DENVER – Politicians are prone to putting off tough decisions until the last possible moment.
Need proof? Look to Colorado’s divided Legislature. Just when Republicans ruling the House and Democrats controlling in the Senate appeared likely to pack up and leave Denver without major fireworks, a flurry of last-minute changes set them up for a dramatic final three days.
The main event is undoubtedly civil unions, legal recognition for same-sex couples. The proposal cleared the Democratic Senate, as it did last year, but two surprise Republican supporters in House committees late last week set up the measure for possible adoption. But there’s no time to spare. Any legislation lawmakers can’t agree on by midnight Wednesday dies for the year.
Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper has said the time has come for civil unions, and he’s poised to sign them into law if the bill gets to his desk. If that happens, Colorado would join more than a dozen states with either civil unions or gay marriage. It would be a dramatic turnaround for a state where voters just six years ago approved a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.
“At a certain point you just feel that the time is right. There’s a tipping point,” Hickenlooper said Friday.
The civil-unions bill will command the most attention in the Legislature’s closing days, but there are plenty of other hot-button questions remaining for lawmakers to settle.
Among the measures lawmakers face:
Child literacy: A divisive bill to flunk schoolchildren who fall dramatically behind on reading skills appeared in doubt just a few weeks ago. But the measure became a lot less controversial when lawmakers softened retention requirements to give parents more of a say over whether their children fail a grade and added $16 million to help schools pay for expensive tutoring the bill requires. But because the measure would still make it difficult for third-graders to enter fourth grade if they are among the worst readers, House Bill 1267 may not be in the clear yet.
Driving stoned: The switch of a single Republican senator cleared the path for approval this year of a driving blood-level limit for THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. The same bill failed last year amid skepticism that the blood standard was a fair gauge of impairment. This year, marijuana activists who oppose the standard are vowing to lobby lawmakers aggressively in the closing days to stop it again.
Trans fat: A statewide ban on artery-clogging trans fats in school food passed the Senate after it was changed to give schools more time to adjust and to exempt fundraisers such as bake sales. Senate Bill 68 now awaits action by the full House, where Republicans skeptical of regulation make its passage far from certain.
Sales-tax holiday: A proposal to waive sales taxes on school supplies, low-cost clothes and computers faces uncertain odds despite its crowd-pleasing nature. The break, estimated to save taxpayers about $4.5 million if it took effect in 2014, has critics from the right and left who say the “tax holiday” holds marginal value to retailers and consumers and could actually harm schools by reducing state funding.
Local drilling rules: Local governments clashed with state natural-gas and oil regulators about who has the authority to regulate where wells are placed. The two sides reached an apparent truce after Hickenlooper assembled a task force to settle the disagreement. But just in the last couple of weeks, lawmakers from both parties dropped incendiary proposals to either limit drilling or punish towns that try to limit it. The drilling measures appear certain to fail, but their very existence means that jockeying could continue to the last minute.
Wildfire compensation: Republicans and Democrats appeared headed for an ugly political standoff about proposed changes to a state law that would allow victims of a recent deadly wildfire southwest of Denver to seek compensation beyond state liability limits. Last week, party leaders shook hands on a compromise proposal, but lawmakers have no time to spare making sure the compromise ends up on the governor’s desk.
It’s a crowded menu for the final days of the session, and lawmakers frequently spend those days working late into the night hoping to steer smaller pet projects toward approval.
The frenzied pace has special urgency this year. It’s an election year and many of the 100 seats in the Legislature are up for grabs. Some incumbents face challengers in their own party; others have new turf to defend because of once-a-decade legislative redistricting. It’s a recipe for a tense final few days. Even some seasoned lawmakers say the atmosphere is volatile.
“It feels weird,” said Sen. Steve King, R-Grand Junction, shaking his head. King is sponsoring the sales-tax holiday and the marijuana DUI bill, and he says he finds himself battling critics in both parties, an unusual turn.
“There are times at the end of every session where there’s a lot of stuff still out there. What’s different to me this year is, there’s a lot of important stuff still out there,” he said.