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DENVER – When Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper gave his final State of the State speech in January to kick off the 2018 legislative session, he said it was time for state lawmakers to show the rest of the country that “politics need not be a blood sport” and called for bipartisanship to solve a host of mounting issues facing Colorado.
He said that lawmakers “need not wage war between the ‘blue team’ and the ‘red team’” during the 2018 session after a 2017 session that he called “the most impactful, bipartisan legislative session since the Great Recession.”
As lawmakers prepare to head back to their districts following the end of the session Wednesday, they can hang their hats on compromises that led to them tackling some of the biggest tasks for which they initially set out, but deep partisan divides still roiled much of the 120-day session.
These are seven of the most important moments from Colorado’s 2018 legislative session:
Hickenlooper’s final State of the State
Gov. Hickenlooper tried to set the tone for what will be his final session with the General Assembly during his January State of the State speech (Hickenlooper is term-limited in 2018). He told lawmakers there was “an eternity for compromise” and urged them to work together to pass measures addressing “fiercely urgent” issues facing Colorado, like road infrastructure, the CDOT backlog, rural broadband, the state pension program, and education funding. He also said he wanted to spend his final year in office listening to all sides. “I think the best way to persuade anyone about anything is to listen to them, and really try to hear what their concerns are, what has really gotten them to the place they are,” he said at the time.
Sexual harassment scandals plague General Assembly
At least five Colorado lawmakers were accused of harassment – some sexual in nature – before and during this year’s session, and the controversy had a lasting effect on the General Assembly throughout the session. Rep. Steve Lebsock, a Thornton Democrat, became the first Colorado lawmaker to be expelled from the body since 1915 after his own party pushed his ouster following credible sexual harassment complaints. He switched to the Republican party after his expulsion.
But the fury over the allegations, some of which outside investigators found were credible, didn’t stop with Lebsock’s ouster, as Senate Democrats pushed for Sen. Randy Baumgardner, R-Hot Sulphur Springs, to be expelled after several investigations found numerous sexual harassment allegations against him were credible. But the expulsion measure ultimately failed. He was stripped of his committee assignments and chairmanships by Republican leadership, but Senate Dems said that wasn’t enough.
An outside report into the workplace environment in the Capitol found many changes were needed, but lawmakers tabled adopting the report and changes to the summer.
Rural broadband gets a boost
Among the first bills introduced this session was Senate Bill 2, which relocates phone service money to be spent on new rural broadband investment for areas of Colorado that lack high-speed internet services. The measures had support from both parties and from some farmers and medical workers who said that having broadband access in rural parts of the state would be life-changing for their industries. Paired with the signing of Senate Bill 104, which allows the state more leeway in obtaining federal funding for infrastructure deployment, the measures are expected to begin to address the dire need for broadband services in rural Colorado.
From the beginning of the session, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and the governor aimed to figure out a way to pay down the $9 billion CDOT project backlog and help fund road and transit improvements in local municipalities. Senate Bill 1 was the first bill introduced during the session, and ended up being one of the last ones to pass.
The Senate passed its first version of the measure unanimously in March, but it stalled in the House over differences of opinion over whether to send bonding questions to voters.
After a month-long impasse, House Speaker Crisanta Duran, D-Denver, and Senate President Kevin Grantham, R-Canon City, reached a deal on the measure Monday, and the bill passed both chambers to the governor’s desk on Tuesday. In another display of the partisan divide, all House Republicans voted against the measure, while all Senate Republicans voted for it.
Lawmakers allocated $645 million in general fund money to transportation projects over the next two years, and more is pledged over an 18-year period that would follow. Voters will also be asked in 2019 to approve $2.3 billion in bonds for transportation projects if several proposed ballot initiatives to fix Colorado roads fail this year.
K-12 education takes center stage
Lawmakers began the session saying that upping K-12 education funding would be a priority, but the wave of pressure from Colorado educators and the state teachers’ union put the issue at center stage for weeks. The $28.9 billion budget boosted K-12 education funding by 7 percent, putting the figure near $7 billion for 2018-19. Lawmakers said the negative factor would be reduced by $150 million. The teachers also demanded higher wages and reforms to the state pension system.
“Red flag” bill causes splash, dies in Senate committee
Reps. Alec Garnett, D-Denver, and Cole Wist, R-Centennial, caused another moment of reckoning for lawmakers toward the end of the session. With just days before it was set to end, the bipartisan coalition released a “red flag” mental health and gun bill that aimed to allow a judge to order law enforcement to confiscate a person’s weapons if they were in the midst of a mental health crisis. The bill had support from several metro-area sheriffs and other law enforcement officials, including Republican district attorney George Brauchler and Congressman Mike Coffman, an Aurora Republican. But after infighting between House Republicans at its first committee hearing, and digs taken at Wist, only Wist and one other Republican voted for the measure as it passed the House. After delaying sending the measure to the Senate, the Senate State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee killed the measure on a 3-2 vote. The members voting against the bill said they had concerns about the due process allotted in the bill.
PERA reform measure goes down to the wire
Colorado’s pension program, the Public Employees’ Retirement Association (PERA), came into the session underfunded by anywhere between $32 billion and $50 billion, depending on who one asked. It also took center stage during the teacher rallies at the Capitol, as the underfunded pension has sucked money away from school districts and their teachers. Both chambers passed reform measures, but they differed greatly and were forced to take the measure, Senate Bill 200, to a conference committee.
The Senate-passed measure shifts costs to pay down the pension deficit, and the House version pledged $225 million in state money toward the payment. The Senate also wanted to include a defined contribution plan, but the House eliminated that provision, saying it was too risky. There were also differences in what the retirement age should be changed to, and how the formula used to calculate benefits should be tweaked.
In the end, the measure that passed out of conference committee passed both chambers on to the governor's desk shortly before midnight – but not before Hickenlooper himself had to lobby the Democratic caucus ahead of a full House vote.
The final bill increases the retirement age to 64 and pledges $225 million each year into paying down the pension system’s unfunded debt. Employers will pay more into the system, but so will employees. Cost-of-living adjustments will be cut after two years, and after that, annual raises would go to 1.5 percent. It also takes part of the direct contribution language from the original Senate bill and extends some of those allowances to non-teacher state workers, but not teachers.
What comes next?
In all, Gov. Hickenlooper signed more than 200 measures passed by lawmakers this year, though some other high-priority issues – like changes to the Gallagher Amendment – were punted to the summer or next year by lawmakers. The bill deciding Colorado Civil Rights Division's future also passed late Wednesday night.
Chamber leadership and the governor are expected to give end-of-session press conferences addressing the session on Thursday.
Denver7's Marc Stewart contributed to this report.