Q&A with Chris Holbert, Colorado Senate minority leader

Top Capitol Republican sets sights on K-12 funding, legislative powers during future emergencies

State Sen. Chris Holbert
Colorado Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, R-Parker, is pictured in April 2019. (Courtesy of Colorado Senate GOP)

Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, a Republican from Parker, was first elected to the Colorado House in 2010. He won election to the state Senate in 2014 and again in 2018.

Having spent a decade at the Capitol — about half of that time when Republicans were in control — Holbert, 59, knows the ins and outs of the lawmaking process and values reaching across the aisle. He spoke with Newsline on Dec. 31 about his priorities for the 2021 legislative session, which is adjourned for now but set to restart on Feb. 16.

Newsline: You’ve served in the Colorado Legislature for a while — since 2011. How have you seen the Republican caucus change over the years, and how has your party’s strategy changed?

Holbert: I’m one of, I think, three Republicans (who have served in the Legislature for) the past 10 years. I’ve been in the majority six and the minority four.

I can be in the Senate for two more years. I’m about to start my last two-year assembly, and assuming that — God willing — I live through January ‘23, that means that I’ll be in the majority six and the minority six.

From my perspective, having been in the majority half of the time, and I will be in the minority half of the time if I’m there for the full two years ahead of me … one thing that I can say is consistent is there’s been a lot of change.

(When) I was (Senate) majority leader, the first session, 62% of all bills that were introduced passed in a Republican Senate and a Democrat House, and (Democratic) Gov. (John) Hickenlooper vetoed two bills that year. When I share that data with people, their eyebrows go up. It’s like, “Wait a minute. If you have a split legislature, then you have gridlock and nothing gets done, right?” Wrong.

That might happen in Washington, D.C., but it really can’t happen under our unique constitution here in Colorado. When we have a split Legislature, (among) the six members of the (Joint Budget Committee), it means there’s three Republicans and three Democrats. The Constitution requires that they pass a budget that is balanced … It’s not an option. So, if you have three Republicans and three Democrats who are required to bring a budget to the Legislature that’s balanced, and it takes at least a simple majority of those six people — four or more — to do anything, it makes them talk to each other, it makes them work together, it makes them cooperate.

Sens. Leroy Garcia and Chris Holbert
Then-Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert, right, talks with then-Minority Leader Leroy Garcia in May 2018. (Courtesy of Colorado Senate GOP)

It’s fascinating how well our state Legislature works when there’s split chambers. … It’s kind of frustrating, the situation where one party has control of all chambers, because the answer to the minority priorities is “anything the Democrats decide to allow us to pass,” because it’s completely up to them. Mathematically, there’s no way we can do anything if they don’t decide to support it.

I hope that the new constitutional amendments Y and Z and the new redistricting process — both for state legislative districts and congressional districts — I hope that that works as planned. I hope that there isn’t manipulation from either side and that there’s truly a balanced group who will draw districts based on communities’ interest, not try to force some redefinition of the people who’ve decided to live in certain places and how they’re registered to vote and how they see the world.

If it works … we would ideally have less gerrymandered districts, less artificial grouping of people and more realistic grouping, and we think that there’s more opportunity for Republicans going into ‘22 than less. There really aren’t any House or Senate districts that we can find that are gerrymandered — drawn to benefit our party — but we can certainly find … those for Democrats.

What are some goals you think Republicans and state lawmakers in general should have this session? I know you said with one-party control it’s hard, but what are some things you think might be realistic to get done?

House and Senate Republicans, we signed on to a letter to the governor (in July) asking for a special session on public K-12 education issues. Now, that was before count day.

Every year in the fall, there’s a count day, and schools literally count how many kids are there and then they submit those counts through the school board, the school district, and that goes to how many portions of the per-pupil revenue that comes from the state does each district get. That’s really, really important. But because of COVID, count day was a mess.

Some school districts, they get a half — even a few of them get a third — of their total funding from the state. … We’re a local control state. But the portion that we send to a school district, if their count day was off, do they have to refund that money to the state now, if those kids aren’t actually there? Or do we need to modify the way they count to help with remote learning?

We’ve got to figure out the right solution, and that means talking across the aisle between chambers, and the Legislature communicating with school districts.

Morey Middle School
Morey Middle School in Denver on Oct. 28, 2020. (Quentin Young/Colorado Newsline)

So that’s a huge priority. The next one I want to mention … Republicans want to have a conversation with Democrats, and I think Sen. Paul Lundeen (R-Monument) will be in the lead of that. We think that we must have a conversation of, during a prolonged disaster emergency — not necessarily changing how this one works — but in the future, if we had something like this happen, should our part-time citizen legislature be called back?

Should the people be able to count on their senators and representatives in having some say in what decisions are made? Because as a local control state, this has been a very challenging aspect of government during an extremely challenging, unprecedented pandemic health issue. People have been demanding, you know, “Sen. Holbert, why did you set this level of restrictions for restaurant dining?”

I didn’t. The governor did. I didn’t have any say on that. “Why not?” Well, that’s the way our constitution, statutes and legislative rules work. Maybe we should rethink those things.

Right now, we’re very much a one-branch, concentrated-power scenario, and that might very quickly sound like I want to start criticizing Gov. (Jared) Polis. That isn’t the point. And we’re even willing to say, “Let’s not even think about changing the Constitution, the statutes, the legislative rules. Let’s not change anything based on the COVID-19 pandemic, but now that we have these experiences that our predecessors didn’t have, let’s look at those things and ask, how can we better serve the people of Colorado if it happens again?”

And that may require a constitutional change. That might refer something out for the voters to vote on in November of ’22. It might be statutory and just done at the Legislature. I don’t know yet, but that’s another priority for us, and again, we’re just not interested in having a binary political fight about whether Jared Polis is doing the right thing or not. He happens to be in that seat.

What we need to have a better conversation about is, what’s the role of balanced government? What’s the role of the Legislature? Because we’re part-time in Colorado. No other elected officials are part-time like we are. We only have lawmaking authority for 120 days a year, and that usually happens between January and May. Gosh, that means for eight months of this year, the people of Colorado haven’t had their representatives and senators actively involved in any of these decisions.

Should they? And I think a lot of voters on both sides of the aisle and in the middle would say yeah, they’d feel better about having their elected representatives and senators at least understanding those decisions, if not participating (in) and making them.

So you’re saying that if the governor issues an emergency declaration, then there should be something that triggers the Legislature to come back into session, possibly?

Yeah, would that be after 30 days of an emergency declaration, or maybe 60 or 90, after six months? We want to have that conversation with Democrats (to see) if there’s any sort of time frame where they would support having the Legislature be more involved.

In November of 1988, the people of Colorado voted on what was then called Amendment 3. And Amendment 3 put in the Constitution that the state Legislature cannot be in general session for more than 120 days.

I think some Democrats now are taking the view that maybe the Constitution should be amended to allow the Legislature or require the Legislature to be year-round. I certainly don’t support that. I don’t think that drastic a change is necessary, but when we have this prolonged disaster emergency, it probably would be a good idea to have some involvement from the Legislature, and we want to have that conversation: What does that look like?

If the Democrats say no, then nothing will change.

Gov. Polis proposed a mid-year stimulus package, with a lot of elements he said were aimed at providing aid for Coloradans and jump-starting the economy. Some of his proposals were passed during the December special session, but others remain, such as funding for shovel-ready infrastructure projects. Are there remaining elements of that mid-year stimulus you’d support?

Possibly. I think you’re probably going to see more disagreement on separate policy issues during the general session than you did during the special session (on COVID relief). And the reason is the conditions for legislators change. When our governor calls a special session, the Constitution says very clearly … that only topics, bill topics, that are “specially” … identified in the governor’s call, only those items can be transacted.

You mentioned shovel-ready projects. I think it’s really important for people to understand that that often sounds like roads and bridges. OK, we’re a local-control state, and this historical bit of trivia that I like to share with people … I ask, “What year did the assembly, the Colorado General Assembly, last vote to approve a specific road or bridge project?” And that year was 1899.

I can’t find anything better to document that we’re a local-control state. So, which elected officials in Colorado decide which roads or bridges are built? Well, county commissioners, mayors of cities or towns, and the town or city councils make those decisions constantly, because we’re a local-control state. They have those authorities within their local jurisdictions.

So we talked about shovel-ready projects. … I need to understand more: Which shovel-ready projects? Who will decide these things? Are we sending money into counties and municipalities for them to decide, or not? I don’t know, so that’s my best answer right now, is I can’t say that I would be for or against it. It would depend on what the bill would actually seek to do.

Construction of the Monroe Street bridge in 2019 as part of Colorado Department of Transportation’s work on Interstate 70 in Denver. (codot.gov)

Has the Legislature ever just sent funding to local governments that they would have discretion to use for transportation projects?

Yes, in fact. The last time there was a big move to do that, the two legislators who got it done were (Majority Leader) Steve Fenberg (D-Boulder) and Chris Holbert. … Two years ago, we added $300 million of funding to the budget. Some of that was general fund, some of it was other places where the Joint Budget Committee, I think they took some out of the Unclaimed Property fund, where property had been sitting there, dollars had been sitting there for years and no one claimed it.

But anyway, we found $300 million. The way that works in Colorado is almost all of the funding (for transportation) goes into HUTF, Highway Users Tax Fund. And the HUTF is not part of the state budget. So gas taxes, state and federal gas taxes, go into HUTF. But the Legislature doesn’t appropriate those dollars. And, back to that 1899 trivia, we don’t decide where it’s spent. The Legislature does have the authority to put in law a distribution formula, and that’s in law … and it’s been years since that’s changed.

Some of the money goes into (the Colorado Department of Transportation) for statewide transportation projects, and they decide which ones. Some of the money flows down to counties, and some of the money flows to municipalities. And then those elected officials — county commissioners, town or city council members and mayors, or the transportation commission at CDOT … those people make the decisions on what gets done. Not the Legislature.

So there’s been talk of, maybe, the Legislature would approve CDOT’s top priority list. OK, I don’t think that that ties the hands of county commissioners or mayors or town and city council members, but I’d want to make sure.

Regarding the budget in general, what approach do you think lawmakers should take during the 2021 regular session given the somewhat positive economic forecasts that were recently released?

Well, I think we can all breathe a bit of a sigh of relief, because here, a dollar in Colorado — a dollar in our state budget — a dollar means exactly one dollar. We don’t get to go out and borrow another dollar or 50 cents. We’ve got to spend every dollar wisely. … What I like to do in these kinds of situations is speak to the people of Colorado, people who buy things and earn income: Thank you.

The bad news isn’t as bad as we thought it was going to be, but I think at that point we all need to be careful … If there was less funding for fill-in-the-blank and now there’s more dollars, then people will start fighting over those dollars to restore funding to particular programs that they like.

That’s inevitable in the Legislature, but I hope that we can work together across the aisle and both chambers to make sure that the restoration of funding is equitable. When we take money away — and it doesn’t matter if it’s the 178 school districts or something that goes out through the Division of Housing, or whatever — when we take money away, we generally don’t tell those other jurisdictions or those departments, agencies within state government, we don’t tell them how to cut, and we need to be careful not to tell them how to increase, restore (funding).

We need to leave those decisions to the people who manage those funds, generally. So that would be my hope. It’s not the first time in my 10 years in the Legislature that we’ve been in this kind of situation. When I was first elected in 2010 and took office in 2011, we were still dealing with the Great Recession.

restaurant
An employee at the Briar Common Brewery + Eatery in Denver pours a beer for a patron on Jan. 7, 2021. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)

What more do you think state lawmakers can and should do to help businesses that may have been forced to close or downsize during the pandemic?

Well, we have to be careful about this discussion, because again, we’re not Congress … The difference is, Congress can borrow money and spend money they don’t have.

Could the state Legislature just compensate businesses for losses? We don’t have that money. … We can only spend the dollars that we have.

One of the things that I’m looking at is a specific tax that is collected in Colorado called business personal property tax.

If you’re a restaurant, you pay business personal property tax every year on, say, the tables and chairs in your dining room. It’s not like sales tax that you just pay it when you acquire it. You actually pay business personal property tax every year that you have that property. So in a year where restaurants have been limited on their capacity, or forced to not have any in-room, in-house dining for some time, is it reasonable that government would tax them a normal amount on all of that property that government didn’t allow them — or in fairness, the COVID virus affected their ability — to use?

That’s a conversation that I want to have, and my answer is no. If government put restrictions on those businesses and didn’t allow them to do business and make a profit while having that property, we should not tax it the same way we would in normal years. … I don’t know what that would look like, but I think that’s an important discussion we need to have.

What are your fears going into the new year, and what are your hopes?

Well, my faith directs me away from fear. I wouldn’t claim that I’ve never been afraid, but I don’t let that be too much of a motivator for me. My concerns: How can we move past the threat of this virus? … Will the vaccine work, will there be negative repercussions? I hear people with allergies or certain medical conditions are having severe reactions to it.

I don’t want to scare people away from it. Talk to your doctor. Make the decision that’s best for you.

But my concerns are: Can we get past this, and can people get back to work and businesses start generating revenue again? … How quickly can we recover from this?

Because I just got to think that everyone is pretty fed up with social distancing and not being with friends and family and celebrating things and going to sporting events and seeing kids graduate from school … My concern, because of that perspective, is mental health, and things like suicide, depression, domestic abuse. How many cancer screenings have not occurred because of COVID, people not going to the doctor?

It all comes back to this virus, this invisible thing that has had such an effect on our economy, our society, on relationships between people.

And I hope this doesn’t last much longer. I want to go back to normal. I want to go to a football game or a hockey game, but we’ll have to see.

I want to be optimistic that the vaccines work, that we can get a handle on this. So I look forward to better days. … I always want to say the best days are ahead. We’ve had some awesome days in Colorado, we are a boom and bust economy, and if we can come out of this pandemic in a strong way and work together, I’m excited about the future of Colorado.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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