11 January 2008

Opening Arguments

The politicians have spoken.

Speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives Andrew Romanoff (D-Wash Park) offered his agenda for the 2008 legislative session on Wednesday. Denver Democrat and President of the State Senate Peter Groff made an opening day speech in the state senate as well. The leaders of the Republican minorities in each house also spoke and the text of those speeches is available in the respective journals of each house of the Colorado General Assembly for January 9, 2008.

Governor Ritter, a Democrat, offered his State of the State Speech on Thursday. Incidentally, I am pleased by Colorado's tradition of having the legislative branch offer up its agenda for the year before the executive branch does.

The Process

The intense deadlines of the session are set forth here. The session ends May 7, 2008, unless in a signature political tactic of Colorado Democrats, the work is done sooner.

Legislators were required to start the process of drafting three of the five bills they are each allowed to introduce by December 3, 2007, and the first 300 bills (three per legislator) that count against the five bill be member limit must be introduced by Monday. The remaining 200 bills must be introduced in the next three weeks. Every bill that is going to become law (with some narrow exceptions) must clear its house of origination by February 27.

Most bills that die do so in committee in the house of introduction, and that is also the forum in which the most sweeping amendments tend to be introduced and considered.

With some small exceptions, rest of the session will be spent considering bills that passed their house of origination and the state budget. The K-12 funding bill has to be completed by March 14 and bills creating new judgeships are also on the fast track.


Now we ask "which bills will survive to become law, and which will fail?"

The agendas of every player in the state legislative process is now on transparent. This comes after months of behind the scenes secrecy and negotiations over proposed bills, with minimal and imperfect information. There are now a flood of proposals that must be digested quickly by players in the process, legislators, staffers, lobbyists and anyone else who wants to influence the legislative debate.

This also means that by the time ordinary citizens are thinking about legislation because the state representatives and state senators are in Denver, it is far too late to propose any ideas not already covered by an introduced bill in the current year.

One has to be extremely nimble to participate in the process during the month and a half between the time the public is made aware of a bill's introduction, and the end of each bill's more formative period in its house of origination. Most of the formal action in take place in a brief committee hearing (normally part of a single day or two) open to the public, and a brief floor debate usually on a single day in which members of the public may not speak.

Legislators have small paid staffs, although some have volunteer staffers and interns to help in addition. Every legislator has to have someone consider every bill that makes it to the floor in their chamber, usually several hundred bills. The short time frame and small number of staffers for legislators means that lobbyists can gain power, not with campaign contributions, but by providing information that there is no time to rebut even if some of it may be false or misleading.

Of course, committee members have more time to consider bills that come before them and the system relies upon them to weed out the worst bills in their area of expertise. Also, not every bill is a matter of great moment. No one's political future is going to rise or fall based upon the action taken with regard to House Bill 08-1048 concerning the size of the state seal, or House Bill 08-1017 to make the Western Painted Turtle the state reptile, and there will be no one lobbying hard against House Bill 08-1095, to ratify the text of the 2007 version of the codified statutes of the state.

Other bills like House Bill 08-1066 designed to extend Colorado's "Make My Day" law to include places of business, as well as homes, while backing off from last year's abortive efforts to include vehicles within its ambit as well that produced massive opposition from law enforcement officers, will no doubt produce mountains of spilled ink on the op-ed pages. So will Senate Bill SB 08-040 providing for online voter registration.

Some of the most intense lobbying in the session will revolve around bills like House Bill 08-1064 to regulate naturopathic doctors, a matter of no importance to the vast majority of people in the state, which is central to the livelihood of a small number of people in the state and to the health of the small percentage of people in the state who obtain services from naturopaths. The bill arose mostly because an incompetent person holding himself out as a naturopath killed someone in Wheat Ridge, Colorado with a treatment not accepted as proper medical treatment by either the alternative health naturopath community, or conventional medical practice.

Other issues, like education and health care reform will have a wide impact.

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