The 2017 Colorado legislature convened Wednesday morning with the usual hopeful speeches and hands-across-the-aisle goodwill – plus some partisan bills. All that ceremony kicked off a session that faces big issues lawmakers have wrestled with before.
Balancing the budget, finding more money for roads and bridges and reaching compromise on construction defects law are pegged as this session’s top issues.
The budget – Lawmakers face a difference of about $500 million between what they’ll be allowed to spend in 2017-18 and the full cost of various demands such as TABOR refunds, K-12 spending, possible transfers to transportation and construction projects and Medicaid program requirements. Gov. John Hickenlooper has proposed various ways to close that gap, including assorted fund transfers and other accounting moves and an increase in the “negative factor” – the gap between full and actual school funding.
Hickenlooper and some Democrats would still like to change the definition of the Hospital Provider Fee so that its revenues don’t count against the ceiling that triggers taxpayer refunds under TABOR. But Senate Republican leadership seems still firmly opposed to that idea.
Republicans have long questioned the costs of Medicaid, which have risen with expansion of eligibility in recent years. Efforts to trim costs likely will be met by resistance from House Democrats and Hickenlooper. Some Republicans hope changes by the Trump administration and the Republican Congress will give states more flexibility to control Medicaid costs. But those may not happen in time for the 2017 session to take any action.
Transportation – Republicans have been pushing for financing highway improvements with bonds that would be repaid from existing highway revenues. Hickenlooper and Democrats have stopped such efforts, arguing that it’s foolish to shortchange highway maintenance by using that money to repay bonds. In opening day speeches leaders of both parties said they’re working on a plan that everyone can support.
Construction and affordable housing – The 2017 session will take a fresh look at “construction defects.” That’s the shorthand phrase for the problem of condominium developers being exposed to lawsuits from owners for bad construction. Developers say current law makes it too costly to build condos because of high liability insurance rates. They argue that changes in the law would spark more condo development. They argue that building more condos would expand affordable housing options for people who can’t afford single-family homes and are burdened by skyrocketing rents. A bipartisan bill introduced Wednesday would address insurance costs for builders.
Education – No surprise, the K-12 debate will be all about money. School districts will oppose an increase in the negative factor, but that will be hard to avoid. It’s possible that lawmakers will propose property tax reforms to increase local contributions to school budgets – something that ultimately would require voter approval. Some legislators also would like to somehow incorporate individual district mill levy override revenues into overall school funding. And a group of superintendents is working on possible changes in the state school finance formula.
Other education issues up for debate could include changes to ninth grade testing, funding for charter schools, regulation relief for small rural districts, teacher licensing and evaluation, discipline of preschool students and district and school accountability.
Energy development – Senate Republicans, anxious to help stimulate the oil and gas and coal industries, have created a special committee to study the issue. Democrats remain committed to encouraging renewable energy development. It remains to be seen whether any significant legislation will emerge.
Expect bills on a wide variety of other topics, including the Public Employees’ Retirement Association, marijuana regulation (Hickenlooper wants to crack down on the “gray market,”) elections and ballot measures, gun control, reproductive rights, union membership, combating opioid abuse, TABOR reform and easing the perceived regulatory burden on small business. Expect a high mortality rate, given that many of these bills will be partisan.
Republicans continue to control the Senate with an 18-17 majority, while Democrats have increased their House majority to 37-28. Split control traditionally means major legislation absolutely requires agreement and a high mortality rate for clearly partisan and ideological bills.
Almost all of the top positions in each chamber are in new hands. Republican Sen. Kevin Grantham of Canon City is Senate president, with Sen. Chris Holbert of Parker as majority leader. Democratic Sen. Lucia Guzman of Denver continues as minority leader.
The top House leadership posts all have new occupants. Democratic Rep. Crisanta Duran is speaker, with Rep. KC Becker of Boulder as majority leader. House Republican leadership has taken on a more conservative tone, with Rep. Patrick Neville of Castle Rock as minority leader.
Twenty-one of the General Assembly’s 100 members enter the Capitol without prior legislative experience. Two senators are brand-new, and eight other new senators previously served in the House. Two House members are returning after spending a few terms out of the chamber.
-- Todd Engdahl