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Colorado lawmakers mark boisterous end to legislative session

In recent years, sessions have wrapped up with rancor and exhaustion. This year, the mood was more positive
The American and Colorado flags draped under the Rotunda at the Colorado State Capitol. (Hart Van Denburg/CPR News)

For the first time in recent years, Colorado’s Legislature wrapped up with time to spare – the House beat the midnight deadline by four whole hours, with the Senate following later. Lawmakers were cutting cake and popping bottles before the sun had fully set.

It was a session that ended with a series of bipartisan deals on everything from taxes to oil regulations and transit funding and wetland protections. While those policies have critics outside the Capitol, for lawmakers the cooperation was a bipartisan bright spot. And it meant that, in spite of having endured tough debates and sharp moments during their 120 days together, the session’s finale arrived with a level of goodwill that has been in short supply in recent years.

Democratic state Rep. Leslie Herod takes a moment to collect her thoughts before speaking about her retirement from the House on Wednesday, the closing day of the Legislature. (Hart Van Denburg/CPR News)

“I'm grateful that on this last day we seemed to come together,” said Democratic Rep. Leslie Herod of Denver. “We are celebrating each other more, and I really appreciate that, especially it being my last day.”

Herod, who’s term is limited, is one of the 24 lawmakers who won’t be returning next session.

Republican Rep. Matt Soper of Delta noted how different Wednesday’s mood was, compared to the end of last year, when Republicans walked off the House floor in protest on the final day and Democratic divisions flared into the open.

“It was stressful. It was a warlike mentality. This year is definitely much more at ease. We've had some major wins as Republicans, which certainly helps,” Soper said.

Republican state Reps. Richard Holtorf, left, and Matt Soper share a light moment in the House on Wednesday, the closing day of the Legislature. (Hart Van Denburg/CPR News)

Those wins included co-sponsoring major bills to cut the income tax rate and slow the growth in property taxes, as well as the failure of some progressive Democratic priorities, like a ban on the sale of assault weapons.

The end of session also gave Gov. Jared Polis something to celebrate. After the failure of his marquee land-use bill last year, Polis got his wish with the passage of a trio of more targeted development reforms that give the state new influence over how cities grow and develop, especially around transit.

Democrats continued their focus on gun policy, passing a number of bills mostly focused on toughening up the implementation and enforcement of existing laws. They also sent a question to the November ballot asking voters to put a new tax on gun and ammunition sales to support crime victims.

“I think it's been an ambitious year, but I think we've been overall quite successful,” said Democratic Rep. Meg Froelich, a sponsor of several of the gun proposals. She said the assault weapons ban, in particular, was always set to have an uphill battle in the Senate.

Among the other proposals left behind were failed bills on everything from RTD reforms to dozens of niche tax credits.

As the night wrapped up, lawmakers spent their final hours saying goodbye to – and at times playfully lambasting – departing colleagues, including Senate President Steve Fenberg; Sens. Joann Ginal, Rachel Zenzinger, Perry Will and Bob Gardner; and Secretary of the Senate Cindi Markwell. In the House, lawmakers paid tribute to more than a dozen members who will not be back next year.

Some of those lawmakers – including Barbara McLachlan, D-Durango – are hitting term limits, while others are leaving to run for different offices in the state Senate, local government or, in the case of several Republicans, Congress. And for at least one, it was just time for a change.

Retiring Democratic state Rep. David Ortiz making remarks on the closing day of the Legislature on Wednesday. (Hart Van Denburg/CPR News)

After two terms, Democratic Rep. David Ortiz said he’s ready to live a quieter life and hopefully start a family.

Ortiz is a combat veteran and the state’s first lawmaker to use a wheelchair, a milestone that led to renovations in the House chamber and an increased focus on disability rights.

“I'll miss the way I've been able to organize and galvanize community,” Ortiz reflected Wednesday. “My district community, (those) living with a disability and veterans are always who I've shown up the most for. But I don't think that it ends here. It's just going to take a different form.”

To read more stories from Colorado Public Radio, visit www.cpr.org.