By Sara Wilson
The Colorado General Assembly convened for its 2023 regular session Monday morning as Democrats prepare to legislate with a wide majority and Republicans learn to navigate the reality of diminished power in the state Capitol.
Opening day began with musical performances — Colorado Childrens’ Choral in the House and four-person ensemble DeVotchKa in the Senate — prayer, and the swearing in of every legislator, with a crowded floor and packed galleries that required an overflow room to accommodate the increase in visitors.
In her opening remarks, House Speaker Julie McCluskie, a Democrat from Dillon, spoke about previous legislative successes for the party and offered a glimpse into how Democrats hope to propel the “Colorado dream” forward this session.
“It’s our job to support and celebrate those individual dreams. We must understand and deeply respect that lawmakers in this chamber will have different visions and ideas for what this looks like. To do this, we must contemplate what binds us all together — the basic needs that every individual has,” she said.
McCluskie said this is the year the Legislature makes water the “centerpiece of (its) conservation efforts” by working to modernize the state’s water management system and work to secure federal dollars for restoration and conservation programs.
“The General Assembly has recently invested millions in the Colorado Water Plan, drought mitigation, watershed protection, and water conservation, and yet our water faces unprecedented threats that no one has seen or experienced before,” she said.
On firearm policy, she shared that the Legislature is seeking to expand how and when a red flag petition — to confiscate guns from potentially dangerous people — can be filed, as well as seeking to increase the age limit and waiting period to buy a gun.
She also spoke about her desire for bipartisanship as Democrats hold a supermajority. Just 19 of 65 members in the chamber are Republicans.
“Much of our important progress has been accomplished because Democrats and Republicans came together, rolled up their sleeves and delivered commonsense results for their constituents. There have been powerful examples of the lawmakers in this room putting people above partisanship,” she said. “As this session begins, I want us all to pursue that same goal. Let’s put people above politics, and progress above partisanship to continue delivering results for all Coloradans.”
House Minority Leader Mike Lynch, a Wellington Republican, said that while the GOP isn’t “proactively” thinking about putting forward its own firearm policies, it will monitor Democratic bills for Second Amendment or personal freedom violations.
Lynch urged all representatives to be accountable and beholden to their constituents.
“(There are) voices you may not agree with, but are still there to be heard from in each one of your districts. I ask only one thing of you, the supermajority, let those voices be heard,” he said in his opening remarks.
McCluskie also highlighted the bounty of firsts this legislative session. Democratic Rep. Brianna Titone is the first transgender lawmaker in the country to serve on caucus leadership, Democratic Rep. Regina English is the first Black woman to represent El Paso County and Democratic Rep. Elizabeth Velasco is the first Latina to represent the Western Slope. Additionally, this is the first session in which three women are in the top three majority caucus leadership positions.
Republicans want to be ‘full participants’
Senate President Steve Fenberg, a Democrat from Boulder, spoke about the Senate’s potential to slow down a hyperpartisan and politicized legislative process. The chamber’s smaller membership allows for more deliberation, he said.
“We don’t need to abandon or turn our backs on our tribe. But we need to build fewer walls, and more bridges between our tribes,” he said. “We need to build authentic relationships with those who are outside of our insular groups. In other words: we need to become friends.”
At the same time, he said, Colorado voters gave Democrats a mandate and intends to utilize the historic majorities. There are 12 Republicans and 23 Democrats in the chamber.
Fenberg, like McCluskie, also spoke about prioritizing gun violence prevention in his opening remarks. The proposal to expand the red flag law, also known as extreme risk protection orders, would allow professionals like counselors and district attorneys to bring petitions to a judge, rather than only law enforcement officers and family members. Fenberg said the bill will be sponsored by Centennial Democratic Sen. Tom Sullivan, who lost his son in the 2012 Aurora theater shooting.
“Nobody is saying that Coloradans don’t have the right to defend themselves and own a gun,” Fenberg said. “We’re saying that, in a civilized society, where people expect the freedom to live with basic security and safety, we must be willing to consider that there are some people who are not fit to possess a deadly weapon because of the extreme risk they pose to themselves and others.”
On a controversial fentanyl bill from last session, which Republicans heavily criticized during the campaign cycle, Fenberg said he wants to give it “a chance to work” before considering changes to the law.
Senate Minority Leader Paul Lundeen of Monument said during his opening remarks that he hopes any bipartisan legislation this session will include meaningful contributions from Republicans, rather than simply one or two Republican co-sponsors.
“We are intent to do more than just talk. We insist on being full participants in the legislative process in this chamber, and will offer our best, constructive suggestions for making the future laws of this state better,” he said, adding that most of the issues debated during the last election cycle — especially involving public safety — have not been solved.
Republican challenges McCluskie for speakership
Two freshman Republican state representatives disrupted the typically uneventful process of electing the House speaker. House Democrats selected Rep. Julie McCluskie of Dillon at the end of last year to serve as speaker this session, dependent on an often-unanimous vote of approval from the full chamber.
Instead, Rep. Ken DeGraff nominated Rep. Scott Bottoms, both Republicans of Colorado Springs, to serve as speaker of a House, in which Democrats have a supermajority. Despite the lack of a pathway for Bottoms to become a speaker, DeGraff said his nomination was not partisan or a stunt.
Bottoms seconded his own nomination.
McCluskie was still elected as speaker on a 55-8 vote.
“Let’s put people above politics, and progress above partisanship to continue delivering results for all Coloradans.”
House Speaker Julie McCluskie
Those who voted against her were DeGraff and Bottoms, along with Reps. Brandi Bradley of Littleton, Lisa Frizell of Castle Rock, Richard Holtorf of Akron, Stephanie Luck of Penrose, Ron Weinberg of Loveland and Ty Winter of Pueblo County. That is a little less than half of the 19-member Republican House caucus. Holtorf was critical of the move to nominate Bottoms, but voted for him anyway.
Bottoms, an evangelical pastor who labels himself as far-right, spoke on the House floor about defending the Second Amendment, his belief that life begins at conception and that God “created male and female.”
“We’re not going to have power this session, we understand that, but we do have principles,” he said.
House Minority Leader Mike Lynch not only voted for McCluskie for speaker but was the one who seconded her nomination. He called the drama in the speaker election a “blip” after the chamber went into recess in the afternoon. He said the caucus is coherent and cohesive, despite the drama on the House floor and the eight members who voted against McCluskie.
“They’re not going to follow like sheep down the road. They all have ideas of their own and they all have their interpretation of the rules here. We saw that play out here today,” he said of the caucus.
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