07 January 2009

Off To The Races

The 2009 session of the Colorado General Assembly began today. It may continue until May 6, 2009 at the latest.

The State Senate has 21 Democrats and 14 Republicans. The State House has 38 Democrats and 27 Republicans. These are safe Democreatic party majorities in each house. Colorado has no equivalent to the U.S. Senate's filibuster and does not give the legislature a role in judicial appointments. A majority vote is sufficient to pass almost all legislation other than proposed state constitutional amendments and veto overrides.

Each legislative session passes both general legislation and an annual budget for the state. In lean years, like this one, however, the process is highly constrained. The state constitution, the dictates of key federal grants (like Medicaid and transportation funding), and the inherently long term nature of some types of government spending leave the Governor, Joint Budget Committee and Appropriations Committees with relatively few choices. Subject to certain exceptions (appropriations bills, certain house keeping bills and interim committee bills for the most part), each member of the General Assembly may introduce five bills per session, and must file most in the first few days. Bill creation mostly happens pre-session and in private; the session itself largely just winnows out proposals that lack sufficient support, and refines the proposals that will survive.

Colorado Governor Ritter is a Democrat, as are Cary Kennedy, the State Treasurer, and Bernie Buescher, who has been appointed to fill the vacancy created by Republican Secretary of State Mike Coffman's election as a Congressman for the 6th Congressional District (a Congressional District previously held by Tom Tancredo). Colorado Attorney General John Suthers is a Republican and does not intend to run for re-election as Attorney General in 2010. The Governor is expected to veto bills only sparingly, as was the case last session with a largely similar group of legislators.

The main events on opening day are speeches from the top Democrat and Republican in each chamber. Colorado House Speaker Terrance Carroll's open day speech is here. Colorado House Minority Leader Mike May's speech is here. Colorado Senate President Regis Groff's speech is here. Colorado Senate Minority Leader Josh Penry's speech is here.

Terrance Carroll's speech set out the following agenda:

I ask each of you, the members of the Colorado House of Representatives, to work together toward achieving three common goals to help expand opportunity:

*First, to bring new, high-paying jobs to Colorado

*Second, to provide support for struggling families

*And finally, to build a world class public education system . . . .

[T]his November, Senate President Groff and I created the bi-partisan Committee on Job Creation and Economic Growth. Together, we tasked that committee with crafting real solutions to bring new jobs to Colorado right now and to help get our economy back on track. . . . We look forward to hearing your committee's recommendations. . . .

Today we will introduce legislation sponsored by Representative Joe Rice to provide a new Colorado Jobs Tax Credit to companies that bring good, high paying jobs to our state. . . .

So this year we will revive the Colorado Credit Reserve Program.

With a small guarantee from the state, the program will encourage lenders to loan as much as $50 million to Colorado small businesses so they can stay afloat during this difficult period. Thank you to Representatives Sara Gagliardi and Don Marostica, and the Office of Economic Development, for their hard work on this issue. . . .

Over the next few weeks, we must work with Governor Ritter and our delegation in Congress, to make sure we get the federal funding we need to start bringing new jobs to Colorado to fix our crumbling roads and broken bridges by this summer. . . .

I look forward to working with Representatives Judy Solano, Andy Kerr, Michael Merrifield and others on a variety of innovative proposals that will continue to expand the market for solar and wind energy by removing barriers and making clean energy more accessible to homes, schools, and businesses.

And, with the help of Representative Jim Riesberg, we will continue to invest in our promising bioscience industry to convince small, high-tech companies make Colorado their home.

Finally, to attract companies that will be profitable tomorrow to locate in Colorado today, we must train a workforce with the skills they need to compete for these high paying jobs. So with the assistance of Representatives Nancy Todd and Ed Vigil, we will expand our job training programs at community colleges, with a special emphasis on preparing our labor force to tackle the good green collar jobs that are on their way. . . .

We will spend only what we can afford. We will balance the budget. We will put our money where our values are. We will do everything in our power to preserve the critical services that create opportunity: for children to get an education; for struggling families to go to the doctor when they are sick; for the unemployed to stay afloat while they search for their next job, and for Colorado families trying to protect their American Dream. . . .

I welcome the legislation authored by Rep. Mark Ferrandino that will offer those Coloradans facing foreclosure a "temporary timeout;" a little extra time to work with their lenders to save their homes. . . . Rep. John Kefalas will introduce an ambitious plan creating a framework to expand opportunity and reduce poverty significantly over the next ten years. Called the Economic Opportunity Task Force, the body will be charged with developing a strategic, integrated and comprehensive plan to help lift families out of poverty. . . .

Rep. Karen Middleton is introducing legislation to create an Office of Dropout Prevention and Student Reengagement, to make sure that students complete their high school studies, and are ready to take the next step, whatever that step may be. And Rep. Debbie Benefield is unveiling a plan intended to make sure that every child, regardless of their race, where they live, or what their socioeconomic background is, has access to a high-quality teacher. And Rep. Michael Merrifield's legislation will make it easier for high school students to have access to the college and technical training they need to get good, high-paying jobs. . . .

I hope this year to pass legislation from Rep. Andy Kerr that allows parents to take a few hours, unpaid, to step away from work to attend meetings at school without worrying about losing their jobs.

The policy core of Groff's speech emphasized the following issues that need to be addressed:

Despite decisions and investments we have made in our efforts to create the new energy economy and assist small businesses which has placed Colorado in a much better economic situation than many states face -- we are not immune from the national financial crisis --face a tremendous budget deficit of $604 million, we now have 43,000 people in our unemployment insurance system and saw $48 million paid in unemployment benefits in November the highest unemployment rate in the history of state; in the first three quarters of 2008 there were almost 30,000 foreclosure filings, and according to the Food Bank of the Rockies nearly half a million people rely on food banks and the last six months that number has increased by 20% or 91,000 people;

Despite the decision in the closing hours of our last session to introduce a late bill to repair 122 structurally deficient bridges and handle other transportation needs -- that effort failed and we crossed our fingers and prayed to God that those bridges would hold and we wouldn't have a Minneapolis tragedy. We didn't. But we now face 126 structurally deficient bridges that must be repaired at a total cost of $1.3 billion and an overall yearly shortfall of $1.5 billion for all other transportation needs;

Despite our decisions to expand school choice and create innovation in our K-12 system to the point that we are national leaders in education reform -- Our college readiness rate is only 34%, colleges spend $14.6 million on remedial classes and 52% of parents can't attend school related events because they aren't granted sensible leave;

Despite our decision to establish building blocks in the area of health care and health insurance to create better access, to lower cost and insure more Coloradans -- including covering an additional 50,000 children by next year, we still have nearly 800,000 Coloradans who face the frightening specter of being uninsured.

As is typically the case, the speeches of the House Speaker and Senate President sum up the key points of the legislative agenda. In a session like this one, where Democrats control both houses of the legislature by safe margins and the Governorship, the respective minority leader's speeches are largely irrelevant.

Tomorrow, Governor Ritter will deliver his State of the State speech, also an important agenda setting annoucement.. Friday, the Chief Justice will deliver her State of the Judiciary speech, which is typically a fairly low key affair. Monday, General Assembly members roll up their sleeves and really get down to business.

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