With power in both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s office, Democrats this year led lawmakers into some sweeping changes, as well as hard-fought battles that left the party short of some goals.
A major overhaul of Colorado’s oil and gas rules turned the state’s focus away from encouraging production and made public safety and the environment a top priority, handing local governments new authority to regulate drilling.
And the much-mentioned “red flag” bill — which allows firearms to be temporarily taken away from people deemed a significant threat to themselves or others — passed after an even more partisan debate than last year’s version faced. And it still faces a conservative-backed court challenge.
A laundry list of other notable bills came up during the 2019 legislative session, the four-month part of the year when state lawmakers pass bills. It ended May 3.
Sex ed curriculum updated
After much public opposition, Democrats’ effort to strengthen sex education requirements succeeded.
The law does not require schools to teach sex education, but if they do, schools must address topics including birth control and pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease prevention, consent, and abstinence, according to state House Speaker KC Becker, D-Boulder.
Already-existing law had outlined “comprehensive” sex education standards, but the new law makes some updates on consent and healthy relationships, House Democrats have said.
The 2019 proposal, House Bill 19-1032, spurred panic about teaching of the sex acts or practices of LGBT individuals, but the law’s text does not require that.
It does mandate that sex ed include information that is “meaningful to the experiences and needs” of LGBT or intersex people, and it adds that sex ed cannot exclude “the health needs” of those groups. For the most part, that’s not new, aside from adding those who are intersex. The law also bars shame-based language or gender stereotypes.
In 2013, the Legislature passed the “comprehensive” standards in connection with a grant program to support teaching sex education, but it didn’t fund the grant. The new law gives at least $1 million annually to the program, and rural schools and public schools that currently don’t offer comprehensive sex education would be prioritized for the funding.
Late in the session, lawmakers amended the bill to maintain eligibility for charter schools for waivers that can exempt them from the comprehensive standards.
State Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, R-Parker, said changes to the bill amounted to “a step in the right direction.”
“We heard from thousands of Coloradans that were concerned about this piece of legislation,” Holbert said in a news release. “The majority of Republican senators remain opposed to the bill and stand with a parent’s right to teach and raise their children as they see fit.”
Parents can still opt their kids out of sex ed classes.
Vaccine bill falls
Colorado lawmakers abandoned legislation that would have made it harder to opt children out of vaccinations as time was running out in the legislative session with one day to go.
Colorado allows parents to opt children out of vaccinations for medical reasons with a doctor’s note. Those who object for religious or personal reasons can also submit a statement to be exempted.
House Bill 19-1312 would have limited the allowed reasons for a medical exemption. It would have also required those seeking religious or personal exemptions to initially apply in person at a local health department or the state health department.
“Republicans were not willing to let the vaccine bill come to a vote without hours and hours of debate, which would have prevented us from delivering on priority bills,” including health care and education, said state Senate Majority Leader Stephen Fenberg, D-Boulder, according to the Associated Press.
Drivers’ cellphone use slips by
Senate Bill 19-012 would have made use of cellphones while driving — except with a hands-free device — illegal for everyone. Currently, state law bars anyone under 18 from using cellphones while driving.
It passed the Senate but didn’t make it to a full vote in the House, instead postponed indefinitely in the House Judiciary Committee.
Family leave yet to arrive
The 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, the Associated Press reported. Many in the business community opposed the program.
In its final form, Senate Bill 19-188 created a plan that will result in an independent analysis to be completed by December that will ensure a potential program would be “efficient” and “fiscally responsible” if passed, a news release by House Democrats said.
Death penalty survives
Democrats also fell short in a bid to end the death penalty, a debate that was personal for state Sen. Rhonda Fields, an Aurora Democrat whose son was murdered in 2005. Robert Ray and Sir Mario Owens were sentenced to die for the killings.
Lawmakers have tried before to repeal Colorado’s death penalty, which has been applied just one time in the past 51 years. Senate Bill 19-182 would have taken effect for offenses charged on or after July 1, 2019.
Democrats have a 19-16 majority in the Senate, but at least one, Fields, opposed the bill. At least four other party members hadn’t publicly committed to the repeal.
Putting money down
Affordable housing gets a boost with the passage of two bills to increase the amount of money the state spends to drive the construction of less expensive dwellings.
House Bill 19-1228 passed in the state Senate to increase the annual amount the Colorado Housing and Finance Authority can spend on tax credits each year, according to a news release by Senate Democrats. The amount, currently up to $5 million per year, will increase to up to $10 million from 2020 to 2024, giving incentive to developers to build more affordable housing in the state, the release said.
House Bill 19-1322 will transfer up to $30 million over the next three years from the state’s Unclaimed Property Trust Fund to the Housing Development Grant Fund, another news release said, to improve funding for affordable housing options in Colorado.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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