DENVER – A last-minute deal to address the unfunded assets of the Colorado state pension system was the cherry on top of the most productive legislative session in recent memory, state lawmakers and Gov. John Hickenlooper said Thursday as they looked back at the 2018 session.
“Last year was the most successful legislative session in my two terms as governor. I’m happy to amend that statement,” Hickenlooper said at his post-session news conference. “I think the success of this session dwarfs what we did even last year.”
The deals and comments came after a session that brought out deep partisan divides when lawmakers were forced to confront sexual harassment allegations against several members and expulsion votes, and as they had to navigate issues affecting residents statewide that had no easy fix when considering the rural-urban divide and a legislature whose chambers are controlled by different parties.
But last-minute compromises that aim to fix PERA’s troubled assets and start addressing the massive highway project backlog had Hickenlooper and leadership from both chambers singing a bipartisan song Thursday, hours after the down-to-the-wire session ended.
“The critical thing they wanted most, they had to compromise on,” Hickenlooper said of the lawmakers who worked until the literal 11th hour Wednesday to pass the PERA modification measure, Senate Bill 200. “That actually takes a lot more out of you, takes a lot more heart.”
He’d said in his January State of the State speech that he wasn’t going to be a “lame duck” in the final session of his time as governor (he is term-limited this year), and told lawmakers they “need not wage war between the ‘blue team’ and the ‘red team.’”
And on Thursday, Hickenlooper said he saw “compromise after compromise” from lawmakers as he described the session not as a “lame duck” session, but rather one in which the duck is seen gliding smoothly across the surface of a pond while its feet toil furiously beneath the water.
He laid out a list of measures that he was happy lawmakers had passed, which included the PERA measure, rural broadband bills, transportation, the renewal of the civil rights commission and division, bills and a budget that gives more money to education, a redistricting measure and several bills that deal with addressing opioid addiction prevention and treatment.
“It really was a remarkable session,” Hickenlooper said.
He thanked leadership from both chambers for their work that led to the bipartisan passing of several of the biggest measures, which all involved had said at the start of the session needed to be addressed.
“Again and again, when others might have walked away and thrown up their hands…again and again, Senator Grantham and Speaker Duran rose to the occasion,” Hickenlooper said in reference to the Senate President and House Speaker.
But he also extended thanks to the deputy leaders and minority leaders as well.
“Majority Leader Holbert and Minority Leader Garcia were steadfast in sticking to the vision that you could work out some of these issues in the same way Majority Leader Becker and Minority Leader Neville in the House maintained that resolve,” Hickenlooper said.
Those sentiments were shared by leaders in both chambers. House Speaker Crisanta Duran praised some of the major bills’ sponsors for coming to compromises in order to pass legislation, reserving only one dig at Republicans, which was saved for the lawmakers who introduced a failed bill that would have allowed striking teachers to be jailed.
Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert said lawmakers introduced 721 bills this session and that 60 percent of those passed both chambers, noting that was similar to the percentage last year and an increase from 2016.
“We know how to work together,” he said, noting that for most of the past several years, lawmakers have been forced to work in a split legislature.
He heaped praise on Republican Sens. Jack Tate and Kevin Priola, as well as House Majority Leader KC Becker and Dan Pabon, two Democrats, for their work on Senate Bill 200.
He said both Democrats had “great minds” and said, “I don’t know how they got it done, but they got it done.”
He also thanked OLLS and Gov. Hickenlooper’s staffers for their work on the deal, but reserved perhaps the greatest praise for the governor himself.
“[Hickenlooper] took a leadership role, and I give him a tremendous amount of credit. Because if he hadn’t had those conversations, I’m not sure that bill would have passed. ... We got something done. Everyone deserves credit and I’m grateful for that.”
Senate President Kevin Grantham was also pleased with how the session went, he said in an end of session presser – his last in the legislature because of term limits.
“Some of these things weren’t exactly all the wins we were looking for, but wins nonetheless…getting them accomplished is enough to make us smile today,” he said. “When we look back at the last 120 days, it feels good to get things done.”
He praised his Senate Republican colleagues for “driving the train” through the session – passing bills that were among the first introduced and their top priorities.
And when asked to look back on his lawmaking career, he said this session stood out.
“I don’t think I have to look much farther beyond this year as far as achievements,” he said, saying that passing the transportation measure, Senate Bill 1, was a “huge deal.” That bill was one of several that Senate Democrats joined their Republican counterparts to pass unanimously this session.
“It should be noted we were able to work together pretty well with our colleagues on the other side of the aisle in the Senate,” Grantham said. “35-0 – when was the last time that happened?”
Hickenlooper said he hasn’t had time to review several of the important bills passed in the flurry of the final days of the session, and said it was “unlikely” he would call a special session to reconsider any bills after taking the temperature of the caucuses. He was also noncommittal to vetoing any certain bills.
And despite the wins in the session, Hickenlooper said that there was still much work to do on the issues facing the state in the future.
He said he was “disappointed” in the amount of money in the Senate Bill 1 deal despite being “gratified” the compromise was reached, and hinted at supporting a prospective statewide sales tax hike that could be on the November ballot to fund transportation projects.
The outgoing governor thanked his top staffers for “trying to keep the state’s momentum going forward” by working with lawmakers to pass the biggest bills of the session, noting that “sometimes in the heat of a two-party legislative session, feelings can get bruised and emotions can run high” and that they were always asking: “What does the greatest good for the greatest number of people?”
And Hickenlooper said he expected to be in a philosophical mood now that his final session is over.
“I was thinking about that last night – where could I have put my time more successfully? I haven’t found that yet. I think I probably will. I’m a great believer that you should always go over everything you do and learn where you could have been more constructive,” he said.
“I’m sure there are things we fell down on, and I’m sure we’ll add to that over time.”