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Crime, Jared Polis, Labor Shortage: Why Colorado’s Senate May Go Red

The state has been under total Democratic control for four years, but a tumultuous two years with law enforcement, workforce development and the pandemic has some predicting that Republicans could regain control in November.

(TNS) — Wednesday, May 11, marked the 120th and final day of Colorado’s 2022 legislative session, and the fourth straight year of total Democratic control of state government. It may also have marked an end of an era: polling suggests Republicans have a real chance to flip the state Senate in November, even as their odds are much longer for a flipped House or governor’s office.

With that election looming over everything this year, it turned out to be a fascinating session in Colorado. Here are some of the major takeaways from the past 120 days:

A Boomerang On Law Enforcement

In mid-2020, as protestors flooded the area around the Capitol and demanded racial justice, the legislature broke character and quickly, resolutely passed a sweeping police reform bill, SB20-217. The bill, backed by Democrats and Republicans alike, contained all kinds of provisions that pre-protest had not been viable at this statehouse.

Well, it’s clear now that this was no watershed moment. Law enforcement this year regained a lot of the influence it lost after Democrats assumed total control of state government in 2019. The best example is the landmark fentanyl bill, HB22-1326, which is driven largely by a legislative desire to empower law enforcement with new felonies meant to take down drug dealers. Scores of experts insist this plan won’t stop drug use or sales, but the legislature has been more willing to place faith in police and prosecutors – on this front and others.

Polis as Legislator-in-Chief

It’s old news at this point, but it bears repeating because it was, as ever, a defining theme of this year’s session: Gov. Jared Polis is the shadow ruler of the legislature. There is little separation between the branches of government at the Capitol, and that’s because Polis is extremely hands-on.

Here’s a brief, incomplete list of major legislation that Polis either personally dictated or significantly affected: the bill to grant county government workers new union rights (SB22-230), which Polis forced to be narrowed; the bill to protect mobile home residents (HB22-1287), which Polis also forced to be narrowed; the bill creating an office dedicated to the crisis of missing and murdered indigenous relatives (SB22-150), where a Polis veto threat led to 11th-hour changes; and the bill to alter the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights refund program (SB22-232), which Polis initially resisted, then commandeered.

But you can’t order legislation from the executive branch without a compliant set of lawmakers, and Polis had that in leaders of both the House and Senate. Though some lawmakers dream about daring him to veto bills, the most powerful people in each chamber – the House speaker and Senate president – were, as a general rule, unwilling to send him legislation they knew he didn’t like. Earlier in the session, Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, a Douglas County Republican, told The Denver Post he appreciated that Polis is sometimes the check on Democratic power that Republicans would be if they had the votes.

Standing Up Big Departments To Tackle Big Issues

The legislature this year set up two new agencies to address some of Colorado’s perennial issues: child care and behavioral health. Each effort built on prior actions.

In the case of childcare, Coloradans voted two-to-one in 2020 to raise tobacco taxes and to use the revenues to pay for 10 hours of universal preschool the year before kindergarten per child, beginning in fall 2023. That morphed into officials creating the Department of Early Childhood, which they bill as a one-stop shop for all manner of child welfare services.

The Behavioral Health Administration builds off a 2021 law requiring the Colorado Department of Human Services to set up a plan for the agency and to have it up and running 2024. It will serve as quality control and overseer of behavioral health programs in the state.

“Our goal has been to break down silos,” state Rep. Emily Sirota, a Denver Democrat, said. “To make sure that when Coloradans are seeking services, and the things state government has to offer and provide support for, that there’s no wrong door to entry — wherever folks find that access point, we get them that help they are looking for.”

The bills setting up the agencies were each centerpieces surrounded by satellite bills to send more state resources toward girding the services.

Just Because They Build It Doesn’t Mean Workers Will Come

A preschool classroom isn’t much good without a teacher, just like hospital beds aren’t particularly special without health care workers — a glib way to say that, for all the state’s emphasis on those industries, infrastructure doesn’t mean much without the people to provide the services.

Legislators hope money toward training, tax credits, support programs, loan repayment, $15 minimum wages and more will attract the workers the state needs for its critical — and understaffed — industries.

Even so, lawmakers acknowledge there’s not an easy answer when workers are enjoying more leverage than they have in a decade while unemployment rests at less than 4 percent. They also face the reality that the most critical jobs are typically grueling, messy and poorly paid even as wages mostly rise.

“With a lot of the workforce shortages we’re experiencing, whether it’s educators or health care workers, I think it’s time to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks,” Senate Majority Leader Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat, said in the waning weeks of the session. “I think we’re past ‘what are the best strategies for making these workforce positions attractive.’ I think we’re at the crisis levels where we just have to do everything we can and hope this actually does get more folks into the workforce.”

When $1.8 Billion Needs To Be Spent

The state legislature saw a $3.8 billion influx of federal COVID relief money, about $1 billion of which was spent on legislators’ urgent priorities in 2021, and about as much was set aside for future needs. That left about $1.8 billion to spend this session, on top of a historically large budget. The boon powered about three-dozen bills this year on topics including mental health, workforce training, education, fentanyl and schools.

It also gave legislators a challenge of spending the one-time money within parameters and timelines dictated by the federal government. They also didn’t want to create future spending obligations that a budget with a constitutional growth cap couldn’t meet. In large part, that means the money translated into a slew of grant programs, infrastructure and covering start-up costs for new efforts.

It also led to expected fights over how to spend it. The Republican minority sought to leverage the money to completely pay off pandemic-era debts to the unemployment trust fund and longstanding ones to K-12 education. They also floated simply using it to backfill direct tax refunds to Coloradans. None of which came to fruition.

Democrats, in return, argued their plan to use the boon as a seed payment for the unemployment trust will leave it square by the end of summer, before tax hikes to businesses kick in, and that the intricacies of constitutionally mandated mechanisms for school funding would lead to more cuts if it was paid off immediately.

Public Access To The Capitol Expands

Like other workplaces, the Colorado legislature is transitioning to accommodate remote participation, both for officials and the public. It’s meant that people who want to address their elected representatives can do so without having to drive to Denver – and the people clearly appreciate the flexibility. According to nonpartisan staff, close to 60 percent of all public testimony this session was delivered remotely.

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