Colorado legislative session focused on guns, housing, water

An era of historic Democratic control in the state Capitol began Monday, with leaders laying out a vision for what those mandates could achieve as Republicans were left hoping for a voice — and promising to put up a fight for their values.

The definition of mandate may vary from Democrat to Democrat, Senate President Steve Fenberg said, but the party is broadly united behind an agenda that covers housing, affordability, water and public safety. Lawmakers who for the past three years have dealt with emergent issues from the COVID-19 pandemic will be largely out from beneath that crisis’s shadow and instead will now deal with an array of concerns with a tighter budget and warnings of a potential economic downturn.

“We must understand and deeply respect that lawmakers in this chamber will have different visions and ideas for what this looks like,” House Speaker Julie McCluskie said in her opening speech. “To do this, we must contemplate what binds us all together — the basic needs that every individual has.”

Firearms regulations top priority at Capitol on opening day

At the top of the agenda, Fenberg said, is gun control. He named Sen. Tom Sullivan, a Centennial Democrat, as the person who will help usher through a bill aimed at strengthening the state’s extreme risk protection order law. The law, commonly known as the red flag law, empowers law enforcement to temporarily seize a person’s firearms if a court deems them a risk to themselves or others. Lawmakers and the governor pledged to expand the law following the November shooting at Club Q in Colorado Springs.

Sullivan, a longtime gun safety advocate whose son was murdered in the 2012 Aurora theater massacre, said the emphasis on gun safety — and what he called the public health crisis of shootings — was a “180-degree difference” from last year’s opening day.

In her speech to the House, McCluskie said the chamber would not only expand the red flag law but also increase waiting periods and the age limits to purchase firearms. Sullivan noted that the red flag law was still new and would require tweaking and attention going forward.

“It’s going to be a measured kind of look at it,” he said, “and don’t be surprised if we move on it again the following year and the year after that, if that’s what it takes to get it all the right way.”

He acknowledged that some lawmakers are looking at defining and outright banning assault-style weapons, too. The text of that bill, released partially by Republican officials, was not yet available Monday, and one of the bill’s sponsors declined to comment.

Regulations for assault weapons aren’t new, Sullivan said, but he called it a “niche part of the major problem” of gun violence. Gun violence perpetrated with those type of weapons are tragic, he said, and he sympathized with those families and victims. But there are broader efforts the legislature can undertake.

The emphasis on gun safety took another turn in the weekend ahead of the legislative session when an incoming member’s car was broken into and two firearms were stolen.

The incident worked its way into floor speeches in both chambers, albeit from different perspectives.

Fenberg, in remarks outlining legislative priorities that include preventing gun violence, cited it as an example of how the prevalence of guns makes Colorado less safe. In a “civilized society,” he said, people should be able to expect security and safety — and “we must be willing to consider that there are some people who are not fit to possess a deadly weapon.”

“And for those who can’t or won’t secure your firearms — either at home or in your vehicle — perhaps you’re not the responsible gun owner you think you are,” he continued. “Guns have no place in the hands of children, criminals or those who aren’t well. And if you’re the reason they’re entering those hands, you are part of the problem.”

Fenberg said he added the note about guns in vehicles after learning about the vehicle break-in.

Republicans emphasized that state Rep. Ron Weinberg, the Loveland legislator whose guns were stolen, was the victim of a crime. Rep. Stephanie Luck, a Penrose Republican, linked the theft to Colorado’s crime rate and criticized McCluskie, who described Weinberg as “irresponsible” in a statement to the Denver Post. Lynch called Fenberg’s comments “a political stunt” and a topic that will blow over.

New Republicans “not going to follow like sheep”

Throughout the day Monday, Lynch sought to present Republicans as representing a needed voice in a Democratic-controlled Capitol while also pledging to fight and disagree when necessary. He said Democratic leaders had offered an “olive branch” to Republicans, echoing past promises of bipartisanship.

Democrats won historic majorities in the General Assembly in November, defying prognosticators and the party’s own expectations of losing seats in the House and possibly their majority in the Senate. Instead, they secured a two-to-one supermajority in the House and are one seat shy of that threshold in the Senate.

In the Senate, that early congeniality was on full display. During his opening remarks, Fenberg jokingly asked Senate Minority Leader Paul Lundeen if he still had the measurements for new drapes in the president’s office. Lundeen had earlier seconded Fenberg’s nomination for leading the chamber. It underscored the friendly partisan rivalry and otherwise genial normalcy of opening day, even as the two sides acknowledged there would be debates and policy fights to come.

In the House, the tone was more strained. Historically, the election of the speaker — chosen weeks ahead of time by the majority party and a foregone conclusion by the time lawmakers return to the Capitol — is a unanimous, bipartisan vote. As Lundeen had done in the Senate, Lynch, the top Republican in the House, rose to further that tradition and support the nomination of McCluskie.

But he was followed by a freshman Republican, Rep. Ken DeGraaf, who nominated fellow newcomer Rep. Scott Bottoms to contest McCluskie for speaker.

DeGraaf, of Colorado Springs, criticized McCluskie’s support for abortion, which he described as genocide, and broader Democrat-backed policies, warning that the “road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Bottoms acknowledged that Republicans aren’t “going to have any power this session, we understand that. But we do have principles.” Republicans were sent to the Capitol to vote for Republicans and for Republican issues, he said.

The party’s House caucus has been plagued with infighting and disunity in recent years, and Bottoms’ doomed speaker run suggested that trend may continue. Like Lynch, Republican Reps. Richard Holtorf and Matt Soper also spoke in support of McCluskie. Both defended the vote as honoring tradition and McCluskie’s experience. Soper said Coloradans wanted lawmakers here to be better than their federal counterparts in Washington, D.C.

“This is where we can do better in Washington,” he said. “Right here.”

Ultimately, eight of the House’s 19 Republicans voted for Bottoms; even those eight votes, one veteran Democrat said, were disgraceful. Lynch attempted to take the moment in stride: He joked that his diminished caucus was so ready to legislate that one of them was already ready to be speaker.

But he waved away suggestions by reporters that the speaker scuffle was indicative of any larger issues.

“That’s the beautiful thing about every one of these individuals here is they all think on their own,” he said. “They all have their own ideas, they’re not going to follow like sheep. … I would expect nothing less from this group of people.”

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