Members of the Colorado House of Representatives on May 9, 2022. (Pema Baldwin for Colorado Newsline)
The volume of legislation left to debate, amend and vote on in the final days of the 2022 legislative session made for plenty of high tempers, late nights and frayed nerves.
Republican stall tactics left some legislative leaders wondering if the number of bills left on the table would require a special session to tie up loose ends. In the end, however, most of the Democratic majority’s big legislative priorities made it through by midnight on Wednesday, when the Colorado General Assembly adjourned until next year, as required by the state constitution.
Some of the last policies to pass the finish line included three environmental bills to better regulate toxic air pollution, improve Colorado’s dismal recycling rates and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from buildings.
Below are some highlights from the hundreds of other bills that state lawmakers passed, amended or killed in the final 48 hours of the session.
Collective bargaining rights for county employees
Senate Bill 22-230, one of the most highly anticipated — and latest-introduced — bills of the 2022 session, would give county government employees the right to organize a union and engage in collective bargaining starting Jan. 1, 2023. The legislation was led by Senate President Steve Fenberg of Boulder, Senate Majority Leader Dominick Moreno of Commerce City and House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar of Pueblo.
Originally, SB-230 would have granted collective bargaining rights to a much wider swath of public employees in Colorado, but after meeting heavy criticism from business groups, higher education and local government, the bill was significantly pared down prior to its introduction April 25. Opponents were well funded: Conservative advocacy group Advance Colorado Action reported spending $100,000 on direct mail and digital ads to oppose the bill months before it was introduced.
The House voted 41-24, along party lines, to pass the bill Wednesday afternoon, leaving one final legislative step: Senate approval of House amendments, a vote that came out to 20-15, with all Democrats in favor and all Republicans opposed.
State funding for K-12 education
The finishing touches on the 2022 School Finance Act, the bill to fund K-12 education, were left for the last day of the legislative session. A conference committee met Wednesday morning to hash out differences between the House and Senate versions of the legislation.
Sponsors of this year’s School Finance Act, House Bill 22-1390, say it represents a historic level of state investment in K-12 education. The bill reduces the budget stabilization factor, or negative factor — the amount of money the state owes schools based on a formula but chooses to spend on other priorities — to its lowest amount since 2010. Still, the negative factor is projected to be a whopping $321.2 million in fiscal year 2022-2023.
The sponsors of HB-1390 include Reps. Julie McCluskie, the Dillon Democrat who chairs the Joint Budget Committee, and Barbara McLachlan, a Durango Democrat, along with Sens. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat and JBC member, and Paul Lundeen, a Republican from Monument.
The disagreement between the House and Senate had to do with the amount of time that certain public schools would have to comply with a ban on Native American mascots that state lawmakers passed last year. Lawmakers appointed to the conference committee by House and Senate leadership settled on a version giving schools that first learned they would need to change their mascot after May 1 would have one year to get into compliance.
Some lawmakers had worried the Commission on Indian Affairs could vote this month on whether to add new schools to the list of those that must change their mascot by June 1 of this year. That includes schools using “Thunderbirds” as their mascot, a mythical creature with significance for several tribes.
Under the version of HB-1390 approved by the conference committee, those schools would get at least another year to change their mascots before facing $25,000 monthly fines.
“Just to be clear, this doesn’t derail or in any way change the requirements to comply with the law,” Lundeen said during the conference committee’s Wednesday meeting. “It simply provides a time frame for those who have been notified later to have a reasonable period of time in which to comply with the law before being subject to penalties.”
“That is correct,” replied Jacob Baus, a staff attorney with the Office of Legislative Legal Services.
After adopting the conference committee’s decision, the House voted 45-20 to re-pass the bill late Wednesday night, with most Republicans voting “no.” The Senate passed the final version of HB-1390 unanimously.
Felonize possession of fentanyl compounds
A bill to address the state’s fentanyl overdose crisis hit a roadblock late Tuesday night when House lawmakers rejected the Senate’s amendments, triggering a conference committee.
House Bill 22-1326 would make possession of more than 1 gram of a substance containing fentanyl — the powerful synthetic opioid that killed more than 900 people last year in Colorado — a level 4 drug felony. Possession of any amount of most schedule I and II substances is currently a misdemeanor in Colorado.
In the Senate, lawmakers stripped language to require that someone convicted of that felony would need to have known or “had reasonable cause to believe” that the substance in their possession contained fentanyl. District attorneys had argued that standard would be impossible to prove in court. Sen. Brittany Pettersen, a Lakewood Democrat, did not support the amendment, while co-prime sponsor Sen. John Cooke, a Greeley Republican, did.
In the House, however, lead sponsor Democratic House Speaker Alec Garnett of Denver and 39 of his colleagues voted Tuesday night to reject the Senate’s amendments. Rep. Mike Lynch, a Wellington Republican and the bill’s original co-prime sponsor, had supported the Senate version. He asked for his name to be taken off of the bill Wednesday night.
The conference committee that met to decide on the final language included Garnett, Lynch, Pettersen, Cooke, Democratic Rep. Kerry Tipper of Lakewood and Democratic Sen. Chris Hansen of Denver. Under their compromise, reached Wednesday evening, someone facing a level 4 felony for fentanyl possession could have the charge lowered to a level 1 misdemeanor — but only if they could show “supporting evidence” that they “made a reasonable mistake of fact and did not know” a substance contained fentanyl.
The House voted 35-30 to adopt the conference committee’s decision. Most Democrats were in favor — other than Reps. Judy Amabile of Boulder, Jennifer Bacon of Denver, Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez of Denver, Matt Gray of Broomfield, Iman Jodeh of Aurora, Chris Kennedy of Lakewood, Naquetta Ricks of Aurora, Emily Sirota of Denver and Steven Woodrow of Denver, who opposed the new felony for fentanyl possession.
Most Republicans voted “no” because they wanted stronger criminal penalties, especially for possession. Those who voted “yes” were Reps. Janice Rich of Grand Junction, Shane Sandridge of Colorado Springs and Matt Soper of Delta.
About half of Senate Republicans voted for the final version of HB-1326, including Cooke, Minority Leader Chris Holbert of Douglas County, and Sens. Don Coram of Montrose, Kevin Priola of Henderson, Bob Rankin of Carbondale, Ray Scott of Grand Junction, Cleave Simpson of Alamosa and Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling. Sen. Julie Gonzales of Denver was the only Democrat to vote “no.”
HB-1326 became one of the most highly anticipated and closely watched bills of the legislative session, with a variety of interest groups hoping to sway lawmakers’ perspectives on the portions of the bill that dealt with criminalization of substance use. The desire for influence extended to public perception as well: Advance Colorado Action spent $350,000 in March and April alone on mailers and digital ads to support increasing criminal penalties for fentanyl, according to expense reports filed with the Colorado secretary of state’s office.
The bill would also invest in bulk purchasing of the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone, require people convicted of crimes involving fentanyl to undergo drug treatment, and increase penalties for fentanyl distribution.
Build out Behavioral Health Administration
In 2020, a task force unanimously recommended the state establish the Behavioral Health Administration as one of several strategies for reimagining the state’s flawed behavioral health care system. The goal was to centralize management of the state’s myriad mental health and substance use programs, making it easier for patients to access care when they needed it.
A bipartisan bill that Polis signed into law last April laid the groundwork for the new government agency. This year’s follow-up, HB-1278 — sponsored by Reps. Mary Young of Greeley and Rod Pelton of Cheyenne Wells — would permanently house the Behavioral Health Administration under the Colorado Department of Human Services and have it absorb most of the programs currently run by the department’s Office of Behavioral Health. It would establish a commissioner to head the BHA and give that commissioner, along with the State Board of Human Services, the authority to set rules for Colorado’s behavioral health safety-net system.
By July 1, 2024, the BHA would need to establish a comprehensive behavioral health safety-net system in Colorado, including emergency care, outpatient services and case management, as well as a system for licensing behavioral health organizations and providers.
The final version of HB-1278 passed the House on a vote of 50-15, with all 15 no votes belonging to Republicans. The Senate voted unanimously to approve the bill last week, with one lawmaker, Coram, excused. Sens. Pete Lee, a Colorado Springs Democrat, and Simpson sponsored the bill in the Senate.
Proposed tax to pay for school meals
Lawmakers moved to refer a ballot measure to voters that, if approved, would fund free school meals for all Colorado children by capping tax deductions for people earning $300,000 or more. The bill to do that was introduced in the last weeks of the session and secured final passage in the Senate on Tuesday.
The sponsors of House Bill 22-1414, Gonzales-Gutierrez and Dafna Michaelson Jenet of Commerce City, along with Pettersen and Rhonda Fields of Aurora, had originally proposed funding a universal school meals program in the state budget through Senate Bill 22-87. Due to concerns about the high cost, that bill was postponed indefinitely on Tuesday in the Senate Appropriations Committee.
The ballot measure proposed in HB-1414 would use a similar maneuver to one that lawmakers enacted last year in an attempt to make Colorado’s tax code more equitable. Last year’s legislation capped itemized deductions for people with annual incomes of over $400,000 at $30,000 for individuals and $60,000 for couples.
The ballot measure would significantly lower the cap, applying it to both itemized and standard deductions for people earning $300,000 or more. The cap would be set at $12,000 for individuals and $16,000 for couples. Revenue generated through the ballot measure would be used for school meal reimbursements, local food purchasing grants and smaller programs.
Internal Revenue Service data shows that the two biggest income tax deductions for high earners in Colorado are for charitable contributions, and state and local taxes paid, or SALT, according to information from the Colorado Fiscal Institute. The average charitable deduction for Coloradans earning between $200,000 and $500,000 is about $10,000, while the average SALT deduction for someone in that bracket is $12,000. Data wasn’t immediately available for the narrower group of people who would have their income tax deductions capped for the first time by the ballot measure.
HB-1414 passed on a vote of 43-22 in the House last week and 23-12 in the Senate. The Republicans who joined Democrats to vote “yes”: Sens. Coram, Simpson and Dennis Hisey of Colorado Springs; along with Reps. Rich and Mary Bradfield of Colorado Springs.
Restrictions on non-consensual towing operators
A bill to expand state regulation of non-consensual towing in Colorado gained a Republican co-prime sponsor, Sen. Sonnenberg, before it soared through the Senate on Monday by a 31-4 vote. The original sponsors of House Bill 22-1314 were Reps. Ricks and Edie Hooton of Boulder, along with Sen. Gonzales — all Democrats.
HB-1314 would prohibit private companies from towing for expired registration, mandate before-and-after photos of towed vehicles, and require 24-hour warnings prior to towing on private property. It would require that towed vehicles be returned at the owners’ request, even to people who couldn’t pay fees right away.
The COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project, which works to prevent mass evictions and homelessness during and after the pandemic, was a key backer, while industry leaders opposed the legislation, saying that many of its provisions go too far.
The House approved Senate amendments to HB-1314 on Wednesday, voting along party lines to re-pass the bill and send it to Polis. The Senate vote Tuesday was 31-4, with Cooke, Liston, Lundeen and Sen. Jim Smallwood of Parker opposed.
Bigger refund checks for some Colorado taxpayers
With just weeks left in the session, Polis joined Democratic lawmakers and Treasurer Dave Young to announce a new way of refunding some of the surplus state revenue that Colorado is required to send back to taxpayers under the voter-approved constitutional amendment known as the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR. Rather than receiving sales tax refunds when they file their taxes next year, Polis said, individual taxpayers would receive a $400 check in late summer. Joint filers would get $800.
That represents a change from the way that sales tax refunds normally go out. Typically, the refunds are tiered based on income level, with higher earners who pay more income taxes receiving larger checks. But if every taxpayer received a $400 check instead, then people earning less than $94,000 would get more than normal and those earning $94,000 or more would see larger checks, according to a chart published by Colorado Public Radio.
Senate Bill 22-233 made it to the finish line Tuesday when the Senate approved a last-minute House change that sponsors said could result in larger checks depending on how much excess revenue the state collects by the time the fiscal year ends June 30.
“This amendment just allows us some more flexibility in case the numbers are a little higher than what we’re projecting,” said Rep. Tony Exum, a Colorado Springs Democrat who sponsored the bill in the House with Democratic Rep. Lindsey Daugherty of Arvada. Early economic data suggests the state may have enough money to send out checks larger than $400 while still saving some of the expected surplus revenue for sales tax refunds that go out in the normal way next year, when people pay their taxes, he said.
Other typical refund mechanisms — including property tax reimbursements for local governments and a temporary income tax cut — will remain in place next year despite the early sales tax refund checks.
In order to receive a refund check as early as possible, people must file their taxes by June 30, according to Sen. Nick Hinrichsen, a Pueblo Democrat, who sponsored SB-233 in the Senate with Sen. Robert Rodriguez, a Democrat from Denver. People granted an extension to file at a later date will still receive an early refund check, but it would get sent out in a later batch. For example, someone who filed their taxes in October would probably receive their check in January 2023, Hinrichsen said.
“This is not a Democrat or Republican thing,” Exum told Newsline. “This is for the taxpayers of Colorado, no matter what party they’re in.”
SB-233 passed the House on a final vote of 54-11, with just over half of Republicans voting in favor. In the Senate, the bill passed 22-13, with Sens. Hisey and Rob Woodward of Loveland the only Republicans to vote “yes.”
No-go on flavored tobacco ban
A heavily lobbied bill that would have banned flavored tobacco products statewide met its death in a Senate committee Tuesday. According to a fiscal analysis, House Bill 22-1064 would have cost the state more than $46 million by July 1, 2025 — with much of that tied to voter-approved taxes on nicotine products to fund the state’s universal preschool program, a key campaign promise for Polis.
Despite support for the bill from some local leaders, Polis told The Colorado Sun he preferred to leave the issue up to local control. Denver Mayor Michael Hancock vetoed a flavored tobacco ban late last year. A number of smaller cities, including Boulder, Glenwood Springs and Aspen, have already moved to ban flavored tobacco products.
HB-1064 was sponsored by Reps. Kyle Mullica, a Democrat from Federal Heights, and Bacon, along with Sens. Priola and Fields. After passing in the House on May 4 by a vote of 35-27, the bill failed on a 5-2 vote in the Senate Appropriations Committee. The two lawmakers who had voted to advance the bill were Gonzales and Hansen.
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