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Opinion: Despite ‘hostile workplace’, state lawmakers made some progress

May 9, 2024, 11:13 am

When the Colorado Legislature adjourned Wednesday, the bang of the gavel marked the end of regular work by the 74th General Assembly, which first convened after the 2022 election delivered huge Democratic majorities in the state House and Senate.

The Democrats, particularly several freshman progressive lawmakers, came to the Capitol with big ambitions, while Republicans set out to do everything possible to constrain them. Now we can begin to assess how it all played out.

Let the look-backs begin.

First let’s talk about tone. The Capitol in many respects is the most hostile workplace in Colorado. Hateful rhetoric and threats have poisoned the environment at the Legislature, and the leadership of the Democratic majority never quite figured out how to handle it.

Quentin Young

The worst offenders were Christian Republican bigots, starting with the anti-trans theocrat Rep. Scott Bottoms of Colorado Springs, and his sidekick, Rep. Ken DeGraaf, also of Colorado Springs. DeGraaf is a science-free denier of just about any fact you care to back with evidence (climate change, evolution, etc.). Newsline obtained an email that DeGraaf, who is white, wrote in November to a Democratic Black state representative in which he mansplained slavery to her using ugly arguments.

At the end of the 2023 session, some Democratic lawmakers pleaded with leadership to better support the caucus and protect individuals from personal abuse. Two Democratic lawmakers, citing the vitriolic environment of the Legislature, resigned late last year. And despite a call for civility from Speaker Julie McCluskie at the outset of the 2024 session, it was clear by this month that member-on-member intimidation continued to mar public business at the Capitol.

But public business did get done.

This year’s session began with the same overarching policy debate that also dominated last year’s session: housing. In 2023, Democrats failed to get a sweeping land-use bill across the finish line. They went at the issue again this year in smaller chunks, and they succeeded in passing several bills that attempt to create more affordable housing in the state. These include bills that will boost the creation of accessory dwelling units, spur denser housing development along transit corridors, eliminate local occupancy limits, and ease parking minimum requirements.

Renters scored a major win this year in a Democratic “for cause eviction” bill, which says landlords can no longer evict someone or decline to renew a tenant’s lease without a defined reason.

The assembly showed it was capable of passing big legislation with broad bipartisan support … But camaraderie was the exception.

It was another (mostly) successful session for gun violence prevention, and the two-year general assembly did as much to rebuke the state’s overactive firearm fanatics as any other. This year Democrats passed bills that ask voters to approve an excise tax on guns and ammunition with most of the revenue going to crime victim services, require gun dealers to obtain a state permit, standardize concealed carry training, and reinforce state investigations into illegal gun activity.

They also made it illegal to have guns in certain sensitive spaces, such as the Capitol itself, where multiple lawmakers are known to carry concealed firearms. While the sensitive spaces measure was being debated, its wisdom was proved in real time when Republican Rep. Don Wilson of Monument left a loaded handgun in a Capitol bathroom.

Last year Democrats enacted a three-day waiting period for gun purchases, a minimum age of 21 for buying a gun, a gun industry liability protection roll-back, an expansion of the state’s Extreme Risk Protection Order law and a ghost gun ban.

But one crucial gun policy — an “assault weapons” ban — remained elusive across both years of the assembly. A bill to ban the manufacture and sale of AR-15-style and other firearms was introduced in 2023 but didn’t even make it out of committee. This year, in a historic vote, the House passed a similar bill, but it died in the Senate on Tuesday, the second-to-last day of the session.

The assault weapons ban failure was one of the main examples during the assembly of moderate-Democrat opposition defeating progressive policy proposals. These included a measure to allow overdose prevention centers in cities that approve them and local rent control.

The assembly showed it was capable of passing big legislation with broad bipartisan support. This week, as the session came to a close, Democrats and Republicans stood with Democratic Gov. Jared Polis to announce a long-term property tax cut. In these hyper-partisan times, it was no small thing Monday to see House Minority Leader Rose Pugliese, standing with Democratic leaders to announce the tax cut bill, gesture to Polis and say, “Thank you for your leadership.”

But camaraderie was the exception. 

Pugliese and Republican Rep. Ryan Armagost of Berthoud led a cynical attempt to impeach Secretary of State Jena Griswold over her purported role — which House Republicans utterly mischaracterized — in the lawsuit over whether former President Donald Trump is constitutionally disqualified from holding public office. They failed. But the episode was a harbinger of escalating animosity at the Capitol.

The next Colorado General Assembly will convene for its first regular session in January. By that time a person who has all but vowed to rule as a revenge-crazed autocrat could be in the White House, and, as America descends into multiplying political antipathies, state legislating could suffer from ever-coarsening interactions.

Voters will decide in November who to send to the state Capitol in 2025. It’s more important than ever that they choose candidates who not only believe in democracy but also perform according to democratic norms and values.

Editor’s note: This opinion column first appeared on Colorado Newsline, which is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network 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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