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Divided Yet Productive: How Colorado Had a Gridlock-Free Year

The state’s split legislature passed more than 400 bills, some of which address longstanding issues.

John Hickenlooper signs bill
The Colorado legislature has handed Gov. John Hickenlooper more than 400 bills to sign into law this year.
“Compromise” has become such a loaded word in American politics that Colorado state Rep. KC Becker refuses to use it. She prefers the term “common ground” instead. But regardless of the word used, Becker has helped craft dozens of successful compromises this year.

Becker is the Democratic leader in the Colorado House, which her party controls. Republicans hold a narrow majority in the state Senate. Given the partisan split, legislators in both parties decided to do things the old-fashioned way, working out deals that left both sides a little unsatisfied but nonetheless afforded them victories. “A lot of people got the message that it was really time to work through differences and resolve things,” Becker says. “On each side, people were more willing to come to the table and stay until we found the common ground that would get folks to yes.”

The result was a lot of legislation -- more than 400 bills signed into law this year by Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper. Lawmakers didn’t just produce in bulk, however. They resolved issues, such as Medicaid and state regulation of construction, that had tied them in knots for years. The leaders in both parties and in both chambers were new this year. Early on, they reached informal agreements to avoid the public and personal attacks that can render negotiations needlessly difficult. “We made a concerted effort in Colorado to make sure gridlock didn’t happen,” says Cole Wist, an assistant Republican leader in the House. “Given divided control, if you want to be an effective legislator, you have to find people to work with on the other side.”

Medicaid was perhaps the most complicated issue, due largely to the state’s byzantine hospital fee structure. The way it works is that hospitals send money to the state based on the number and type of patients they treat. Those funds are matched by the federal government through Medicaid. The state then puts the total amount of money into a blender and sends it back out to the hospitals based on various formulas. But the fee program was bumping up against the state’s strict cap on overall spending. Finding a way to separate the fee system from the budget as a whole was necessary to prevent hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of cuts to the Medicaid program, which would have been devastating for hospitals, particularly in rural areas.

A bill passed this spring removed the hospital fees from the general budget. It disappointed some legislators by lowering the state’s cap on overall spending, but it attracted members in both parties with increased funding for roads, along with a tax break for small businesses. In other words, there were enough goodies for both sides to win sufficient bipartisan support for passage. “We made some concessions on it, and so did the Democrats,” says GOP state Sen. Larry Crowder.

The same was true when it came to construction. Thanks to a law passed more than a quarter-century ago, it’s been easy in Colorado for small groups of homeowners claiming to represent others to sue developers for construction defects. Over time, this has had the effect of hampering construction of condominiums, since builders felt they were exposed to too many legal threats. For years, lobbyists on both sides of the issue managed to exploit differences between the parties. This year, a bipartisan working group was able to shut out that noise and stick together on a plan.

Next year is an election year. Maybe things will turn rancorous again. But for at least one session, a divided legislature functioned well by embracing values that were once taken for granted but have become scarce. Legislators relearned the old lesson that compromise can be more productive than posturing. “If you’re not interested in finding common ground,” Wist says, “you shouldn’t be in this job.”

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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