Colorado’s Legislature passes bills with the potential to affect every Coloradan, often in ways deeper and more immediate than changes approved by Congress.
School funding, health insurance, transportation, criminal justice, tax policy and a range of other issues and programs come under the scope of the Colorado General Assembly, which begins its 2022 lawmaking term Wednesday.
One hundred lawmakers – 65 representatives and 35 senators – will work for 120 days through May 11. Democrats are in control with a 41-24 margin in the House and a 20-15 advantage in the Senate in addition to holding the governor’s office.
As part of The Colorado Sun’s Capitol Sunlight project, which aims to explain state government to Coloradans, we put together this brief guide on how the Legislature works and what you can do to influence and stay up-to-date with the process:
Lawmakers are supposed to introduce only five bills each, but there are often exceptions. In the past 10 years, the number of measures introduced ranged from 545 in 2012 to 721 in 2018, indicating that plenty of representatives and senators don’t follow the limit.
About 63% of the bills introduced in the past 10 years were signed into law, with nearly 81% of 2020’s 623 introduced bills being enacted.
But before a bill becomes a law and impacts your life, it goes through a lengthy and often complex process, with several opportunities for the public to follow along, offer their input and contact their lawmakers.
A bill becomes public once its title is read on the House or Senate floor, at which point it’s assigned to a committee. The Legislature lists bills as they’re introduced, along with information on where they’re at in the process and votes cast for or against them, on its website, leg.colorado.gov.
Unlike in Congress and other state legislatures, every bill that’s introduced gets at least one committee hearing where members of the public may offer input. If you’re interested in following a particular measure, the web page for each piece of legislation includes a schedule for when and where it is set to be debated.
If you’re interested in a particular issue area, such as education or health care, you might want to follow specific committees and their work. Committees in the House and the Senate typically meet at set times and days of the week in specific committee rooms, with the agendas published in advance.
However, those agendas and schedules are subject to change. So if you’re particularly interested in a specific committee hearing, check the schedule at the end or beginning of the day.
Click here for a more detailed guide that will help you navigate the expansive Capitol building.
Bills sometimes must clear multiple committees before they are advanced to a chamber floor.
Once a measure reaches the full Senate or House, it must clear two votes to advance. The “second reading” of a bill is where the first vote is taken and it’s also where most debate occurs. Any lawmaker may offer floor amendments and speak for or against the policy. Typically, a voice vote is held on this initial passage.
If a bill clears second reading, it heads to a third and final reading where the second vote is taken. The second vote must happen at least a day after second reading, though it may be delayed for strategic or logistical reasons. Typically, only amendments offering technical corrections are allowed at this point.
Once the House or Senate approves a bill, it moves to the opposite chamber, where the same procedure – starting with a committee hearing or hearings – takes place. If amendments are made in the second chamber, lawmakers in the originating chamber must vote whether to approve them, reject them or call for a conference committee to iron out differences.
There are plenty of ways for citizens to get involved in the legislative process:
Participate in committee hearings. You may testify at committee hearings on specific bills either in person or via Zoom by signing up in advance. Note that speaking time may be limited if a large number of people are signed up to testify, so prepare to make your point in 3 minutes or so.
We have some more information on how to testify for or against a bill here.
Email or call your lawmaker. Lawmakers welcome input from constituents, though not when it’s threatening or laced with profanity. Consider contacting all the lawmakers on a committee considering the bill you’re interested in, said Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, a Douglas County Republican. First, ask if they plan to vote for or against a bill.
“If they are going to vote the way you want them to, ‘thank you’ is a great way to respond,” Holbert said.
If not, he recommends asking lawmakers to explain their position, then share your thinking on the issue.
Here are more tips on how to communicate with your representative and senator.
You might have a lobbyist. Are you a member of AARP, the League of Women Voters, Americans for Prosperity or another civic group? Does your business belong to a state-level association? If so, you likely have someone lobbying lawmakers on your behalf.
Such organizations typically establish positions on issues likely to come before the Legislature, and may adjust their stances through the session as legislation changes. Consider reaching out to a lobbyist or organization that represents you to see how you can interact with lawmakers. They’re often looking for real people to talk about an issue before committees. But keep in mind that the group’s position may not always align with yours.
You may search a list of lobbying clients and lobbyists on the secretary of state’s website, with contact information and bills being lobbied listed.
The Sun also keeps track of lobbying spending. Check out our analysis from the 2021 legislative session.
Members of the public can always visit the Capitol and sit in committee rooms or the House and Senate gallery. But if you want to stay at home, you can also watch the action online through Colorado Channel on YouTube. Here is the link.
Committee hearings are not broadcast or recorded on video, but you can listen to them live through an audio feed or find them archived after the fact. Here’s the link. (For committee hearings, the entire audio often isn’t posted until hours later, or even the next day.)