Every legislative session is filled with disappointments. Fortunately, the people of Colorado have asked their legislature to meet in regular session each year. This means one session’s disappointment can become next year’s triumph. Keep hope alive!
Here’s a quote I gave to Westword‘s Michael Roberts that I think sums up the natural inclination of the legislative session to disappoint:
“The State Capitol is expert at handing out disappointment. Every once in a great while, it does something truly remarkable, and apparently this wasn’t the session for the remarkable. But I’ve been fighting these battles for a long time, and even though setbacks are unpleasant, they’re not the final chapter in the story. The fight goes on. It’s been going on for a long time, and every day we are closer to our goal.”
Without dwelling too much on the downside, here’s a list of some of my biggest disappointments from 2012:
SB 2 Civil Unions. Alas.
SB 15 ASSET – Once again the dreams of immigrant students were dashed by partisan politics in the House of Representatives. SB 15 would have offered an affordable tuition rate to students who graduate from Colorado high schools but cannot establish in-state residency due to their immigration status. The “standard tuition” rate in SB 15 would have been more expensive than that paid by in-state students, but it would have been much more affordable than their current alternative. Each year we keep this door to opportunity slammed shut we potentially lose another class of students who can and should have the brighter future that higher education makes possible.
SB 105 Collateral Consequences – I’ve worked for two years to pass legislation helping people with criminal records move beyond their past. Collateral consequences are the barriers and disqualifications that come from having a felony on your record, but they were not part of the sentence imposed for the crime. They’re the piling on that happens all the time through “tough on crime” legislation that says “felons need not apply.” They make it exceedingly difficult for people with a past to ever have a future, and as a result these folks often commit new crimes and go back to prison. I sincerely believe we could reduce our recidivism rates if we did more to facilitate re-entry and removal of barriers from collateral consequences. SB 105 unanimously passed three committees and unanimously passed the Senate 35 to 0, but it instantly died in the House. Third time’s a charm!
SB 109 Mail Ballots for so-called “Inactive” Voters – With Secretary of State Scott Gessler suing Denver’s County Clerk to prevent people from getting mail ballots there is genuine concern for voter suppression. Unfortunately, Colorado is the only state in the nation that declares a voter “inactive” for failing to vote in the last general election. This designation means Scott Gessler doesn’t want you to be mailed a ballot anymore. He thinks low propensity voters should have a more difficult time exercising their right to vote. I think he’s got it backwards. SB 109 would have ended his lawsuit and allowed clerks to mail ballots to people that are registered and had previously requested mail ballots. But this simple idea proved too controversial, probably because there really is an effort to suppress the vote. Denver’s Clerk & Recorder Debra Johnson should be commended for her effort to extend the franchise, and we all have some work to do this summer to re-activate as many of these voters as we can!
SB 163 Drug Possession Sentencing Reforms – This bill had a dynamic set of bipartisan sponsors and a laudable goal of ending felony charges for possession of small amounts of illegal drugs for personal use. Savings from not sending “felons” to prison were to be reinvested in community-based drug treatment programs, something I’ve been working on for three years now. Unfortunately, the bill became sensationalized by opponents, often through the systematic dissemination of misinformation. It seems the state’s district attorneys were already smarting from the passage of HB 1271, reforming the process for “direct file” cases where juveniles are tried as adults in adult court. They couldn’t take another “loss,” so they did everything they could to derail SB 163. As a result the bill was turned into a directive for the Colorado Commission on Criminal & Juvenile Justice to study the issue of misdemeanor possession charges and incorporate recommendations into a larger project proposing a new sentencing scheme for all drug offenses. And to make matters worse, SB 163 was one of the 30-plus bills lost in the House debacle on May 8, when House leaders shut down the process to prevent SB 2 from coming up for a vote on the floor. The only bright spot here is that SB 163 was one of ten bills revived the next day by amending their provisions into other bills still pending in the Senate. The CCJJ study was passed as an add-on to HB 1310.
SB 182 Benefit Corporations – Another bill with bipartisan sponsorship that met a bizarre death, twice actually. Jointly sponsored by Sen. Bob Bacon (D-Fort Collins) and Sen. Shawn Mitchell (R-Broomfield) in the Senate, and Rep. Tom Massey (R-Poncha Springs) in the House, these sponsors should have been able to pass this bill. It would have authorized a new type of business entity, a benefit corporation, which functions like a regular corporation but instead of owing its highest duty to shareholders to maximize profit, these entities could instead make public benefit part of their mission. This bill died on May 8 as a result of the debacle in the House of Representatives, but it was added to the agenda for the special session by Governor Hickenlooper’s call. But that’s when things got weird, and Tea Party activists across the state started campaigning against the bill. They flooded the Capitol with emails claiming that benefit corporations were part of something called “Agenda 21,” a UN conspiracy to subvert capitalism and destroy our country through sustainability initiatives. (Honestly! You can’t make this stuff up…) And as a result the bill died on a party line vote in the House State Affairs Committee during the special session.
SCR 1 Repeal Obsolete Provisions in Colorado Constitution – This measure would have referred a question to the November general election ballot asking voters to do some housekeeping clean-up on our overly cluttered state constitution. It proposed the repeal of three provisions deemed obsolete because they’ve all been overturned by court challenges finding them unconstitutional. They’re unenforceable dead letters, and while they aren’t doing any harm they ought to be taken off the books. It takes a vote of the people to do that, and we’ll have to wait at least two more years for the next opportunity. Again, this measure died on the House calendar on May 8 and then died a second time in the House State Affairs Committee during the special session (probably because the notorious anti-gay Amendment 2 was one of the unconstitutional provisions proposed for repeal).
Careful readers may have noticed a pattern to this year’s disappointments: they’re all Senate Bills. Two reasons for this immediately come to mind: because I serve in the Senate I am more familiar with bills originating and passing out of our chamber (I’m sure there were good House Bills that disappointingly never saw the light of day, but they didn’t make it onto my radar screen), and the modus operandi for the House this year was to kill as many good ideas originating in the Senate as they could. As the above list indicates, this was probably the one goal of House leadership that met with the most success.