2015 recap: Partisan divides slowed Colorado Legislature

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DENVER (AP) — The Colorado legislative session that concluded this week was among the most sharply partisan in recent memory — even for a state where political division is the order of the day.

A Republican Senate and a Democratic House spent much of the term spinning their wheels on topics guaranteed to fail in the other chamber. By the time the final gavels fell Wednesday, lawmakers had agreed on fewer bills than any term in the past four years — including one session where the individual chambers were also divided.

Republicans wanted to revisit gun control, using their newfound majority in the Senate to prompt a review of some gun laws passed after the Aurora theater shooting and an ammunition magazine limit.

Democrats squashed every attempt.

Democrats, meanwhile, whiffed on a slate of measures designed to address income inequality, including efforts to reduce student loan debt and to raise the minimum wage.

Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper and lawmakers in both parties tried Thursday to highlight areas of compromise. They mentioned agreements on student testing and police oversight.

"There are many, many examples of bipartisanship and cooperation," Hickenlooper told reporters. In addition to the testing and police bill, Hickenlooper cited bills to boost workforce development efforts and a bipartisan agreement to raise the pay of public officials.

Still, lawmakers failed to make any progress on other weighty measures, notably proposals to shore up the state's rickety finances.

The governor noted that lawmakers have sent him about 350 bills — far fewer than even in 2011, when the Legislature was divided in the other direction, with Democrats in control of the Senate and Republicans running the House. He said the term veered at times to what he derided as "the Washington model," where partisan divides slow legislation.

Party leaders in both chambers mentioned the partisan tone, too — and blamed the other side.

For example, Senate Democratic Leader Rollie Heath shook his head when recounting GOP efforts to ratchet back renewable energy mandates.

"Why we would want to turn back the clock and go backward is beyond me," Heath said.

House Republican Leader Brian DelGrosso derided a late-session proposal from Hickenlooper to overhaul state budgeting to avoid taxpayer refunds by using an accounting mechanism the GOP found improper.

"Just because we need the money doesn't mean that it's OK to violate the constitution," DelGrosso said.

But both sides and the governor insisted they're trying to focus on areas where lawmakers agreed. Even if less was accomplished this year, the bills that passed were generally moderate and by definition bipartisan.

"There was not a lot of contentious stuff that got passed," DelGrosso said. "There was a lot of middle-of-the-road stuff."

Among the big-ticket items lawmakers agreed to this year:

— A bill to reduce mandatory statewide standardized tests in early grades and late in high school. The bill also allows school districts that don't like the statewide assessments to explore creating their own. The eventual bill, not settled until the term's closing hours, didn't go as far as many testing critics wished. But Hickenlooper backed the compromise and called it a highlight achievement of the term.

— A bill to make public schools legally liable for student safety, waiving governmental immunity and allowing schools to be sued for possible negligence in cases of school violence.

— A slate of bills to increase oversight on law enforcement, including a measure to encourage police departments to use officer body cameras.

— A bill to ask voters to correct a drafting error in the state's 2013 pot-tax measure that means Colorado will have to refund some $58 million in taxes on recreational marijuana.

— A bill to make it harder to petition initiatives onto ballots. The measure requires proposed ballot measures to receive a fiscal analysis before signatures are gathered. The bill had feisty opposition in both parties but prevailing lawmakers argued that the analysis would give voters more information.

Hickenlooper vowed to keep working on proposals to shore up the state's checkbook, an effort that is complicated by conflicting constitutional requirements even when the economy is strong, as it is now.

The generally optimistic governor brushed away suggestions that lawmakers were ineffective this year.

"Rarely is everything perfect in a legislative session," Hickenlooper said.


Ivan Moreno can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/ivanjourno. Kristen Wyatt can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/APkristenwyatt.

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