Mid-session at Capitol fosters finger pointing

The Colorado Statesman

Legislative leaders were quick to point the finger at their political counterparts as the midsession approached on March 7, with each party arguing that the other is out of touch with the will of Colorado voters.

Democrats first defended their ambitious agenda so far this session, which has included a comprehensive package of gun control legislation, and controversial measures to support same-sex civil unions and provide in-state tuition to undocumented students.

“There are some people who may say that we’re doing too much. I say, ‘Absolutely not,’” declared House Majority Leader Dickey Lee Hullinghorst, D-Boulder. “Whether it’s gun safety, or civil unions, or ensuring that every Coloradan has a chance to get a great college education, our values and our legislative priorities are absolutely in line with Colorado voters.”

The majority leader said that while Democrats are doing the right thing by Coloradans, Republicans have been focused on an agenda that does not fit with the goals of citizens. She said wedge issues pushed by the GOP, including bills to ban abortion and permit guns in public schools, will once again cost Republicans the election, just as it did this past November when Democrats regained control of the House and maintained a majority in the Senate.

“The GOP wants you to believe that we are out of step with average Coloradans. Perhaps that’s why they keep losing elections,” quipped Hullinghorst. “They continue to allow their party to be branded by ideology and ideologues. They think that’s what people want.

“These are the extreme ideas that have already been rejected by the people of Colorado. And yet this is what we’re seeing from them… the same lame ideas as last year, the year before that and the year before that,” she continued.

But House Minority Leader Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs, can’t understand why Democrats chose to go on the attack during their midsession update.

“One of the themes of their midsession rollout is what Republicans are doing wrong. The last time I checked, Democrats have control of the House, the Senate and the governor’s mansion,” he pointed out. “Shame on them for talking about what Republicans are doing wrong. I believe they should be talking about what they’re doing right.”

Waller said he does not rule his caucus with an iron fist. He said each member is entitled to introduce any piece of legislation they see fit, which could include policy proposals surrounding abortion and other polarizing issues.

“Whether that means they’re out of touch… I guess that is up to the voters to decide,” said a candid Waller. “But that’s not the point. The point is, if that has to be the… Democrats’ focus, then obviously they’re not doing what they need to be doing to promote jobs and the economy.”

Waller opined that Democrats are the ones who are out of touch with voters by pushing a gun control agenda that has resulted in an outcry from citizens. He said the same of in-state tuition for undocumented students.

“I think they are over-reaching, and they’re over-reaching in a significant way,” decried Waller. “I think the gun legislation we’ve seen has been an over-reach, certainly… But we’re not seeing this over-reach just in these gun bill legislation, but I think we’re seeing this across the board.”

Fracking fight could come to a head

Democrats said the second half of the legislative session will focus on jobs and the economy. As part of that agenda, they say they will introduce economic development proposals for the energy industry.

“We are going to see likely a package of bills dealing with economic development around the energy sector in Colorado. A broad portfolio of things that we have here that we think not only has an opportunity to help the environment, but help grow and expand the current energy sector that we have right now into new areas of job growth,” said Senate Majority Leader Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora.

But her statement has already raised a flag for Republicans. Carroll has been an advocate for increased regulation on the energy industry, especially in light of a jump in hydraulic fracturing activities along the Front Range.

Carroll has criticized the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission for not passing rules that adequately address well setbacks and water quality sample testing. She has proposed a setback as far as 2,000 feet, which greatly surpasses the recent distance of 500 feet set by the COGCC.

Prompted by a question by The Colorado Statesman, Carroll acknowledged that the energy agenda could come with new regulations surrounding setbacks, water and air quality, fines, penalties and inspections.

One bill, Senate Bill 202, sponsored by Sen. Matt Jones, D-Louisville, has been introduced, which would require additional inspections at oil and gas facilities.

“We all know that we have some constituents who might well just assume see a ban, but what we’re actually trying to do instead is to make sure that we’re protecting our air, we’re protecting our water and most importantly… so far in the rulemaking process and everything we’ve seen so far, we really have not done a disciplined job of collecting and getting public health related information,” said Carroll.

Waller chuckled when he heard that Democrats are calling their proposals for the energy industry “economic development.”

“I don’t understand how we can call creating more onerous setbacks and more onerous rules for the oil and gas industry an economic development plan,” he said. “As my old granddad would say, ‘Call it what it is.’ That’s a job killing plan.”

Optimistic about the second half

But despite the political bickering, leaders from both sides of the aisle remain optimistic of the work they have ahead of them and the work that has already been done.

“While there’s been much talk about the polarization of this session, if you look at the priorities… those have been done with bipartisan support,” said House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver. “And a lot of the work we’ve done is with bipartisan support, and we have a great second half of the legislative session coming forward.”

“We’ve done an awful lot in these last 60 days, we have 60 days to go and those will be every bit, in my view, as action packed as the last 60 days have been,” added Senate President John Morse, D-Colorado Springs.

Waller said Republicans look forward to working with Democrats on jobs and the economy in the second half.

“We haven’t lost sight of why our friends and neighbors sent us here,” he said. “Our economic recovery remains fragile, and we know that it is still more important than ever for lawmakers to do everything in their power to provide people with opportunity for growth and success.”

Assistant Minority Leader Libby Szabo, R-Arvada, said she looks forward to putting political differences aside to do the work of the people.

“This session shouldn’t be about Republicans or Democrats,” she said. “Coloradans come first, and we remain absolutely dedicated to strengthening the opportunities that lie before them.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com