Colorado lawmakers avoid standoff, end legislative session
May 12, 2011
DENVER (AP) – Colorado lawmakers faced a partisan stare-down on the Legislature’s final day Wednesday, each party holding firm on a key bill that could have forced a special session.
In the end, Republicans blinked.
The dispute threatened to force lawmakers to return to work over a routine regulatory bill that turned divisive when Republicans added an amendment helping payday lenders Tuesday. Republicans gambled that Democrats would agree to avoid what Senate Republican Leader Mike Kopp called “an unnecessary game of chicken.”
But Democrats held firm, leaving the GOP with the choice of triggering a likely special session to hang on to their amendment.
As the sun set Wednesday, Republican leaders folded rather than require a pricey – and partisan – special session.
“We will live up to our obligation and our privilege of governing in the state of Colorado,” Republican House Speaker Frank McNulty said.
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The session’s end underscored a rocky legislative term. Democrats ruled the Senate and Republicans controlled the House – the state’s first divided Legislature in a decade.
The two parties managed to work together to cut state spending to balance an $18 billion budget in the face of declining tax receipts. Lawmakers also agreed to set up a health insurance exchange – a marketplace for individuals and small business required under the new federal health care law.
Other big priorities fell victim to the partisan divide.
One big loss was redistricting as lawmakers tried and failed to agree on new congressional lines.
The Legislature is required to redraw congressional districts after every census, but Colorado lawmakers haven’t been able to settle the matter without a lawsuit in at least three decades.
Redistricting is a bitterly partisan undertaking because both parties try to maximize their chances at the polls. This year’s attempt appeared headed to court as both parties sued challenging the district lines.
Legislators tried mightily to avoid lawsuits over redistricting, setting up a bipartisan panel that toured the state earlier this year asking voters about the matter. But those redistricting talks broke down as soon as lawmakers set about drawing new lines, and days of intense negotiations and late-night debates didn’t work.
Leaders in both parties said that working together this year proved harder than they thought.
“It’s been extremely frustrating, if on some days not impossible,” concluded House Republican Leader Amy Stephens.
Much of the session was spent in tit-for-tat votes against proposals pushed by the opposing party.
One of those areas was immigration.
Republicans pushed get-tough enforcement bills, while Democrats attempted for the fifth time in about 10 years to grant lower cost in-state tuition to illegal immigrants who graduate from Colorado schools.
Republicans launched two attempts to copy Arizona’s divisive immigration law, but both proposals failed early on. GOP lawmakers also proposed a number of bills requiring citizenship checks to vote.
All the immigration-related bills failed. The parties had some success passing their legislation in their friendly chamber, but neither managed to get their biggest ideas to the governor’s desk because of partisan gridlock.
One of the most emotional issues was a proposal to let same-sex couples have civil unions, a legal contract that would have granted them many of the same rights as married couples.
The bill sponsored by two gay lawmakers easily passed the Democratic-controlled Senate and stalled in a Republican-led House committee. But some of the Republicans who cast the key votes to defeat the measure visibly hesitated before saying no to the bill.
“I was really saddened and disappointed that the Republicans in the House decided they wanted to pander to the far right of their party instead of listening to the vast majority of Coloradoans,” said Rep. Mark Ferrandino, one of the Democrats who sponsored the civil unions bill. He said he would introduce the bill again next year.
Lawmakers also tackled Colorado’s marijuana regulations, with mixed results. They rejected a proposal that would have set the nation’s most liberal standard under the law for what constitutes too high to drive. The bill would have let prosecutors charge drivers with a DUI if they had 5 nanograms of THC per milliliter of blood while behind the wheel. THC is the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.
The two other states that have such a law in their books – Nevada and Ohio – have a limit of 2 nanograms of THC per milliliter for driving. Twelve other states have zero-tolerance laws.
Aside from the budget and health insurance exchange, the measures lawmakers agreed to were relatively minor. The Legislature passed a bill requiring 30 minutes a day of physical activity in elementary school and a measure requiring more youth sports coaches to take training on identifying concussions. Both those measures have already been signed into law.
A bill to ban chemicals used in synthetic marijuana known as “Spice” or “K2” won easy adoption in both chambers, too, and awaits the governor’s signature.
Associated Press Writer Steven K. Paulson contributed to this report.