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Colorado Republicans say backlash over transportation fees may help at polls

June 14, 2021, 9:32 am
Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert and Senate Minority Whip Paul Lundeen discuss their perspectives on the legislative session June 10, 2021, at the state Capitol last week. (Faith Miller/Colorado Newsline)

Republicans haven’t held power in the Colorado Senate since 2018, and not in the House since 2012.

But they’re hoping what they perceive as new Democratic overreach into Coloradans’ lives, especially new transportation fees and “expanded bureaucracy,” will mean voters look to the GOP when filling out their ballots in 2022.

Or perhaps the best chance of Republicans winning back one or both chambers of the General Assembly, some say, will be the nonpartisan redistricting process that’s currently underway.

“Y and Z will be the first step toward achieving a Senate majority,” Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, a Republican from Douglas County, said during a post-session news conference last week at the state Capitol. Holbert referred to Amendments Y and Z, which established a new redistricting process that Holbert said will get rid of unfair election advantages for Democrats.

House and Senate Republican caucuses took vastly different approaches to legislating — and slowing Democratic priorities — this legislative session. At Thursday’s news conference, the leaders of each caucus argued the distinct ideologies had actually worked in their favor. Holbert, for example, said filibuster tactics by House Republicans, coupled with a Senate that moved through votes more efficiently, gave him time to negotiate with Senate Democrats on legislation.

But much of the House’s propensity for slowing down bills came from a contingent of lawmakers who frequently diverged from Minority Leader Hugh McKean’s more measured leadership style. Two Republicans in particular — Reps. Ron Hanks of Cañon City and Richard Holtorf of Akron — often spoke at length on the House floor, reading bills out loud, musing about the urban-rural divide and even making national news with racist comments.

Hanks reportedly threatened to break McKean’s neck in one argument that arose when McKean asked him to stop trying to filibuster a bill, according to Colorado Politics.

“When you get down to personalities, that’s just what they are,” McKean told reporters on Thursday.

While the two Republican caucuses’ strategies diverged this year, their leaders said they had the same core policy goals: getting kids back to school, putting people back to work, and maintaining or expanding the state’s roads and highways. On those areas, Republicans were willing to reach across the aisle and work with Democrats, Holbert said.

‘Kids back to school’

In practice, for Republicans as well as Democrats, the focus on getting kids back to school after a year of remote learning meant passing bipartisan bills to increase per-pupil funding and invest in extended learning opportunities.

On the other hand, Senate Minority Whip Paul Lundeen of Monument said he was glad that vocal opposition to a school discipline bill led its Democratic sponsor, Sen. Janet Buckner of Aurora, to ultimately ask colleagues to postpone the bill indefinitely. A bill targeting charter schools also died in the final days of the session.

Lundeen credited Republican opposition in killing the charter school bill, which he said would have limited parent choice. “Where we’re doing the work, it’s resonating with the people,” he said.

Throughout the pandemic, Republicans on the state and national level called for schools to reopen for the benefit of students and families, despite coronavirus safety concerns voiced by educators. Some Democrats including Gov. Jared Polis adopted similar rhetoric.

One effort from Lundeen — a response to coronavirus-induced school closures — would have directed school districts and charter schools that closed for more than 30 days to provide money to parents for “educational services and supplies.” That bill died in a Democratic-controlled committee.

‘People back to work’

In his comments Thursday, McKean echoed another common Republican refrain: that generous government benefits, occasioned by the coronavirus pandemic, were keeping people at home cashing government checks instead of applying for jobs.

“Currently, we’re still paying people to stay at home,” he said.

Democrats and many economists contest that view, citing research that — at least earlier in the pandemic — proves otherwise. For example, a July 2020 study by Yale University researchers found that more generous unemployment benefits didn’t make it less likely that a person would find a new job.

McKean said he worried that the huge sums of federal coronavirus relief money, and surplus state revenue due to a faster-than-expected economic recovery for middle- and high-earners, could leave the state in a bind in future years after a rash of spending on stimulus measures.

“Do we think that we can send this money back and somehow unwind trillions of dollars in spending?” No, he said, and the challenge will be remembering it is one-time funding.

Bills that created a long list of new offices within state government and a new Department of Early Childhood will increase government bureaucracy without improving Coloradans’ lives, Holbert said.

‘Roads and bridges’

Republicans believe the transportation funding bill passed by Democrats this year could be their best chance to take back the majority in one or both chambers. The bill, Senate Bill 21-260, will create a new per-gallon fee on gasoline sales, starting at 2 cents per gallon next year and rising to 8 cents by 2028. It also imposes fees on ride-hailing services such as Lyft and Uber, as well as online deliveries and registration fees on electric cars.

“There’s all sorts of things in and around the nature of 260 which really give me pause and heartburn,” House Assistant Minority Leader Tim Geitner, a Falcon Republican, said during the news conference.

He gave the example of a low-income, single mom who paid to get her groceries delivered because she didn’t have time to go shopping between two jobs. “Now all of the sudden she’s got a fee on her to help fund electric vehicles for others,” he said.

While $4 billion of the spending included in the $5.3 billion transportation bill would go toward maintenance, construction, and debt repayments on road and highway projects, Republicans argued throughout the bill’s legislative process that the bill didn’t spend enough money on “roads and bridges.” Other buckets of money in SB-260 are dedicated to improving multimodal transportation like public transit, and accelerating the transition to electric vehicles.

“Very little of (the new fee revenue) actually goes to roads and bridges concrete and asphalt, and I think as people realize that over time, they’re going to start scratching their heads and wonder” why this didn’t fix Colorado’s roads, Holbert said.

Holbert lamented what he called a lack of Republican input on SB-260. At the same time, he thanked Joint Budget Committee Chair Dominick Moreno, a Democrat from Commerce City, for listening to Republican perspectives on the state budget this year. Sen. Bob Rankin, a Carbondale Republican, and Rep. Kim Ransom, a Republican from Lone Tree, represented their party’s interests well on the committee, Holbert said.

The budget bill involved “a whole lot of conversation and cooperation,” Holbert said, “and on the transportation funding bill, just the absence of that.”

At a separate news conference hours later, Polis had a different take on SB-260. He said the funding overhaul would “finally solve an issue that directly affects our quality of life,” cutting down commute times and improving “our economic competitiveness as a state” with a “safer, faster network of roads and transit opportunities that will help move Colorado forward.” HELP US GROW Make a tax-deductible donation.

Editor’s note: This story first appeared in Colorado Newsline, which is part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Colorado Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Quentin Young for questions: info@coloradonewsline.com. Follow Colorado Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.

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