The legislative session has passed the halfway point of its 120-day run, and lawmakers are finally starting to focus on the issues that everyone expected would be the big ones in 2017.
Bills on top issues like transportation funding, construction defects and marijuana regulation have been introduced recently and are starting to wend their way through committee hearings and floor debate.
And lawmakers will get their attention forcefully focused on the 2017-18 budget Friday, when new quarterly state revenue forecasts will be unveiled. Those are not expected to show a pretty picture.
Recent mid-session analyses by the Capitol press corps have highlighted how little of substance lawmakers got done during their first 60 days. That’s nothing new – procrastination is a proud legislative tradition, and some key bills won’t be decided – or killed – until the session’s final few days.
Here’s a quick review of what lawmakers will be fussing over between now and May 10.
Transportation – Everybody at the Capitol likes to bemoan traffic congestion and potholed roads – and they’ve doing so for years without coming up with any solutions.
So it was considered something of a breakthrough this session when GOP Senate President Kevin Grantham and Democratic House Speaker Crisanta Duran recently unveiled House Bill 17-1242, which would send a transportation funding plan to voters for consideration.
The measure would increase state sales taxes by about six-tenths of a cent for 20 years, raising revenue to pay off $3.5 billion in bonds for highway and other transportation projects.
Grantham may have taken the lead, but he doesn’t have all Republicans following him. Conservative GOP members don’t want to raise taxes – period – and they aren’t mollified by the bill’s plan to trim some motor vehicle fees.
Another member of the Senate GOP leadership, Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg, is even talking about introducing an alternative plan that would take transportation money from existing state revenues.
While a lot of Republicans advocate a “revenue neutral” transportation funding plan, none of them have yet said publicly what they’d cut to pay for roads. The biggest chunks of the state budget pay for education and health care, already facing possible budget cuts for other reasons.
Construction defects – This issue sounds dull, but it’s been a legislative obsession for several sessions.
The problem is that there’s been very little condominium construction in Colorado for several years. Builders say that’s because current law makes it too easy for condo owners to sue over allegedly shoddy construction and the resulting high insurance costs make condo construction economically unattractive.
Fixing the law is being pitched as a way to provide more affordable housing, given that condos typically are less expensive than single-family homes, whose prices have been skyrocketing.
This session lawmakers have proposed a package of bills addressing different pieces of the issue. Single omnibus bills have bogged down and failed in past years.
The centerpiece may be Senate Bill 17-156, which would steer owner-builder disputes toward arbitration rather than the courts, a change that makes some Democrats nervous.
Marijuana regulation – Cracking down on the marijuana “grey market” is a top priority for Gov. John Hickenlooper. Two measures, House Bills 17-1220 and 17-1221, propose to do that. The first would limit to 16 the number of marijuana plants that could be grown at home. The second would tap marijuana taxes for grants to help local police departments enforce marijuana laws.
Although the measures have moved quickly through the House, some lawmakers worry that medical marijuana patients and caregivers need more protection than the first measure currently provides. Look for more negotiations and changes before this issue is settled.
The biggest cloud hanging over the session is the state budget. For months the potential gap between projected state needs and available state revenues has been projected at $500 million or higher.
Lawmakers will get a better idea of that gap Friday when state economists issue their last formal revenue forecasts before the 2017 session ends. If the gap is as big or bigger than previously forecast, the Joint Budget Committee will have some tough decisions to make before the March 27 deadline for introduction of the 2017-18 budget bill.
Some 484 bills have been introduced as of March 13. Nearly 30 have been signed by the governor, and more than 90 have been killed.
For more analysis of where lawmakers have been and where they’re going, check out these media outlets are saying:
-- Todd Engdahl