The end of every legislative session in Colorado is accompanied by a familiar narrative no matter which political party is in charge at the State Capitol: Did lawmakers do enough in their 120-day session?
This year is no different. As The Colorado Sun reported in its “Unaffiliated” newsletter on Friday:
As the 2023 legislative session in Colorado winds down, Democratic leadership at the Capitol is pushing back against the notion that this year’s lawmaking term was just a continuation of the status quo or that it should be viewed as a disappointment for progressives.
Democrats have a supermajority in the House and a near supermajority in the Senate. The party is enjoying more sustained power in Colorado than ever before.
Still, some headline-grabbing bills pushed by progressives failed in the legislature this year, including ones that would have banned the sale of so-called assault weapons, lifted the prohibition on local governments enacting rent control measures, and let cities authorize centers where people could openly use illicit drugs under the supervision of health care workers or others trained in reversing overdoses.
House Speaker Julie McCluskie countered the “status quo” argument by pointing out the importance of legislation that didn’t make headlines – such as bills on affordable housing and education policy – that nevertheless represent significant changes for Colorado. Senate President Steve Fenberg noted legislative victories on gun violence prevention:
Fenberg said the four gun measures Democrats passed, and a fifth banning so-called ghost guns, are “bright spots” in the work the legislature accomplished this year. “Those are policies that I think Democrats and progressives have been wanting to get across the finish line for a very long time, if not decades,” he said.
McCluskie argued that those bills alone — which mark perhaps the biggest shift in Colorado’s gun regulations in state history — contradict arguments that it was a do-nothing session.
After the November 2022 election, there was debate about what the Democratic rout meant. The same was true at the beginning of session when large Democratic majorities from districts of all stripes rushed to define the agenda, including policies that did not feature prominently statewide during the campaign. So it was inevitable that some Democrats didn’t move everything that other Democrats might have wanted to get across the finish line. But Democrats can also celebrate some YUGE wins this session that are particularly impressive when you consider the context of recent Colorado political history [more on that in a moment].
Democrats also aren’t done yet. As The Sun points out, Democrats will almost certainly remain in the majority in the legislature through at least 2026; even if Republicans can retake a significant number of seats from Democrats, the GOP will likely need multiple election cycles to crawl out of their micro-minority status. For Democrats, the luxury of time is an under-discussed but equally-important windfall from the landslide 2022 election.
CONTEXT IS KEY
The “status quo” narrative is indeed a time-honored tradition of sorts. Consider this story from The Denver Post:
Democrats are getting decidedly mixed reviews from political observers.
On one hand, observers say, they have made only modest progress on some of their key issues such as higher-education funding and health care, and have had even less success on transportation.
On the other, the party is hamstrung by the same limitations that Republicans faced when they controlled the state: TABOR and other constitutional spending mandates and restrictions.
“I see little difference in Colorado run by Democrats compared to Colorado run by Republicans,” said Colorado College political scientist Bob Loevy. “They were no more enabled than Republicans to do anything major to solve problems.”
If you didn’t click on the link above, you might have missed that this story was published in May 2008. At the time, Democrats were concluding their second legislative session in 40 years in which they controlled both legislative chambers and the Governor’s office; Democrats held a 40-25 advantage in the House and a 20-15 majority in the Senate.
Today, Democrats boast a mind-boggling 46-19 advantage in the House and a 23-12 majority in the Senate. This allows Democrats to move the kind of legislative priorities that once were multi-year slogs.
Democrats can point to numerous policy changes that floundered for years without the same advantages that the majority party holds today:
♦ Payday Lending
Preventing predatory lenders from charging low-income Coloradans exorbitant interest rates for small loans seems like a pretty simple change today. Payday lending regulations seemed to be moving ahead in 2008, but hurdles remained in place for years. Legislation eventually passed after multiple failed attempts and years-long pushback efforts. Significant payday lending reform wasn’t completed for another decade, and it took a statewide ballot initiative to get things over the hump.
♦ Oil and Gas Regulations
Democrats fought for years to increase regulations on the oil and gas industry in Colorado, finally succeeding in 2019 with Senate Bill 181. “Big Oil” hasn’t stopped whining about SB-181, though actual facts about record profits have diminished the effectiveness of their complaints. Democrats fought for these common sense regulations – and against massive spending from “Big Oil” – for more than a decade before getting SB-181 across the finish line.
No issue illustrates the changes in Colorado’s political leanings more than that of gun violence prevention. What Democrats accomplished in 2023 would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. As The Washington Post explains:
As the state has grown more blue, gun control has become a voter priority, Democrats say. Candidates more openly campaigned on the issue in 2022, and Democrats flipped eight seats, giving them a near-supermajority.
“There’s been this long 2013 hangover,” Rep. Meg Froelich (D) said. “A decade has passed, and we’re a different state, and we’re a different country.”
GUN VIOLENCE PREVENTION VICTORIES
“This session we will prioritize preventing gun violence. Among other bills we’ll consider, Senator Sullivan will introduce a bill to expand and improve Colorado’s extreme risk protection orders. So if local law enforcement can’t – or won’t – be the ones to bring the issue to a judge, others like district attorneys and counselors can and will…
…We must do more as a society to protect innocent lives.”
— Senate President Steve Fenberg, from his opening day remarks
In recent years Colorado Republicans have made fools of themselves by attempting recall efforts of various Democrats that resulted in widespread mockery – none more absurd than the 2019 attempt to oust then-Senate President Leroy Garcia that resulted in all of FOUR petition signatures being submitted to the Colorado Secretary of State’s office.
In 2013, things were very different. Republicans were apoplectic about the passage of a handful of gun violence prevention measures – making ridiculous predictions that nobody in Colorado would even remember what a gun looked like within a matter of years. Those exaggerations nevertheless helped fuel a recall effort that resulted in the ouster of several Democratic lawmakers.
As we wrote in recapping the recalls:
The campaign to pass gun safety legislation in 2013 turned into the biggest political battle in the Colorado legislature in recent history. Democrats were besieged by pro-gun activists and agitated gun owning members of the public. Crowds of people turned out to testify against the bills, overwhelming hearings, while others drove around the state capitol continuously sounding their horns. Gun owners were in many cases duped by falsehoods about the proposed legislation, being explicitly told by GOP legislators and gun-rights activists that the bills would “ban gun ownership in Colorado.” Other alarmist falsehoods, like claims that legislation to limit magazine capacity would “ban all magazines,” were pushed by gun activists and uncritically reported by a thoughtless local media…
…After some internal debate among Republicans and the gun lobby, in which party leaders like Chairman Ryan Call refused to get involved, recall petition campaigns began against four Colorado Democratic lawmakers. Two of these petition drives sputtered early. The remaining two recall campaigns against Senate President John Morse and Sen. Angela Giron were successful for different reasons: against Morse, after a large paid signature gathering campaign using professional petitioners. In Giron’s case, pre-existing poor relations between Giron, her staff, and her constituents gave local organizers an opening to get her recall on the ballot in a much more legitimately “grassroots” manner.
State Sen. Evie Hudak was also a casualty of this effort, though she resigned her seat – allowing Democrats to appoint a successor – before that recall campaign could conclude.
You would have been hard-pressed to even contemplate what Democrats pulled off ten years later. Yes, an assault weapons ban didn’t make it through the legislature in 2023, for some of the same reasons it didn’t the last time it was up for debate in 2019, but consider what Democrats did shepherd through both chambers:
♦ Raising the age for gun purchases from 18 to 21;
♦ Creating a three-day waiting period for firearm purchases;
♦ Expanding Colorado’s “red flag” laws to allow medical professionals, educators, and prosecutors to request the temporary removal of a firearm from an at-risk individual;
♦ Removing liability protections for gun manufacturers in lawsuits.
Lawmakers will also likely pass regulations on “ghost guns,” which can be built at home and without a serial number; prosecutors have been clamoring for this change for years. It’s true that public opinion has shifted on gun safety measures, but much like these legislative efforts, it didn’t happen overnight.
There is perhaps no other issue that provides more context about how much things have changed in the state legislature. Any one of these five gun violence prevention measures would have struggled to make it through both chambers of the legislature just a few years ago.
It’s the nature of partisan politics – and anything else, really – for people to want MORE to happen NOW. But it’s important to remember that Democrats achieved significant progress this session on the mandate given to them by Colorado voters, and they’ll be back to build on that success in January.