Aurora legislators cite very few bright spots amid partisan, do-nothing session

“The Senate GOP killed most of my bills because I am running for Congress and they killed a lot of other good bills that really didn’t need to be partisan.”

AURORA | Aurora lawmakers say this year was a do-nothing session due to hyper-partisanship in the state’s Republican-controlled Senate and the Democratic House.

“The Senate GOP killed most of my bills because I am running for Congress and they killed a lot of other good bills that really didn’t need to be partisan,” said Aurora State Sen. Morgan Carroll. The longtime Aurora lawmaker stepped down as the Democratic minority leader this year to focus on her campaign against Republican incumbent Mike Coffman for Aurora’s competitive Sixth Congressional District seat.

Carroll said she was most disappointed with Republican lawmakers rejecting a Democrat-backed bill to spend millions of dollars more on roads, K-12 schools and higher education.  Backers said it would have freed as much as $700 million for roads over the next five years by liberating a Medicaid fund, paid in part by hospitals to care for the needy, from budgetary spending limits. Republicans said voters would have to approve the move under Colorado’s constitutional spending limits.

Colorado lawmakers this year killed two bills that were polar opposites in addressing the state’s underfunded roads crisis, ensuring that nothing was done in this year’s legislative session to tackle the $8 billion-and-growing problem.

Democratic lawmakers first defeated a $3.5 billion roads bonds measure that was backed by Republicans and presented by House Minority Leader Brian DelGrosso. Democrats insisted there’s not enough revenue to back new bonds, which would require up to $5.5 billion over 20 years.

Carroll said she didn’t think the issue is going to be resolved without intervention from the Governor.

“I think the only way we have a special session is if the Governor is able to reach a deal with the Republicans on the hospital provider fee,” she said.

Carroll said she was able to find bi-partisan support for veterans this year.

One of her bills that passed re-authorized the state’s military relief fund.

“It has raised over $1 million and has helped families stay in their homes, make emergency car repairs, pay for marital counseling and so much more,” she said.

She also helped pass a bill that expands job-support services for returning veterans and a bill that would make it harder to jail individuals in municipal courts who cannot pay the fines. That bill is waiting to be signed by the Governor.

Carroll was also a sponsor on a compromise bill passed by the State House and Senate that would prevent red-light cameras and radars from expanding in Colorado. But it is expected to be vetoed by the Governor when it arrives on his desk.

Sen. Linda Newell, D-Littleton, who has served the state’s Senate District 26 since 2009, said this year was the most partisan she had seen during her tenure at the state capitol.

“This year, I had more bills die than I have in my whole time being there,” she said.

One bill Newell said she was disappointed to see killed by a state Senate committee would have prohibited employers from denying police and other first-responders workers compensation for claiming post traumatic stress disorder.

“If you’re in law enforcement, you’re seeing mangled bodies, the stress of a gun fight, and that’s on a daily basis. Yet you’re getting denied workers comp because of mental injury, that’s crazy to me,” she said.

Newell, however, was able to pass a zero-suicide bill that will a create a system-wide program for preventing suicide in the state’s health and behavioral health systems. In 2014, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Colorado had the seventh highest suicide rate in the nation.

Newell said she is also proud to have passed a law allowing physicians in other states to practice in Colorado via telemedicine. She said the bill is aimed to help doctors and patients at Children’s Hospital in Aurora, which has patients visiting from Kansas and Wyoming.

“Rather than travel all the way back to Denver for post-op, they can have a telemedicine appointment,” she said. “It helps within our state too. It’s a great way to increase access to affordable health care.”

Newell said the bill is expected be signed by Gov. John Hickenlooper, and that the state’s first zero-suicide academy is scheduled for sometime this summer.

Newell is term-limited and this was her last year serving on the state Senate.

In June, Newell said she is going to be working on a contract basis with the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, helping them with business outreach for a new project called “Force for Good” that is speaking out against discrimination in the name of religion.

“One of the things I’d love to do would be my consensus-building work I’ve been able to do at the capitol,” she said of what she might do next.  “I also don’t want to lose the knowledge on mental health and children and family issues that I’ve worked so hard on. A part of me wants to dig into those policy areas and see what I can do to help.”

Mary Hodge, D-Brighton, agreed that this year’s legislative session was affected by a split legislature and a looming election.

“It was an interesting session where we accomplished those things that we had to accomplish: the budget and school finance,” she said. “I would have liked to have had resolution to construction defects and moving the hospital provider fee to an enterprise.”

The lack of affordable condominiums built due to developers fearing lawsuits has been the focus of business leaders lobbying to change Colorado’s construction defects laws for the past four years. This year, lawmakers were so divided on the issue, they failed to even introduce a bill.

Hodge said her favorite bill this year was sponsored by Rep. Su Ryden, D-Aurora.  The bill directs the Colorado Department of Human Services to complete the veterans home at Fitzsimons by also providing space for homeless, low-income and disabled veterans and their families. It also received support from Republican Rep. JoAnn Windholz, R-Reunion, who drafted a similar bill this year. Hodge is term-limited and will be running for Adams County Commissioner in Aurora’s District 5 against Aurora Ward II City Councilwoman Renie Peterson.

This year, first-term Rep. Janet Buckner, D-Aurora, said she focused on sponsoring and supporting laws that strengthen working families in the states.

Buckner said she was glad lawmakers this year boosted state support for our public schools by $24.5 million and made $150 million in general fund transfers to the state’s highway fund.

As far as her own bills, Buckner touted being the House sponsor of a bill that aligns the Colorado child-care assistance programs with new federal standards.

“These changes will help increase stability for children and families by accounting for seasonal or month-to-month changes in income, so that eligibility is determined over the course of a year rather than having to discontinue benefits and then reapply if the cap is reached in any particular month,” she said.

Buckner said she was disappointed to see the Republican-controlled state Senate kill a bill that would have required businesses seeking state contracts to ensure that they provide pay equality and not discriminate based on gender or race. She said she was also disappointed to see a bill she sponsored fail on party lines that would have allowed parents to take unpaid time off from work to attend their child’s school activities.

“My late husband carried this bill last session, and I wanted nothing more than to get it passed this year. But after it passed the House with bipartisan support, it died in the same Republican-controlled Senate committee,” she said.

The wife of former Aurora Rep. John Buckner, she was voted in by a committee of Arapahoe County House Democrats to serve on her late husband’s seat for the 2016 legislative session.

— The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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