Colorado legislative debate this year on education, gay rights and women’s health policies reflected larger well-worn national political back-and-forths, where showy speeches on immigration “illegals,” “traditional marriage” and religious freedom often sidetrack efforts to serve the public good.
Caught in that kind of mire on a few big bills, Colorado lawmakers nevertheless managed in some key cases to get out from under the rhetoric and posturing to solve problems in laudable bipartisan fashion.
Early literacy, Senate Bill 1238
The new law revs up efforts to help struggling kindergarten to third grade students begin reading. The bill takes a refreshingly holistic approach to addressing the problem, adding reading programs at schools, involving parents in instruction, providing additional training for teachers and holding back students who need extra time to catch up.
Fair discipline in schools, Senate Bill 046
Lawmakers on the right and left came together to rework Columbine-era zero-tolerance school discipline rules, which leaned on law enforcement, threw lots of kids out of school and disproportionately affected minority students. The new law gives school authorities increased discretion and training to handle discipline on a case by case basis and it eliminates mandatory expulsions, except in cases that involve firearms. The bill also sets up procedures to improve reporting, so that patterns of discipline can be better examined and problems with enforcement better addressed.
Data in support of the bill showed that kids being expelled in the state in great numbers under the old rules were much more likely to drop out and end up adrift and in and out of criminal corrections facilities and programs.
Money for education
Big news was that for the first time in three years, since the national recession hit full force, legislators did not slash the education budget in Colorado. As the state economy evened out and tax revenues increased, lawmakers kept the k-12 budget at last year’s roughly $5.3 billion level.
But it wasn’t all good news on the education front. Fraught immigration politics killed one of the more popular bills introduced this session.
Undocumented student tuition, Senate Bill 015
Despite wide support among the public and among higher education boards and administrators on the left and the right, Colorado’s proposal to offer not-quite in-state tuition rates to undocumented students who have graduated from a Colorado high school was voted down by hardline anti-illegal immigration members of the legislature. Opponents argued the “ASSET” bill would reward lawbreakers, draw illegal immigrants to the state and offer false hope to young people who would still be unable to work legally in the U.S. after graduating with college and university degrees.
States surrounding Colorado already offer in-state tuition to undocumented students, including conservative states like Kansas and Texas, and those policies have been enormously successful– not just at graduating students and seeing them apply for citizenship, but also at attracting many of Colorado’s best undocumented high school graduates.
ASSET in different forms has been introduced repeatedly in Colorado over the last half-decade and its sponsors have vowed to bring it back again next year.
“I’d rather see our graduates going to school than sitting in their boxers playing Nintendo in their parents’ basement,” said bill sponsor Sen. Mike Johnston at an early Education Committee hearing.
For now, however, the thousands of undocumented Colorado kids who have graduated and who are graduating from high schools across the state won’t be paying to attend Colorado’s universities, colleges and junior colleges, nor will they be up and relocating to the countries where they were born but mostly haven’t visited since arriving in the States as toddlers. Instead, they’ll be watching their longtime friends go off to school and they’ll go to school in other states or they’ll sit in their basements playing video games or they’ll do yard work for cheap or they’ll sell dope.
Civil unions, Senate Bill 002
The gay-rights bill dominated the legislative session and the special session that followed it. The bill would grant state rights and protections to gay couples and to their children, establishing overdue legal responsibilities, for example, in regard to child support and visitation. Supporters called this a “family values” bill and it garnered unanimous Democratic support as well as the support of high-profile Republicans working inside and outside the capitol. It also eventually won over a clear majority of lawmakers in both chambers of the legislature. Yet Republican House leaders used unprecedented procedural moves to make sure the bill never made it to the floor for debate. Christian-right-orchestrated opposition argued the bill went against Biblical teachings and that it sought to legalize “gay marriage” in the face of a state constitutional amendment put in place by voters in 2006 defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman.
House Speaker Frank McNulty, urged on by Majority Leader and former Focus on the Family staffer Amy Stephens, threw up road blocks during the last days of the session as the bill chugged along through three Republican-controlled House committees on its march toward the full chamber. On the second-to-last day of the session, the bill lurked behind all activity, shaping discussion and leading to thinly veiled lawmaker confrontations. Amid an often absurd evening filibuster, when Democrats and their Republican allies maneuvered to bring the bill to the floor, the McNulty bloc called a recess and the Speaker, at a loss, went out on a walkabout for more than two hours, running out the clock on debate.
In the special session called by Gov. John Hickenlooper to revive the civil unions debate and to pick up the remains of the dozens of bills dropped in the wake of the battle over civil unions, McNulty assigned the bill to a stacked committee of loyalists who killed the bill.
Colorado Republicans enjoyed a one-seat majority in the House this session. Democrats are hoping to win that seat this year and gain control of committee assignments in both chambers. To make that happen, Metro State Political Science Prof. Norm Provizer said civil unions supporters and activists, including Republican voters, will have to keep their eye on the ball.
“Will this switch things to the Democrats? I’m not sure it will make a gigantic difference,” he said. “It’s natural to want to support people– regardless of party– who support [civil unions]. What people have to remember, though, is that they are also voting to give a seat to a party and that it may be in their interest to support candidates [explicitly to flip the majority].”
The sponsor of the civil unions bill, openly gay Denver Democratic Sen. Pat Steadman, will no doubt introduce a new version same as the old version on the first day of the 2013 session.
With an eye on the intense anti-abortion bills passed by the Republican Congress and in Republican-controlled state capitols across the country– efforts that for example attempted to outlaw contraception, limit legal rape to vague “forcible” instances and mandate doctors read scientifically inaccurate material to abortion seekers and submit them to vaginal-probe ultrasounds– Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains President Vicki Cowart expressed relief that Colorado beat back such efforts.
“We expected 2012 to usher in harmful bills targeting Colorado women and families but, thankfully, our champions in the House and Senate as well as our advocates in the community did not sit idly by,” she said.
Personhood, House Bill 1130 and Senate Bill 125
The Democrat-controlled Senate killed both of this session’s anti-abortion bills, which aimed to classify human embryos as persons with legal rights. The arguments in support of these bills caused some head scratching, coming as they did from the same people making arguments against civil unions.
In opposing civil unions, Republicans argued that voting for the law would violate the will of the people as expressed at the ballot box in 2006′s Amendment 43 and Referendum I, which respectively banned gay marriage and rejected civil unions. Yet Colorado voters have twice in the last four years rejected so-called personhood initiatives– and by much wider margins than they rejected gay partnership rights.
Health insurance and religious freedom, Senate Memorial 003
The Senate also killed a proposal aimed at backing congressional legislation that would allow employers, citing any moral objection, to refuse to provide health benefits for employees. Supporters of the proposal argued that it bolstered religious freedom. Opponents argued that religious freedom is already safeguarded in the U.S. Constitution and that these kind of proposals set up a legal free for all, where employers would be able to object to any category of action– like having unmarried sex or meat eating — and are given free rein to discriminate against employees, or at least take advantage of them by finding a spurious way to cut costs, by denying them coverage.
Speaking on this year’s legislative session, Ellen Dumm, executive director of the progressive politics Campaign for a Strong Colorado, said that, as a matter of political strategy, Republican lawmakers seem to understand that they are out of step with constituents on matters like gay rights and the obligation of employers to provide full reproductive health care coverage, that they seem to know that they should pay less attention to social issues and more attention to economic issues. “Still, they just can’t do it,” she said.