DENVER – Colorado lawmakers kicked off the 2018 legislative session Wednesday saying they were ready to work, hoping to tackle an array of transportation, education and budgetary issues while also reforming the workplace environment at the state Capitol.
Harassment issue takes center stage
A small group of black-clad protesters greeted legislators Wednesday morning ahead of the session to put pressure on a handful of state lawmakers accused over the past few months of sexual harassment or advances, and a silent protest carried into the onset of the session that involved protesters, aides, lawmakers and lobbyists.
Once the House gaveled in, Speaker Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, talked about the strong bipartisan efforts of last year’s session, then said: “Today, we start this session with a different set of obstacles.”
She noted the series of sexual harassment allegations that came in past months, including those made by Rep. Faith Winter against Rep. Steve Lebsock.
“We must confront these issues head on and successfully reform the culture of the Capitol. There is no place for harassment, hate speech or discrimination in this chamber,” Duran said.
She called for the Colorado Civil Rights Division to be reauthorized, saying, “The hurdles of harassment and discrimination faced by women, people of color and people with disabilities should have been leveled a long time ago, but it is crystal clear that these challenges persist today.”
Duran became emotional as she talked about empowering women in the workplace and in society.
“There should be no double standard requiring women and people form underrepresented communities to feel that they have to work twice as hard and be twice as smart to make partner at their law firm, climb the corporate ladder or succeed in public service,” she said. “It is not lost on me that there are women in restaurants and hotels, immigrants in meatpacking plants and workers in factories who feel they must endure inappropriate behavior just to survive and feed their families.”
In interviews at the Capitol, the three women who accused Lebsock of harassment or assault – Winter, Cassie Tanner, and Holly Tarry – all continued to speak out against him. Lebsock circulated a 28-page memo at the Capitol Tuesday in which he continued to deny the allegations, which a legislative panel continues to investigate.
“No, I didn’t do anything wrong. And in fact, Faith Winter should resign because she accused a fellow legislator of sexual assault,” Lebsock told Denver7 at the Capitol Wednesday. “It’s devastating…I support real victims of sexual assault and we need to be there for those victims, but when there are false accusers out there, we need to call them out.”
But Winter, Tarry and Tanner were staunch in standing behind their accusations, and continued to call for his resignation.
“He’s refusing to take accountability and continuing to remain in office despite overwhelming evidence from many people,” Tarry said.
“He’s victim blaming, and that’s what bullies do,” Winter said. “[Wearing] black isn’t just about Representative Lebsock, it’s about being a woman in this world.”
“There are 11 of us on record, and this isn’t a Faith versus Steve story,” Tanner said. “This is about acceptable behavior and standing up to bullies, and I’m honored to have these two women standing next to me today.”
Later Wednesday, Lebsock tweeted that he wouldn’t be caucusing with his own party during this year’s session, and said, referring to the moments when Duran addressed the situation in her speech: “Thank you to several Republican House members coming up to me and giving me hugs.”
Both parties have taken up a review of the workplace harassment policies at the Capitol in an effort to make reforms.
GOP, Dems lay out agendas, call for bipartisanship
Aside from the ongoing tensions, Democrats in the House and Republicans in the Senate – the majority parties in each chamber – laid out their legislative agendas for the year and unveiled their first handful of bills.
Both parties focused on the general bipartisanship of last year’s session, and said that Colorado should continue to work together despite national politics taking a sour turn over the past year.
Senate Republicans laid out their top priorities as being road construction and maintenance; the state pension program; rural broadband; an overarching energy policy and an income tax reduction to cut the state budget.
“Today, let us commit ourselves to trying our best. That’s all we can do. Let us respect one another, not by the R or D next to our names, but by the fact that we’re all Coloradans, we’re all Americans, and we’re all humans,” Senate President Kevin Grantham said in his opening floor speech.
Minority Senate Democrats also said they were looking at fixes to PERA and the opioid crisis, and Minority Leader Sen. Lucia Guzman said she was hoping for bipartisanship.
Duran said House Democrats would focus their efforts on transportation funding; PERA; low funding for K-12 and higher education; housing costs and wage growth.
Both parties in each chamber have also put together a package of bills addressing the opioid crisis in Colorado that aims to improve treatment and prevention.
Duran herself told the story of losing her cousin in November to opioid and alcohol abuse.
“Families across Colorado, including in this chamber, have heartbreaking stories of friends and relatives who have suffered from addiction…It is our responsibility to come together to tackle this issue.”
Minority House Republicans said they also wanted new road funding, but don’t want to raise taxes, and are looking to cut Medicaid spending and government red tape.
While both parties are focusing on some overlapping issues, some of which also include the governor’s priorities for his last term, there will be work that will have to be done to overcome spats that stemmed from a bill-writing error at the end of last year’s session which carried over into a fruitless special session last fall. But leadership from both parties was adamant they were willing to work together.
“Let’s continue that tradition of being different,” Grantham said. “Let’s work together to solve the issues that matter most to Coloradans, and let’s cement a legacy together that will carry into future General Assemblies for generations to come.”
“We must be a barrier to the forces of division. We have always had our disagreements, and sometimes we cannot reconcile them. But most of the time we find our way to that most essential of Colorado values – setting aside our differences to make real progress,” Duran said. “There’s still more that binds us together than will every divide us. That’s what we did last year, and I know it’s what we’ll do again this year.”
Denver7's Meghan Lopez contributed to this report.