Colorado lawmakers get to work

By Vic Vela

The 2014 legislative session got under way Jan. 8, with speeches from party leaders that addressed a variety of key issues that lawmakers will be taking on over the next few months.

Yes, there were calls by leaders in both chambers to work together on issues like jobs, the economy and education.

But there was plenty of politics on opening day, with Democrats and Republicans exchanging jabs on contentious issues — many of which were fought over last year — that are sure to lead to headlines during this year's session.

Although leaders talked about issues that they will surely fight over during the next few months, it is clear that their early priorities will focus on working together on legislation that will deal with flood and wildfire disasters.

The first series of bills that were introduced in the House came as a result of work by a bipartisan Flood Disaster Study Committee. Those bills include legislation that creates income tax credits for properties destroyed by natural disasters, and another that creates grant funding to repair water infrastructure that is impacted by natural disasters.

"Despite all the recovery work that's already happened, there's much still to do," said House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver. "And we must see it through to completion."

House Minority Leader Brian DelGrosso echoed Ferrandino's remarks on the importance of immediately dealing with natural disaster legislation.

"Helping our friends and neighbors impacted by these tragedies will be a top priority of Republicans this session, and I am glad to hear that it will be for my colleagues across the aisle as well," DelGrosso said.

Education will also be a key area of focus this year. Senate President Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, introduced the College Affordability Act, which places a 6 percent cap on tuition rate increases, and provides more money for financial aid.

Carroll said the bill deals with skyrocketing tuition costs that often create enormous amounts of debt for students.

"What we are talking about is squeezing out economic and life opportunities for an entire generation," Carroll said. "This is an unsustainable trend that threatens to weaken our economy."

Ferrandino also talked about education, telling House members that students need more resources inside classrooms. He also took issue with the views on public education of Republicans, who often contend that schools need to be reformed, before more money is thrown at the education system.

"But while some have argued for reform before resources, let me say this: Reforms will not work, and our schools will not get better if they are not adequately funded. Period," Ferrandino said.

Republicans will move forward with legislation that seeks to undo Democrat-sponsored bills that became law following last year's session.

They include legislation that doubled the renewable energy mandate for rural electric cooperatives. DelGrosso said the mandate "puts a financial strain" on rural families and businesses.

DelGrosso said that while the state's economy is improving, parts of rural Colorado continue to struggle.

"The voice of rural Colorado is being heard loud and clear by House Republicans, and I hope my colleagues on the other side of the aisle will hear it as well," DelGrosso said.

Last year's session saw Democrats achieve several legislative victories, over loud protests from their Republican colleagues. Democrats scored wins on gun-control, election reform and on social issues, including the creation of civil unions in Colorado.

But Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, said Coloradans had a "visceral response to what took place in this Legislature last year." That response included recall efforts that cost two Democratic senators their jobs and led one to resign from office.

"Democrats divided by Republicans does not produce outcomes that are representative of this state," Cadman said.

Cadman said that last years's political division resulted in a "hyper-partisan toxin that affected this entire institution.

"To those who served here and all those who visited here, we started looking like Congress," he said.

While Republicans feel Democrats overreached in their legislative efforts last year, Carroll looks at things differently, calling last year's work "busy and productive" - especially compared to how things operate at our nation's capital.

"While D.C. was criticized for doing too little, some questioned whether in Colorado, we did too much," she said.

Carroll also addressed the public's negative views on the political system.

"While we at the state level cannot fix all of the frustrations and disappointments people experience with elected officials, we can show that we here in Colorado, right here in this Senate chamber, are different," she said.

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