DENVER — Gay rights. Gun control. Taxes. Illegal immigration.
The Colorado Legislature will be far from timid this year.
The 2013 lawmaking session that begins today promises an ambitious agenda. After two years of divided control, Democrats control both chambers, clearing the path for many of their proposals to get to the governor’s desk.
The new Democratic leaders — House Speaker Mark Ferrandino and Senate President John Morse — have said they’ll start with a focus on jobs and the recovering economy. But Ferrandino and Morse anticipate a quick acceleration to some highly emotional debates.
First up is a measure creating civil unions for same-sex couples, a proposal that brought Colorado lawmakers to standstill last year as House Republicans twice blocked the proposal. This term, the measure is expected to pass relatively early, as Democrats flex their muscles with both chambers and the governor’s office under their control.
Consider civil unions just the opening act. Look for a vigorous debate on gun control in the aftermath of last summer’s Aurora theater shooting. With single-party control, Colorado could see a flurry of measures to curb access to firearms — including a possible assault-weapons ban.
“I want to find a way to eliminate assault weapons, but I’m still trying to figure out how to do that,” said Morse, a former police chief.
Republicans have also indicated they’ll have proposals in response to recent mass shootings. They want more schools to have armed school resources officers, and Republican Senate Leader Bill Cadman said recently his party will consider “school safety” legislation, but he wouldn’t elaborate.
It’s also likely lawmakers will consider a repeal of the death penalty. Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper has said he’s torn about what should be done.
“I wrestle with this, right now, on a pretty much daily basis because we are in a position where we have a couple of death row inmates that are going to come up and I haven’t come to a conclusion,” Hickenlooper said in an Associated Press interview last month.
It’s also an issue that has special significance for Democratic Rep. Rhonda Fields, the expected sponsor of some of the gun control bills. Two of the three inmates currently on death row are there because they were convicted of killing her son to prevent him from testifying in a murder case. Fields has said she would oppose repeal of the death penalty.
“It’s pretty darned insensitive to be working on this piece of legislation when she’s in the chamber,” said Republican House Leader Mark Waller, who promised that his party will fight repeal legislation.
Lawmakers will also jostle over how to regulate marijuana, now legal in Colorado for recreational use. And those are just the criminal justice issues.
Health care questions also loom. Hickenlooper wants lawmakers to make some changes to Medicaid so that the state can afford to add more low-income adults to the program. Because Medicaid is such a big-ticket item in the state budget, expect lawmakers to tread carefully.
Republicans are skeptical that Colorado should expand the assistance program and say it’s unsustainable. Medicaid is already one of the largest portions of the state’s general fund budget.
“I kind of look at it like you’re trying to hand somebody a rope to help them, but at the same time you’re tying the other side of the rope around somebody else’s neck,” Cadman said.
As in previous years, both parties will be looking for ways to boost the economy. And they’ll clash again over how best to do that. Democrats may revive efforts to help Colorado companies receive state contracts, and Republicans will likely propose cutting taxes or regulations, which they argue spur growth.
“This recovery is very fragile ... and right now, that’s the most important thing,” said Morse, who has suggested a series of tax cuts for people with children.
So there’s a long agenda for lawmakers to tackle before they adjourn in mid-May. Democrats could also revisit stalled efforts on how schools are funded and rules for union organizing. Democrats will also propose lowering college tuition rates for illegal immigrants who graduate from Colorado high schools.
Waller said his party will have to change strategy the next two years if they’re going to succeed with Democrats in control of everything.
“We are going to have periods of time where we are on the dissent on issues. Obviously that’s going to happen. And we need to be respectful when we do that. We don’t accomplish anything by just throwing the bombs and being incredibly divisive,” he said.