The Colorado General Assembly recently concluded the 2023 Legislative Session after months of rigorous bill drafting, debate, media attention, late nights…and even political collaboration!
Of the more than 600 bills introduced, more than 300 passed and have moved on to Gov. Polis, who is currently working under a 30-day clock to determine whether to sign or veto them. We have seen the governor exercise his veto power already this session, but in his first term in office, you can count the bills that he vetoed each year on one hand. So don’t expect too many more of these to be turned down with his power of the pen.
As our team reflects on this year’s session, we offer the following insights on the shape of our state politics.
Local issues are statewide issues. But statewide solutions aren’t always local solutions.
Colorado is a diverse state, but gone are the days where small mountain towns, rural agricultural communities and the cosmopolitan Front Range face entirely different experiences. Housing affordability, houselessness, education funding, water and resource scarcity, climate change and more are shared challenges, regardless of the location.
It is clear that the governor and legislature know this. And many under the gold dome see it as their duty to provide statewide answers to these problems.
But local control – a generations-long held value – remains central to Colorado’s viewpoint. Local governments worry about one-size-fits-all tools in place of localized strategies. Nowhere was this more evident than with the ultimate defeat of the omnibus land-use bill (SB23-213) that would have barred cities and towns from banning duplexes, triplexes, certain multiplexes and accessory dwelling units (ADUs) but, in the face of significant resistance from local governments, was left to die on the calendar without a full vote on the last day of session.
Another example saw late-night, impassioned testimony by counties and municipalities against HB23-1255, which will no longer allow a local government to implement housing growth control policies, all in hopes of increasing housing supply statewide to ultimately depress costs. Despite their concerns, the bill passed with only Democrats voting in favor, and it now awaits the governor’s signature.
This is a tough needle to thread. Our state elected officials cannot be expected to sit back when they are seeing these challenges across county to county. Nor, as voters, would we want them to. There is often much to be gained with the economies of scale available at the state level. But, as diverse as Colorado’s communities are (urban, suburban, rural, mountain and resort communities, just to name a few), nuance cannot be lost when statewide policies are crafted.
At what point does purple become blue?
Are Colorado’s days as a purple state over? When looking at the party divide under the dome, where the Democratic party has the largest advantage in the House in 85 years, controls the Senate 23 – 12 and holds the executive branch, it would be tempting to say yes. But we think there is another angle to this story.
The picture the media paints of both intra- and inter-party politics is often also one of discord and chaos. We know the media, and conflict is always a hot story. Of course, there is some basis for this – on many of the most substantive issues, party-line divisions were generally maintained. However, our experiences working with both parties at the Capitol and around the state provide us with a front-row seat to the bipartisan conversations, jokes, collaboration and congeniality that has always been central to our identity as a state.
Yes, the policy positions of the parties vary greatly, seen clearly with the way that the overwhelming majority of bills sponsored solely by Republicans were killed in committee or died on the House or Senate floors. But the number of bipartisan bills that make it to the governor’s desk is impressive year after year, with this session being no different. This year, lawmakers across the aisle worked together to prioritize mental and behavioral health services for students, enhance workforce pathways and improve veteran supports.
As you consider your engagement with the legislature in advance of the 2024 Legislative Session, we encourage cross-aisle and cross-region meetings. Coming to a potential bill sponsor with a broad coalition and an opportunity for bipartisanship is always enticing. But, more importantly, it is when we bring folks together that we are at our best.
The power of the next generation.
While most are too young to vote for the representatives they engaged, it was inspiring to see the activity of high-school students participating in the legislative process. Following a series of heartbreaking shootings over the course of a few weeks, students from all over the metro area descended on the Capitol to demand action.
But what impressed us wasn’t just their action. It was their thoughtfulness about the issue – their ability to articulate reasonable solutions – and their empathy, both for the victims and the much larger number of survivors whose lives are forever scarred by these tragedies.
They met with Gov. Polis and legislators and voiced their terror at going to school in an unsafe environment. Despite many being too young to vote, they had the ability to directly influence the legislative process. While they were unsuccessful in getting an assault-weapon ban passed, they were instrumental in helping pass three pieces of gun reform legislation that – while the bills have been immediately challenged in court – have helped Colorado receive national attention for its efforts to address the issue that guns are now the leading cause of death of children in the United States.
The bills were a real testament to what can be accomplished when you put a compelling story and powerful spokespeople in front of lawmakers who are willing to take a risk.