Sara Wilson

(Colorado Newsline) The Colorado Legislature ended its 2023 lawmaking session Monday night after 120 days of deliberation and a contentious final few hours.

The Legislature managed to pass Senate Bill 23-303, a bill on property tax relief introduced last week, before it adjourned around 10 p.m., two hours before the midnight deadline.

Voters will now be asked whether to approve a plan that would reduce property taxes over 10 years in an effort to combat rising property values and the related tax hike, and allow the state to retain more tax revenue to pay for the plan. A plan to distribute Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights refunds in equal checks is linked to the passage of the measure.

An amendment passed in the House on third and final reading for SB-303, a rare occurrence, changed the exempt taxable value of primary residences from $40,000 to $50,000. Another third-reading amendment provides tax revenue reimbursement for fire and ambulance districts.

Republican lawmakers in the House walked out of the chamber in protest while the measure sailed through among Democrats — the last vote of the session.

“We’re done with how they’ve jammed this agenda through. They have two-thirds majority and they’ve used more rules than they ever have before,” House Minority Leader Mike Lynch, a Wellington Republican, said as the caucus stood outside the Capitol while Democrats voted on SB-303 inside. “We’ve had enough. Our votes don’t matter.”

The bill passed with the Democratic majority while the Republicans were marked absent from the vote.

The 19-member Republican caucus criticized the hurried process SB-303 and House Bill 23-1311, the identical-refund TABOR bill, underwent to ensure passage before the session ended, as well as the consistent use by leadership of House rules to limit debate on the floor. House leadership began limiting the time to debate certain bills using so-called House Rule 14 following marathon filibusters from Republicans on firearm legislation. They used that tool multiple times in the latter half of the session.

House Speaker Julie McCluskie, a Dillon Democrat, defended that decision.

“Mid-session, we began to realize that what was happening in our chamber was no longer respectful and productive,” she said Tuesday morning. “At the time we invoked House Rule 14, we wanted to drive more productive conversations. I’m pleased that when we made that shift, because of the pressure of time, we were able to work through debate in a much more meaningful way.”

House Republicans contend that limiting debate amounted to silencing their voice. They never reentered the House Monday night, and the chamber adjourned with those empty seats.

“I’m deeply disappointed that my colleagues walked out of the House last night. We are hired to do one specific thing in this General Assembly, and that is to cast a vote. Yes, I hear concerns about the process, but at the end of the day our responsibility is to represent our constituents with our votes,” McCluskie said.

Lynch told reporters Tuesday that if there had been more votes following SB-303, the caucus would have considered returning to the chamber to vote on those. He characterized his relationship with Democratic leadership as “fine.”

After the House passed SB-303 with amendments, it went back to the Senate for final approval. Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer, a Thornton Republican, filibustered for about an hour until the Democratic leadership limited debate.

“We aren’t actually making any major policy changes by passing this bill. It was important for us to get something in front of voters so they can make the decision on property taxes themselves,” Senate President Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat, told reporters Tuesday.

Second try at land use reform expected

Another high-profile piece of legislation that came down to the wire was the major housing bill — championed by Gov. Jared Polis — that went through multiple evolutions to assuage concerned lawmakers. After a nearly seven-hour break in the Senate Monday, it became apparent that the bill had no path forward this session.

“There came a time when people were just talking past one another. That’s when it became clear that there wasn’t going to be a path,” Senate Majority Leader Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat who sponsored the failed land use bill, said.

House Republicans walk out of the Colorado Capitol in protest on May 8, 2023. (Sara Wilson/Colorado Newsline)
House Republicans walk out of the Colorado Capitol in protest on May 8, 2023. (Sara Wilson/Colorado Newsline)

“This was a session where we started the conversion (on housing). Maybe we didn’t quite get around to finishing all of them, but we started the conversation. It was a really important role this session played in lining up the opportunity to come back and pass strong legislation to address the housing affordability crisis,” he said.

He said he plans to work in the interim before next year’s session with stakeholders and lawmakers to come up with a housing bill that could get broader support.

Other final-day legislation

In addition to getting the property tax and TABOR refund bills settled, both chambers also voted to concur with amendments made in the opposite chamber and re-pass those bills.

In the House, lawmakers re-passed a gutted version of a bill concerned with minors in the judicial system. As introduced, House Bill 23-1249 would have banned the arrest of 10- to 12-year-olds and instead divert them to community-based programs. The Senate significantly narrowed the bill so that it now only creates a working group to study the issue of placement for children in the judicial system, as well as provide some money for existing community programs.

One of the bill sponsors, Democratic Rep. Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, ran a similar bill last year to ban the arrests of 10- to 12-year-olds, and it also got reduced to money for services and a task force to study the issue. This year’s bill was bipartisan, sponsored by Gonzales-Gutierrez and Republican Rep. Ryan Armagost in the House and Democratic Sen. James Coleman and Republican Sen. Cleave Simpson in the Senate.

“This bill was a chance to show and teach our kids that they are worth it, that they are valued, that they can be something, and that their circumstances do not have to define their future. But instead, the opposition and the Senate — not our prime sponsors … chose fictitious, due-process concerns,” Gonzales-Gutierrez said.

The House also signed off on changes made to a bill aimed at addressing air pollution. As introduced, House Bill 23-1294 would have tightened air-quality permitting procedures. It was whittled down in the House to form an interim legislative committee to study the issue. The Senate then amended it further over the weekend so that the new committee couldn’t directly introduce legislation next session. The House agreed with those changes.

The Senate re-passed bills related to motor vehicle theft, public utility regulation and eating disorder prevention, among others.

Senate Bill 23-176 was introduced as a wide-reaching measure to support people with eating disorders by banning certain practices that patients say are traumatic or harmful. The House rolled back some major regulatory provisions in the bill, and the Senate agreed with those changes Monday. One of those changes labels selling over-the-counter diet pills to minors as a deceptive trade practice instead of outright prohibiting retailers from selling them.

Additionally, the Senate gave final approval to a bill that will adjust proceedings at the state’s Public Utilities Commission, born out of a joint special committee on rising utility rates.