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Split-party legislative rule returns after 10-year hiatus

Cooperation and compromise needed

DENVER – Colorado Democrats emerged from the 2014 elections battered and bruised, losing the state Senate for the first time in 10 years and having a slimmer margin of power in the House than they had two years ago.

But with control of the lower chamber and the governor’s office with the re-election of Gov. John Hickenlooper, Democrats still have more clout than Republicans to dictate what happens in the legislative session that begins in January.

Republicans, however, will enter the session with momentum, having made gains in the House, putting Hickenlooper through his toughest campaign yet with Republican Bob Beauprez and taking an 18-17 lead in the Senate.

“They’re actually going to have to listen to us,” said Loveland Rep. Brian DelGrosso, the GOP leader in the House, where Democrats will hold a 34-31 majority, compared with the 37-28 lead they had two years ago.

The divide will make it difficult for either party to pursue an aggressive agenda like Democrats did two years ago when they controlled everything and passed gun-control laws, civil unions, college tuition benefits for students in the country illegally and renewable-energy mandates on rural electricity cooperates.

Split-party control also will make it tough for the GOP to reverse those Democratic policies. Republicans still are expected to try, if only to put their political opponents in an uncomfortable position revisiting those topics.

The area where Republicans are likely to have the most success is helping craft the budget. Unlike the prior two years, when Democrats had more members on the budget-writing Joint Budget Committee, the panel will now be 3-3, and veteran Republican Sen. Kent Lambert will be chairman.

In 2011 and 2012, the last time legislative power was divided, Republicans successfully bargained to repeal sales taxes on agricultural products and saved part of a sales-tax rebate to retailers that Democrats wanted to suspend. Republicans also pushed for the restoration of a property-tax break for seniors that both parties suspended in tight budget years.

This year, Republicans are sure to block any efforts from Democrats to ask voters to keep revenue above the limit set by the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR, which requires refunds to residents when tax receipts exceed the combined rate of inflation and population growth.

Hickenlooper’s budget proposal already sets aside nearly $137 million for the refunds in tax year 2016. But Democrats historically have made clear their disdain for TABOR, which they see as restricting government’s ability to fund schools, transportation and other services when more money is available during economic growth.

Lawmakers also will get suggestions from a Hickenlooper-assembled task force that’s studying how to address land-use clashes between Colorado’s energy industry and homeowners.

The matter was expected to be one of the most contentious of the session, even before the election results. Now that both parties share power, they’ll have to find common ground if anything is to get done.

“There is a difference between how you run for office and how you govern. And while you may believe in a certain way, when you have to come to governing, you have to compromise,” said Democratic House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, who is term-limited and won’t be returning in January. “And I think we’ll see that on both sides.”

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