In Colorado's second year of total statehouse control by Democrats after the 2018 election, one top Republican is hanging onto his optimism.
“I know the constitution very well,” said Chris Holbert, state Senate minority leader. “I take some level of positive outlook on I know how this game must be played and not be played.”
Colorado has a long history of bipartisan cooperation, Holbert said in a phone call ahead of the Jan. 8 kickoff of this year's state legislative session, the roughly four-month period in which bills are passed.
State House Speaker K.C. Becker sounded similar notes, saying her Democrats constantly try to shape bills in a bipartisan way despite their wide majority.
For all the talk of cooperation, though, the state Legislature is headed for friction on both well-worn fights — such as transportation funding and health care costs — and lesser-known nuggets, including the state's Labor Peace Act, which affects how workers decide to form unions.
Another defining issue for Democrats will be paid family leave, a proposal that returns this year after lawmakers in 2019 approved a study on how it would work.
Here's a look at what both sides are saying about those issues and how they may play out in this year's session.
The multi-billion-dollar shortfall at the Colorado Department of Transportation rolls onward, and Holbert, the state senator from Parker, argues the state has enough money in its current revenue structure to pay a large amount down each year.
“We want the minimum each year to be $300 million for transportation,” Holbert said, adding he'd like that amount to go toward paying back bonds, or debt that governments take on to pay for long-term projects.
Becker, of Boulder, took issue with the characterization that the state hasn't recently prioritized transportation funding enough.
“Our transportation was initially intended to be funded by the gas tax,” Becker said in a phone call. That's important “especially given that the state picks up a greater and greater share of K-12 education than it did 30 years ago.”
A dollar in gas tax revenue today was worth much more decades ago when the tax was first passed, Becker said. One idea is to tie the tax — which has long sat at 22 cents per gallon — to inflation.
It's unclear exactly how much more money that would pull in: Over a few decades, it would garner somewhere in the billions, Becker said. It isn't a total solution on its own, but “it stops the bleeding,” she added.
Holbert currently opposes a gas tax increase, arguing the state already pulls in enough to pay for transportation if it chose to, but he said an increase would likely have bipartisan support.
“I've heard from voters, even in Douglas County, who say if you want more transportation money, do it through the gas tax,” Holbert said.
Some Democrats' desire for a public option — a government-run type of health insurance Coloradans could choose — drew fire even before the session kicked off.
“There's no appetite on our side of the aisle,” Holbert said. “There's not unanimous appetite on the Democrat side too … I'm hearing secondhand.”
State House Minority Leader Patrick Neville, a Castle Rock Republican, argued a public option would drive health care costs up and push doctors out of the state.
“Quite frankly, the public option scares the heck out of me. It's not a small step toward single-payer — it's a giant leap toward single-payer,” Neville said on stage Jan. 7 at the Business Legislative Preview in downtown Denver.
“Single-payer” — which is not being proposed — means one government-run agency oversees health insurance for everyone, rather than having multiple competing insurance companies. A public option, on the other hand, would add a government program alongside the current private insurance. Supporters of a public option say it would drive costs down by creating more competition for private companies.
The state government would oversee the program, but private insurance carriers would administer it and hold the financial risk, according to a fact sheet by the state, which refers to the plan as a public-private partnership.
Colorado taxpayers would not fund the health care plans, specifically, but the program hopes to make care more affordable, partly by changing the rate at which providers are reimbursed, using a hospital-specific formula.
If the federal government gives the green light, the state could also use $89 million to lower deductibles and out-of-pocket, or other, costs to consumers.
An alternative route is the “total cost of care” proposal, Becker said at the Jan. 7 event, referring to a limit for how much costs can rise for each sector of the health-care industry.
Republicans say they want to focus on more on price transparency than price controls. Becker pointed to a lack of accountability in different parts of the insurance system.
“People across nation are dealing with growing and growing and growing health-care costs,” Becker said. “You have pharmaceutical companies point to the (pharmacy benefit managers) and PBMs point to insurers and insurers point to hospitals and everyone says, 'It's their fault.'”
In 2019, Democrats' push to allow workers up to 12 weeks of paid family leave — to care for a sick family member, tend to a personal medical issue or take care of a new child — eventually lost steam, with lawmakers passing a study on the program instead.
The program would have required the state to collect a premium on each person's paycheck, with employees and employers sharing the cost.
Someone earning between $12,001 and $20,000 a year would pay from $38 to $64 a year into the fund, and employees earning $60,001 to $80,000 would pay from $192 to $256.
“I'm glad we took a pause to not pass it last year and get a real actuarial analysis done,” Becker said.
Unlike during last year, the Legislature now may consider a “private marketplace solution” instead of a more state-led model, Becker added. It's unclear how the proposal will ultimately shape up.
Fears about how a family leave program could affect small businesses were one of the reasons the proposal couldn't succeed last year, Becker said.
“Those things have to be revisited. My district includes a lot of seasonal workers,” Becker said, adding that this year's attempt needs to “provide greater assurances to small business.”
Something even local political junkies may not have encountered before is the Colorado Labor Peace Act, a law that labor advocates want to change.
In some states, approval by more than 50% of workers is enough to create a union, but Colorado's law requires two rounds of voting, according to the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation. The first, a “vote-to-have-a-vote,” requires approval from 50%, plus one of the employees in the company, according to Metro Denver. If that hurdle is cleared, a second vote takes place, and if 75% approve, all employees must pay dues and belong to the union.
Some advocates want to make it easier to unionize. Neville and Senate Assistant Minority Leader John Cooke, a Greeley Republican, said they aren't interested at all in changes.
If the bar for unionizing gets lower, “we're going to see a huge (conflict) between labor and management,” Cooke said at the Jan. 7 Legislative Preview downtown, which was hosted by the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and the Colorado Competitive Council, a business advocacy organization.
Becker framed the issue within “the broader topic” of how workers are doing in Colorado and said Democrats want to make sure “no one feels left behind in this economy.”
“It's one idea to say: How do we make sure everyone is benefiting, that workers have their best opportunity to benefit from a thriving economy?” said Becker. “So I think that's one solution folks are looking at.”
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