From The Denver Post (Lynn Bartels/Kurtis Lee):
Two schools of thought are in play when the 2014 Colorado General Assembly opens Wednesday:
• Nothing could be as caustic as last year, when lawmakers endured 20-hour days fighting over gun control, new election rules and a renewable energy mandate for rural co-ops.
• It’s going to be even worse than last year as lawmakers rehash those issues and try to figure out how to finance education with the failure of Amendment 66, all while gearing up for the November election.
“I tell people it will be either/or depending on the issue — only I add some cuss words,” said longtime lobbyist Mike Beasley.
Gov. John Hickenlooper said he believes the disasters Coloradans endured last year — fatal fires, floods and a school shooting — will bring people together. But he conceded another rough session could be ahead.
“It’s an election year,” he said. “I mean, I’m not blind.”
Hickenlooper, a Democrat, once was deemed invincible in his re-election bid but now has attracted a field of Republican candidates, including a state senator, seeking to unseat him.
The session will open on a historic note: All three new faces in the Senate — Republicans Bernie Herpin and George Rivera and Democrat Rachel Zenzinger — took office after efforts to recall three Democratic lawmakers who voted for stricter gun laws.
But legislative leaders agree there are plenty of opportunities for bipartisan efforts.
“Floodwaters did not discriminate between Democrat and Republican counties. It’s something we should be doing together,” said House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver. “Flood recovery will be one of the first things we deal with in the legislative session.”
September’s floods impacted 24 counties and killed 10 people. To date, millions of dollars in state and federal money have gone toward the disaster recovery.
Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, said much of what the legislature does every year — such as the budget — passes with support from both sides of the aisle.
“I think we’re pretty supportive of a lot of the stuff the governor has proposed,” he said.
That includes increasing the state’s statutory reserve account from 5 percent to 6.5 percent and a bigger investment in K-12 education by using some of the unspent balance in the state’s education fund, Cadman said.
With the failure of Amendment 66, a $950 million tax increase for public schools, legislators now are setting their sights on addressing K-12 education within the financial parameters of Colorado’s improving economy.
“The biggest challenge is going to be school finance,” said Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, chair of the House Education Committee. “Fortunately, the economy is slowly picking up, but it’s a challenge to get the appropriate amount of money into schools.”
Although most education activity likely won’t unfold until after the state sees its March revenue projections, some pieces of Senate Bill 213 — the legislative basis for Amendment 66 that won votes during last year’s session solely from Democrats — will re-emerge with bipartisan support.
“Some education issues shouldn’t be party against party,” said Sen. Scott Renfroe, R-Greeley.
With significant reserves in the state education fund, lawmakers could use this pot of money to initiate some of the bill’s more popular elements, such as a rolling student count system rather than a single count day for purposes of school funding. A financial transparency website that tracks money to the individual school level also proved popular.
Minority Republicans in the House already have zeroed in on those items and others, such as capital construction funding for charter schools and more money for English-language learners, as part of their 2014 education agenda.
But while House Minority Leader Brian DelGrosso, R-Loveland, believes plenty can be accomplished with current state money, Ferrandino believes additional resources are needed.
Gun battles are expected to divide the legislature once again.
Republicans will attempt to “reform, rescind or revise” some of the gun bills, along with other controversial measures passed last year, Cadman said.
“We have a responsibility to try to fix the things we think went wrong here,” he said, adding “maybe the Kumbaya-moment opportunities are there with some of the gun bills.”
Senate President-elect Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, doesn’t support overturning gun legislation passed in 2013, although she’s all about changing procedures to hear bills. Lessons were learned from last year, she said, when hundreds of people came to the Capitol to testify against a package of Democratic gun bills but didn’t get a chance. The Senate, in particular, was criticized for hearing all seven bills on the same day.
“I think it’s … important that everybody who shows up gets to testify,” Carroll said.
Senate Democrats enjoyed a 20-15 majority last year. Thanks to the recalls, they now have only an 18-17 edge and two of their caucus members — Lois Tochtrop of Thornton and Cheri Jahn of Wheat Ridge — tend to vote with Republicans on business and other issues.
“Eighteen-17 is a big change from 20-15,” Cadman said.
He’s just days away from discovering how big.
More 2014 Colorado legislation coverage here.