fixed, and now they finally will be.


Just Transition Already

In 2019 Colorado established the Office of Just Transition, which has a mission to help energy-producing regions of the state with job training and grants to mitigate the economic impact of the transition away from fossil fuels. At the time, conservatives howled about the “Orwellian” mission of this office, and GOP Sen. Bob Rankin said it was “insulting” that progressives would want to set up a “committee to feel their pain.” What a difference two years makes: in 2021, Sen. Rankin co-sponsored the bill to fund the Office of Just Transition with millions of dollars to help coal workers as intended. “This transition thing’s real,” says Rep. Perry Will, who in 2019 opposed even creating the office.


THE LOSERS

House Minority Leader Hugh McKean

After two devastating elections that reduced the Colorado House GOP caucus to its smallest minority since the 1950s, House Republicans turned against their former Minority Leader Patrick Neville and elected Hugh McKean to lead them. How did it go? Moments after the session ended Tuesday, Republicans led by freshman Rep. Ron Hanks, tried unsuccessfully to remove McKean from his position (a few weeks ago Hanks also threatened McKean with violence). A bumbled vote on a gun safety bill earned McKean the wrath of Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, and Neville continued to criticize McKean’s every move from the sidelines. For Republicans hoping to chart a path back from their self-imposed exile status in Colorado, 2021 was a bad year.


Reps. Hanks and Holtorf

Two Colorado freshman Republican lawmakers, Reps. Richard Holtorf and Ron Hanks, made themselves the faces of the Colorado House Republican caucus with absolutely outrageous displays of racism, insensitivity, and bone-headedness. Rep. Hanks bizarrely claimed the Three-Fifths Compromise “does not impugn anyone’s humanity” right after a tasteless joke about lynching. Holtorf made national headlines for using a racist slur against a colleague in a House floor speech, and defended himself against criticism for his racially charged rhetoric by saying he “in college had a friend who was an African American and he was a homosexual, and we were good buddies.” Colorado Republicans were hoping to turn over a new leaf in the 2020 elections, instead these two freshman lawmakers helped set them back decades once again.


Rocky Mountain Gun Owners

Rocky Mountain Gun Owners, the fringe gun rights organization based in Colorado who thinks the NRA is “too soft,” has a reputation for attacking fellow Republicans for any real or imagined deviations from their hardline gun orthodoxy. After House Minority Leader Hugh McKean mistakenly voted yes on a bill to tighten background checks on gun purchases, RMGO deceptively attacked McKean in communication with their membership and failed to note this vote was a mistake. At length, Colorado Republican Party chairwoman Kristi Burton Brown was forced to publicly defend McKean, despite having collaborated with these same radicals during the 2019 recalls, leaving rank-and-file Republicans even more confused and demoralized. Once again, RMGO is proving there will be no GOP comeback while they are calling the shots.


Rep. Stephanie Luck (this time)

Rep. Stephanie Luck, a far-right anti-abortion ideologue who defeated a Democratic incumbent in a swing Pueblo-area district last year, introduced a shocking (and very possibly unconstitutional) abortion registry bill to force providers to disclose personal information about their patients in a public report with no medical value. The personal information collected and publicly disclosed could be used to target providers and patients. The bill was defeated, but Rep. Luck, an attorney associated with the radical anti-LGBT and women’s rights group Alliance Defending Freedom, gave Colorado a preview of what’s coming in the event that the U.S. Supreme Court acts to roll back abortion rights. Abortion rights in Colorado are only one election away from jeopardy.


Rep. Matt Soper

Rep. Matt Soper of Delta, once heralded as a new generation of Republican leader on the Western Slope, suffered a social media meltdown after a slate of GOP-backed candidates lost their races in the Grand Junction City Council election in April. Soper suggested that Dominion Voting Systems machines may have been used to rig the election and called for “a scan of every ballot and do a manual recount.” After reporters called Rep. Soper to ask if he was serious, Soper deleted his comments–but the damage to his reputation was done. After all, those same machines were used in Soper’s own election last November.


Styrofoam

For years it’s been an inevitable question: when will Styrofoam, the convenient but planet-killing single-use packaging, finally go the way of the horse and buggy? Today, thanks to Colorado House Bill 1162, we have the answer: 2024, the same year new restrictions on single-use plastic bags and utensils take effect, too. With so many eco-friendly alternatives available, it’s past time to get on track to eliminate this major source of landfill waste.


Vote suppressionists

Across America, Republicans are pushing the “Big Lie” that the 2020 elections were somehow not legitimate–despite every legitimate investigation and legal challenge finding no evidence of election fraud on a scale that could change the outcome. Having lost the post-election challenges, and after a failed violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on January 6th, Republicans have turned to outright vote suppression legislation, in most cases totally unrelated even to the fictional claims of election fraud promoted by ex-President Donald Trump. In Colorado, a model for accessible and secure voting, all of these vote suppression attempts failed–and the state reaped a huge reward for our fair election laws when the Major League Baseball All-Star Game relocated here from Georgia after that state’s passage of a vote suppression law.


Sen. Kevin Priola, sadly

What can we say about Republican Sen. Kevin Priola of Adams County? On certain issues like clean energy and raising revenue for education and infrastructure, Sen. Priola has been an ally of the Democratic majority and deserves credit for crossing the aisle occasionally. Priola even called for ex-President Donald Trump to be removed from office. Unfortunately for Priola, much like Rep. Liz Cheney at the federal level he’s made himself a pariah among Colorado Republicans who control his fate should he ever decide to run for higher office. Priola does the right thing more often than many of his far right peers, but in the end he’s another sad example of the inability of Colorado Republicans to adapt to a changing political climate that threatens to relegate the GOP in this state to permanent minority status. Like Ronald Reagan himself, it’s doubtful Priola could win a Republican primary in 2021.


Disadvantaged Coloradans in minor legal trouble

The 2021 session included a number of important criminal justice reforms that built on the passage in 2020 of the landmark Senate Bill 217 to reform police accountability laws in Colorado and do away with “qualified immunity” for police officers who violate the rights of the public while on duty. Unfortunately, an important bill to reduce jail populations by limiting arrests and eliminating cash bail for certain low-level offenses was defeated in a House committee in the final hours of the legislative session after already passing the Senate. In a session full of promises kept, this unexpected defeat is a disappointment that hopefully can be resolved in the 2022 legislative session.


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