Colorado lawmakers are entering their final month of the 2012 session with plenty left to do — but without the caustic atmosphere one might expect in the closing days of an election year.
The state’s divided Legislature has until May 9 to balance the budget and make final decisions on questions such as civil unions, tuition rates for illegal immigrants and changing how underage criminal defendants are treated.
It sounds like a recipe for political heartburn, but the Capitol mood is surprisingly optimistic.
“We’re in a great place right now,” House Republican Leader Amy Stephens said.
An improving economy means the budget Colorado lawmakers will debate next week restores some funding for state services cut deeply during the recession. Lawmakers appear to have tax revenue to start restoring cuts they’ve had to make to K-12 education, and they’re also anticipating restoring a senior property tax break that they had to cut during lean fiscal times.
Outside the budget, Democrats in the Senate and Republicans in the House seem to have entered a detente of sorts. They spent a lot of energy last year battling over hot-button measures such as gun control and voter ID requirements from the GOP, and civil unions and in-state tuition for illegal immigrants from the Democrats.
This year, the same proposals are out there. But lawmakers seem to have less fight in them, perhaps because neither side has budged. Democrats have already shot down Republican ideas to expand gun rights and to require photo IDs at the polls. And the prospects for a civil unions bill or a tuition change for illegal immigrants are uncertain at best.
“We’re looking at a very similar year to last year — support and consensus on the budget … and a lot of other stuff still out there,” said House Democratic Leader Mark Ferrandino.
Ferrandino means that lawmakers have a full plate after finishing work on the budget. Like every year, the closing days of this lawmaking session will see long debates and late nights as lawmakers scramble to finish work. Major pieces of legislation to watch this month include:
— A divisive proposal aimed at boosting child literacy. Some lawmakers from both parties want to adopt new statewide standards for determining literacy from kindergarten through third grade. But some complain the literacy proposal won’t be adequately funded and could lead to more struggling students flunking the early grades.
— Sweeping revisions to a ratepayer subsidy for telephone providers that once supported underserved areas but some say isn’t needed these days. The complicated overhaul puts two powerful lobbies at odds — AT&T Inc. and smaller providers against CenturyLink Inc.
— New rules for state employees to change worker protections that date to the Progressive Era. The revisions for the most part aren’t controversial, but because many employee protections are in the state constitution, lawmakers will have to agree to ask voters to approve amendments this fall.
— Blood-level marijuana limits for drivers. The federal government is pushing states to clamp down on drugged driving, but the fact that medical marijuana is legal in Colorado has led to disagreement over how to determine whether someone is too high to drive. Lawmakers failed to agree on a marijuana DUI standard last year, setting up a task force to study the question. But the task force couldn’t agree on a standard, and it’s possible lawmakers won’t agree this year, either.
What’s not likely to get done is just as interesting.
Back when the session began in January, lawmakers from both parties vowed to concentrate on efforts to boost jobs. And they did. Democrats and Republicans both put jobs proposals at the top of their agendas.
But the wide philosophical divide between the parties meant that the big-ticket ideas all failed or are headed to failure. Instead, the Legislature appears likely to agree only on smaller jobs proposals, such as a new law to encourage higher education institutions to better track employment trends.
Small accomplishments may be all lawmakers can hope for at this point. The bigger prize comes later this year, when voters decide whether the GOP hangs onto its one-seat majority in the House, or whether Democrats regain control of both chambers.
Because of once-a-decade redistricting, several lawmakers must battle each other in June primaries. In other districts, incumbents are working on new turf with no guarantees of returning to Denver.
For that reason, lawmakers may be eager to get out of session with as few bruises as possible.
Senate Republican Leader Bill Cadman was one of the lawmakers paired with another incumbent. The other guy stepped down rather than challenge Cadman, but Cadman says he understands why lawmakers are ready to leave Denver.
“A lot of folks are anxious to get out of here and campaign,” Cadman said.