Colorado Republicans try to stall Democratic agenda in final hours of legislative session

With precious few hours remaining in the 2022 legislative session, Colorado Republicans are trying to stall as much of the legislative agenda as possible into oblivion.

This strategy is playing out mainly in the House, where the Republican caucus is divided between more traditional conservatives who are open to negotiating with Democrats and far-right conservatives who demonstrate less interest in passing policy than in obstructing it.

As of Monday morning, according to nonpartisan legislative staff, close to 250 bills remained in need of final action. Many of those were set to die, anyway, because they cost more than lawmakers want to spend — but many others are either bipartisan of core to the Democratic majority’s agenda this session, including bills to boost organized labor among government workers, limit police ability to lie to children, crack down on predatory vehicle towing, appropriate federal stimulus funds and address unhealthy air quality.

The session is set to close at the end of the day Wednesday, leaving lawmakers with fewer than 51 hours as the clock ticked past 9 p.m. Monday. This third-to-last day of the session was consumed largely by Republican delay tactics in the House — ordering bills to be read out loud, word-for-word; protesting bipartisan bills; and offering time-consuming amendments and speeches on bills they have no chance of defeating.

“Conservatives will push back by running out the clock on all the remaining bills that harm the citizens we are supposed to be serving,” vowed state Rep. Dave Williams, a Colorado Springs Republican and frequent obstructionist.

“We’re trying to grind things down,” said Republican state Rep. Rod Pelton of Cheyenne Wells, who, unlike Williams, rarely engages in stall tactics or speaks at all from the House floor.

This is a situation Democrats, who control both the state House and Senate, might have avoided. Save for a small handful, the majority of their big-ticket bills were not introduced until the back half of the 120-day session. The size of the outstanding bill roll hands the GOP more leverage than it expected this session, given it is far from power in both chambers of the legislature — not to mention every statewide constitutional office.

On Monday evening, the House Democrats’ assistant majority leader, Denver state Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, said the GOP has been difficult to negotiate with. Often these delays can be stopped by a deal — that happen all the time for the much more cohesive Senate GOP — but the House Republicans are so divided that it’s hard to find consensus in that group. Several members have actively, repeatedly sought to undermine and indeed oust their caucus leader, Republican state Rep. Hugh McKean of Loveland.

“I don’t know what they’re doing, to be quite honest. I really don’t. I wish I did,” Gonzales-Gutierrez said.

She hesitated to place any blame on her own party for leaving so many bills until the final three days. Lawmakers have only worked on one weekend day all session, and Democrats notably declined to call members in this past weekend to make a dent in the remaining heap.

“This is just, unfortunately, how things landed. I don’t know that I could have predicted it. I don’t know that any of us could have predicted it,” she said.

After hours and hours of slow-moving procedure Monday, the House broke so that Republicans could meet to discuss a plan. They emerge from the meeting without one, said Delta state Rep. Matt Soper. He listed a series of bills he thinks his caucus hates most, including the organized-labor bill (SB22-230); the bill meant to stop police lying to children (SB22-23); and the Democrats’ bill meant to promote election security (SB22-153).

In that caucus meeting, members were split on how to proceed.

Akron Republican state Rep. Richard Holtorf said the caucus needs to fight for GOP values, and show they’re serious. But he warned against leaving the fight with nothing to show for it.

“My main concern is we push too hard, and we may lose any or all concessions,” Holtorf said.

Holtorf is no liberal — he dropped a gun in the Capitol this session and on Monday morning gave a speech suggesting it’s laudable when victims of racist violence don’t complain about it — but some in his caucus go even further right. Said the Fremont County Republican state Rep. Ron Hanks, an attendee of the U.S. Capitol riot of Jan. 6, 2021, “I appreciate that we’re working a negotiation process. I might suggest we look at this from the day and the week after. How much could we have killed, and how much could we tell the entire state that we left 50 bills on the table because we fought this? And these amendments, I’m concerned, aren’t going to be enough.

“I’ll just say this, if anyone wants to fight, I will make myself available.”

Said Soper, “I don’t want to just report back that we killed 50 bills. I want to be able to actually say that we killed or we amended the worst of the worst. Because if I go back and I say, well, guess what, that $10 million grant for rural hospitals that are going to help in (rural districts), yeah, I got that killed — that’s not really a good thing to report back.”

Democrats do have ways to fight back, though to this point they’ve not deployed them. They can limit debate and in some cases force votes. They can also reach deals to calm things down, and Senate President Steve Fenberg suggested they are open to that.

Fenberg, a Democrat from Boulder, said he’s “not the least bit concerned” about getting bills through by the end of Wednesday.

“Both sides have tools,” he said. “We’re not going to have important pieces of legislation die because of filibusters.”

His Senate colleague, Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat, criticized the House GOP for its delays, which are likely to keep people bound to the Capitol late into the night this week, as they did last week.

“It’s very cruel to do to our nonpartisan staff,” she said. “It’s not because (Republicans) actually have questions. It’s just to sabotage.”

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