Colorado’s legislative session has a 120-day limit. It wasn’t always that way.
Republican stall tactics put spotlight on 1988 constitutional amendment
The Colorado Capitol on May 9, 2022. (Pema Baldwin for Colorado Newsline)
The final weeks of Colorado’s 2022 legislative session, which is constitutionally required to end by 11:59 p.m. on Wednesday, have seen Republican lawmakers escalate stall tactics aimed at running out the clock on legislation being considered by the Democratic-controlled General Assembly.
“The minority caucus over (in the House) is not a group of people that it’s easy to negotiate with,” Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, a Democrat from Boulder, told reporters Tuesday.
Fenberg floated the idea of a special session if a “significant amount of big priority bills” can’t make it through the House of Representatives on Wednesday. A majority of the 199 bills pending as of early Tuesday were awaiting action in the House, according to the Office of Legislative Legal Services.
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It’s the second time in two years that the 120-day deadline has been in the spotlight, after a 10-week pause in the legislative session amid the 2020 outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic prompted a lawsuit from Republicans, who argued that the move by Democratic legislative leaders violated the limit. The Colorado Supreme Court ruled that the pause was constitutional.
The 120-day limit was set by a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 1988 and followed decades of wrangling over the length, frequency and scope of legislative sessions — all of which continue to vary widely in state governments across the country.
For nearly 80 years after Colorado attained statehood in 1876, the General Assembly met only once every two years. Amid growth in the size and complexity of government administration in the New Deal era, however, complaints mounted about the biennial legislature’s inability to govern and manage the state budget effectively, leading to a constitutional amendment proposed by the General Assembly and approved by voters in 1950.
Supporters of the change, like Republican Rep. Walter Stalker, noted that the move to annual sessions would make little practical difference, since each of the previous three regular sessions had been followed by special sessions to address unfinished business, anyway.
”Many things come up in government which cannot wait until the convening of the legislature nearly two years in the future,” Stalker wrote in a 1949 editorial in the Wray Gazette.
The 1950 amendment specified that in sessions held in even-numbered years, lawmakers could only take up budgetary matters and special issues chosen by the governor. In 1982, Colorado Republicans, who controlled both houses of the Legislature but faced a roadblock to their agenda in Democratic Gov. Dick Lamm, proposed a successful ballot measure amending the Constitution to eliminate the subject requirement, while limiting the length of sessions in even-numbered years to 140 days.
The length of regular sessions held in odd-numbered years continued to be unrestricted, and ranged from 132 days to 185 days, with an average length of just over 145 days, between 1967 and 1988, according to state data.
A ‘citizen legislature’
That changed in 1988, when Republican lawmakers proposed a constitutional amendment limiting both sessions to 120 days.
In a nonpartisan analysis published that year, Legislative Council staff wrote that the arguments for the proposal focused on maintaining the General Assembly’s character as a “citizen legislature,” composed of part-time lawmakers from a “variety of professional and occupational backgrounds.”
“A growing number of legislators who have resigned recently have stated that the increasing time commitment was a principal consideration of their leaving office,” the analysis said. “The proposal will guarantee adjournment of the legislature on a date certain so that part-time citizen legislators can plan for the time necessary to participate in the legislative process.”
Arguments against the amendment called the measure “too restrictive and inflexible.”
“The quantity and complexity of issues confronting a highly technical, rapidly changing society in competition with world markets demand quick responses from individuals willing to commit personal time and effort to formulate good public policy,” read the analysis. “The proposal will not ensure a more competent, efficient or well-informed legislature.”
Coloradans narrowly approved the measure, known as Amendment 3, on the 1988 ballot, with 52.3% in favor. No further significant changes to Article 5, the portion of the Colorado Constitution governing the General Assembly, have been adopted in the 34 years since.
Currently, 11 states — including New York, Illinois, California, Ohio and Pennsylvania — do not restrict the length of their legislative sessions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Another 10 states place limits on session length that are less restrictive than Colorado’s, while 24 states have more restrictive deadlines. Four states, including Texas and Nevada, only meet biennially.
During a hectic special session of the Legislature held in December 2020, state Sens. Julie Gonzales and Chris Hansen, both Denver Democrats, raised the idea of a full-time legislature, Colorado Politics reported. Javier Mabrey, a Denver Democrat running for a state House seat, is among the progressives who have endorsed the idea.
“We are long overdue for a full-time professional legislature with properly compensated policy staff,” JoyAnn Ruscha, a Denver-based communications and policy consultant, wrote on Twitter Tuesday.
Faith Miller contributed to this report.
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