2022 offered legislators the first real opportunity to set an ambitious agenda after two years of limping through the global pandemic, but Colorado’s emergence out of the COVID-19 crisis also unleashed a torrent of challenges. There were many familiar problems, such as housing, behavioral health and wildfires, as well as new ones, notably soaring inflation and a spiraling fentanyl crisis that became the focal point of an arduous 120 days of session.
Colorado’s legislators hunkered down, knowing the majority of them will have to persuade voters to return them to the legislature – or to other offices – in just a few months.
But the crunch to tackle more than half of 657 bills still awaiting final action with only 10 days to go in the 2022 session also meant legislators faced nearly all of the top 10 issues this year in the last few days leading up to the May 11 adjournment.
Fentanyl: The biggest bill of the session, House Bill 1326 seeks to boost treatment and education programs for those addicted to the synthetic opioid and ramp up felony charges for possession of 1 to 4 grams of fentanyl or when it is in combination with other illicit substances, including meth, cocaine or heroin or mixed just with acetaminophen. Both Democrats and Republicans had put public safety as one of the top issues they planned to address this year, but the deaths of five Commerce City residents allegedly to fentanyl overdoses in February moved everything else to the back and put fentanyl on the front. The focus on the criminal penalties – as opposed to provisions on treatment – frustrated Democratic sponsors, including Speaker Alec Garnett of Denver and Sen. Brittany Pettersen of Lakewood, and caused a rift with their Republican co-sponsors, Rep. Mike Lynch of Wellington and Sen. John Cooke of Greeley. Lynch pulled his name off the bill in the measure’s final hour over language on when a felony charge actually applies, a major concern that district attorneys and law enforcement said would hinder their ability to prosecute dealers. At issue is an amendment that says a person caught with 1 to 4 grams of fentanyl may argue that he or she “had a reasonable, but mistaken, belief” that the drug “did not contain any quantity of fentanyl” or a similar synthetic opioid. If a jury agrees, then the offense becomes a Level 1 drug misdemeanor, instead of a felony. Gov. Jared Polis has said he will sign the bill, which was among the last to be finalized on May 11, despite calls from law enforcement and other officials, including Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers, to veto it and convene a special session on the topic. Advocates from the harm reduction community also decried the bill’s tougher penalties, notably incarceration under specific conditions.
Abortion: Proponents billed the Reproductive Health Equity Act, which led to a record 23-hour debate in the state House in March, as a preventive step in case the U.S. Supreme Court decides this summer to overturn the 1973 landmark decision, Roe v. Wade. The bill affirms in state law the right to choose an abortion or carry a pregnancy to term. HB 1279 also solidifies Colorado’s reputation as a “sanctuary state” for abortions, particularly since most of Colorado’s neighboring states plan to outlaw abortions in case the Supreme Court overturns Roe. With the leak of an early draft showing the country’s justices are poised to strike down Roe, the debate over the new law, which Polis signed in April, is far from over. Despite eight previous failed attempts since 2008, some anti-abortion advocates are planning to run another ballot measure in November to effectively make all abortions illegal, although other anti-abortion advocates don’t back that approach, while abortion-rights advocates are talking about a 2024 ballot measure to affirm the right to abortion in the state Constitution.
Collective bargaining: What started out two years ago as an ambitious plan to allow all public sector employees – county, municipal, special district, higher education and K-12 education – to unionize was watered down to Colorado’s roughly 38,000 county workers only. Senate Bill 230, the brainchild of House Majority Leader Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo, was introduced in the Senate instead of the House, which may have been a miscalculation in terms of timing because that meant the bill ended up in the House in the session’s final week. That gave House Republicans ample opportunity to deploy dilatory tactics and force Democrats to the negotiating table. Senate Republicans drew up their own strategy, drafting more than 270 amendments to the bill, also in an effort to win concessions. Those concessions ultimately included affirmation of the rights of county commissioners to reject any collective bargaining agreement with their workers and exempting counties on the basis of home rule or size. In the end, the bill changes little in state law – county workers already had the right to unionize and five counties already have collective bargaining agreements with their employees. The bill exempts 26 of the state’s 64 counties, including 22 with populations under 7,500; two home rule counties, including Weld, one of the state’s largest; and, Denver and Broomfield, which are both cities and counties. Not a single current county worker who was not already in one of those five counties with collective bargaining agreements testified wanting to join a union during the bill’s two public hearings.
Budget: Aided by a rebounding economy and flush with federal cash, lawmakers went on a spending spree, adopting a record $36.4 billion for the 2022-23 budget, about $2.5 billion more than in the previous fiscal year. The allocation added hundreds of full-time equivalent permanent and temporary state employees and greatly expanded government. Other legislation added to the growth with at least five more new state governmental offices – the office of statewide equity in the Department of Personnel and Administration, the office of climate preparedness in the the governor’s office; the office of sudden cardiac arrest management in the Department of Public Health & Environment, the Behavioral Health Administration within the Department of Human Services, and the Department of Early Childhood. The latter two have been in the works for the past two years and are required to report to legislative oversight committees. The first three, however, face no requirement to prove they’re accomplishing what the legislation intends, similar to the nearly dozen other offices created in the last four legislative sessions or through executive order. The budget bill, combined with the School Finance Act, brought down the decade-long debt in K-12 education, known as the budget stabilization factor, to $321 million, its lowest level since a high point of more than $1.2 billion just two years ago. The budget also boosted the state’s reserves, akin to a rainy day fund, to $2 billion, or about 15% of the general fund. But the largest increase in spending, some $819 million, covered the cost of Medicaid for those who relied on it during the pandemic and related public health emergency. The federal government picked up that tab, but that money is expected to end July 15.
Affordable Housing, behavioral health and economic relief: The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 provided more than $3.8 billion in federal funds to address housing, behavioral health and economic relief tied to the pandemic. Two task forces in 2021 came up with recommendations on behavioral health and affordable housing, part of at least 31 bills passed during the 2022 legislative session tied to ARPA money.
Here’s how that money will be spent, pending signing by the governor:
- The revenue loss restoration fund started out in 2021 with $1 billion, and at least $695.6 million was allocated during 2022, with the largest chunk, $600 million, going to Senate Bill 234 to pay down part of the state’s $1 billion loan from the federal government to cover pandemic-related unemployment compensation payments. Another $57 million would prepay premiums for the family and medical leave insurance program.
- Some of the funds in the behavioral and mental health cash fund, created in 2021 with $550 million, were spent in the 2021 session. About $393.7 million, through 13 bills, was allocated during the 2022 session for behavioral health services to children in the criminal justice system and tribes; for increasing the number of residential treatment beds in mental health facilities; for improvements to the behavioral health workforce and for purchasing opiate antagonists and testing strips tied to HB 1326, the fentanyl bill.
- The affordable housing & home ownership cash fund, also created in 2021 with $550 million, some of which was spent in 2021, funded five bills totaling $428 million this session, with $178 million headed to a grant program for local affordable housing and $150 million for a revolving loan fund, also for affordable housing.
- The economic recovery and relief cash fund started with $848.5 million in 2021, and spent, through at least 17 bills, some $612.4 million (more about that below). That included $60 million to pay to dry up groundwater wells in the Republican and Rio Grande river basins and $35 million for crime victim’s services.
Flavored tobacco: One of the most high-profile bills of the session, House Bill 1064, sought to ban the sale of flavored tobacco products in Colorado. The bill attracted 266 lobbyists representing over 100 clients, around two-thirds of whom supported the ban and the rest opposed. During five committee meetings over the course of two months, hundreds of community members testified on the bill, with advocates describing it as a way to prevent tobacco use among the youth and critics calling it a small business killer. The bill passed the House in a 35-27 vote, but only after it was amended 16 times, of which the largest changes exempted hookah products, premium cigars and pipe tobacco. The changes became futile, though, as senators ended up killing the bill. In the end, the bill’s death appeared to come in response to Gov. Jared Polis, who said he opposed it because he thought it should be a local government decision. The bill would also have slashed funding for his new universal preschool program funded by state tobacco and nicotine taxes. In a bipartisan 2-5 vote, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted down the bill the day before the end of the session. During the committee, Democrats named losing funding for the universal preschool program as a concern.
Wildfires: Wildfires were fresh on the minds of lawmakers this year as the legislative session began less than two weeks after the Marshall fire destroyed over 1,000 homes in Boulder County, making it the most destructive wildfire in state history. In response to this and other recent wildfires, legislators proposed 14 bills on wildfire mitigation. Of the 14 bills, the legislature approved 11. The bills that failed appear to be unintended victims of the House’s scheduling issues, with all three dying on the House Appropriations Committee calendar, instead of getting a vote before the session ended. The 11 bills that made it to the floor passed easily, all receiving some bipartisan support and seven receiving bipartisan sponsorship. The successful bills include measures to increase insurance coverage for wildfire losses, stockpile resources to respond to natural disasters, improve forest health, support firefighting and fund wildfire mitigation efforts and outreach.
Homelessness: Polis announced a three-bill package in April to allocate $200 million to tackle what he called a homelessness crisis exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Using federal dollars from the American Rescue Plan Act, the three bills seek to allocate $105 million to create a statewide grant program funding homeless services and another $95 million to build two homeless recovery campuses in the Denver metro area, one yet to be determined and at the former Ridge View Youth Services Center in Watkins. All three bills passed the legislature in nearly exclusive party-line votes, with most Democrats in support and most Republicans in opposition. Republican lawmakers argued that the funds would be better spent elsewhere, including on youth mental health services, pointing out that the Ridge View campus previously served teens in the criminal justice and foster care systems who still need support. However, with Polis and the full strength of the majority party behind them, the bills did not need Republican support to make it through and were passed without substantial change or compromise.
Child care: Democrat lawmakers lauded House Bill 1295 as one of the most important bills of the session, establishing a long-promised universal preschool program. The program — a staple of Polis’s campaign and administration since 2017 — will begin in 2023, providing 10 hours per week of free preschool for all children the year before they enter kindergarten. The Democrat-sponsored bill received bipartisan support in both chambers, but 30 Republican lawmakers denounced the new Department of Early Childhood the bill created, criticizing Colorado’s rapidly growing government. Lawmakers made nearly 50 amendments to appease some critics, including slightly limiting the department and its executive director’s power. Several other major bills dealing child care also passed this session, including investing around $100 million into Colorado’s child care industry, exempting nonprofit child care centers from property taxes and providing free lead testing for drinking water at schools and child care centers. Similar to the universal preschool program, all three of those bills received bipartisan support and exclusively Republican opposition.
Juvenile crime: About half a dozen bills aimed to address youth crime and achieved varying degrees of success. Two of the most controversial bills were Senate Bill 23, which sought to prohibit police from lying to minors during interrogations, and House Bill 1131, which would increase the minimum age that children can be criminally charged. Those bills were gutted during the amendment process, leaving them shells of their drafted versions. The sponsors of SB-23 opted to kill the amended bill rather than have it advance in its decimated form, while HB-1131 passed with its changes, downgrading the bill to creating a task force to recommend how to serve children who commit crimes without putting them in the criminal justice system. Though Republicans stood firmly against the bills from the beginning, the real trouble came from infighting within the Democratic Party, with some arguing that the original bills were too extreme and others saying the amended bills didn’t go far enough. In the end, the sponsors couldn’t align the wishes of the liberal and moderate ends of the party. Other juvenile crime bills passed with Democrat and Republican support, such as prohibiting employers from asking about juvenile criminal records and funding grant programs to reduce youth crime.