For the first time I can recall, this year’s session of the Colorado General Assembly concluded with frenzy and confusion more typical of what we see in Washington, D.C., than what’s expected of our citizen legislature.
It’s not unusual for a few complicated bills to linger until the waning hours. However, this year’s 120-day session ended on Monday, May 8, with these ignominious developments:
- On Day 117, still 156 bills – one-quarter of the 617 introduced since Jan. 9 – remained unresolved. With just two weeks to go, 335 bills were still in limbo.
- A bill affecting all Colorado taxpayers was unveiled barely 2½ days before the session ended and heard in committee that same day – before it was available to the public. Committee hearings are intended to allow public comment, but only two people, a consultant who helped write the bill and a veteran lobbyist, testified in committee on Sunday.
- Yes, the House and Senate were in session on Sunday – the first time the Senate conducted the public’s business on a Sunday since 1939.
This is not a partisan critique to suggest that Democrats cannot conduct business in an orderly fashion. To the contrary for four years (2005-2008), Democrats managed the calendar well enough to adjourn early. Those Democrats could certainly offer pointers to current leaders.
Several factors contributed to this year’s logjam.
Few in either party expected last November’s election to be a landslide for Democrats. Many Democrat-aligned interest groups scrambled to prepare more aggressive bills than would have been possible in a centrist-oriented legislature.
With large Democrat majorities, far-left progressives suddenly had a fighting chance to pass controversial bills, and traditional liberals had to decide whether to improve those bills or take heat for killing them. (During my first session in 1999-2000, Republicans were in the same boat with conservatives often frustrated by moderates.)
Outnumbered more than 2-to-1 in the House, Republicans were left with only one card to play when facing sure-to-pass bills that enflamed their constituents: delay. Democrats, in turn, took the rare step of limiting debate on at least 15 bills, allowing as little as one hour for discussion.
What could Democrats have done differently?
Most obviously, adhere to legislative deadlines. Each senator and representative can introduce five bills. Those five bills were to be introduced by Jan. 25 in the Senate and Jan. 31 in the House. Yet by the end of those two weeks, the Senate had introduced just 90 bills (2.5 per senator) and the House 171 (2.6 per representative). More bills (292, not counting those related to the budget) were introduced late than on schedule, which only happens with permission from leadership.
Lawmakers are procrastinators, and lobbyists relentlessly request “just one more bill.” Leaders must enforce deadlines to maintain order and to reduce stress and fatigue among the legislature’s professional staff which is responsible for writing and updating bills as amended. Each bill drafter is responsible for multiple bills, so when a complicated bill must be completely rewritten overnight to facilitate legislative compromise, that drafter gets little sleep which can result in errors.
Each General Assembly meets for two sessions, so leaders should remind lawmakers not to waste time on bills that aren’t “ready for primetime” and to use the interim months to develop them for the following year.
Some have suggested constitutional changes, either reducing the legislative session to 90 days or allowing legislators to meet year-round.
A full-time legislature would simply multiply existing problems. Many legislators have minimal real-world experience, so allowing them to be professional, fulltime lawgivers, imposing their purported wisdom on those who actually produce goods and services, would be a terrible mistake.
Trimming 30 days from the annual session would cause legislators to prioritize, but it should be combined with postponing the starting date by 30 days so they can spend that month refining bills and be ready for business on Day 1.
Coloradans deserve better than this year’s chaotic circus. That improvement is possible with disciplined leadership, regardless of which party is in charge.