Legislative collapse

Time crunch and partisanship over civil-unions bill bring down the House

The best argument for a part-time citizen Legislature is that Colorado’s lawmakers have real lives. They are not entirely creatures of the alternate universe that is government.

On Tuesday night, however, some of Colorado’s lawmakers provided a vivid demonstration of why residents have lost faith in their elected representatives. On Tuesday, their behavior was worthy of Washington – which is to say, unworthy of Colorado.

Two problems converged. The first, a perennial one, is that the 120-day legislative session is no longer enough time to make all the decisions Coloradans want their lawmakers to handle on their behalf. Colorado is a populous, prosperous state facing diverse challenges. Its residents deserve a Legislature that can face those challenges thoughtfully, and its legislators deserve time to do their jobs well.

The other problem, also perennial but growing like a weed, is the intense partisanship that now infests every aspect of government at the state level and nearly everything else.

The civil-unions bill was bound to be contentious, but like all serious legislation, it deserved honest debate, careful consideration and open voting on its own merits. Instead, it became the cause of a complete legislative collapse that The Denver Post called “a late-night game of political chicken.” House Democrats did not introduce the bill until late in the session. House Republicans did not want to vote on it, so they slowed discussion of other measures. Democrats enlisted a couple of supportive Republicans to force the issue. The Republicans put the state House of Representatives into recess.

The civil-unions bill – passed by the state Senate, supported by the governor and appearing to have enough votes to pass in the state House – never came up. And more than 30 other bills died on the clock.

Not all those bills would have reached a vote. There simply was not enough time, and that is too bad. The length of the session relative to the amount of work to be accomplished needs to be addressed.

Some legislation could have been completed, though, if Senate Bill 2 had been presented for an up-or-down vote.

Yes, 2012 is an election year for state representatives. So is every even-numbered year. The Legislature is tasked, by the voters, to do its job every single year. Sometimes that job is unpalatable. Sometimes it takes political courage.

Sometimes, apparently, political maneuvering is an effective substitute, and that is too bad, because some of the bills caught in the crossfire were important: school-discipline reform; blood-level marijuana limits for drivers; the state’s annual water projects bill – in a drought year.

Good job.

On Wednesday, the House scrambled to save some of those bills by attaching them to other measures that were still alive. As necessary as those moves were, connecting unrelated measures – making the fate of one dependent on the fate of another – is another maneuver that angers voters.

The bickering and finger-pointing continue. Democrats say Republicans should have stood up for their principles, voted and accepted the consequences. Republicans say the bill was a Democratic time-waster that distracted lawmakers from economic issues.

From either side of the aisle, the fracas cannot be viewed as the House’s finest hour, nor did it demonstrate how democracy is supposed to work. It is no wonder residents are disenchanted.