Dems, GOP open session with bipartisan aspirations, but contrasts remain sharp

Capitol front

DENVER — On the legislature’s opening day, Sen. Morgan Carroll became the second woman ever elected president of the senate.

Her unanimous election by a 35-0 vote was a symbol of the bipartisanship lawmakers often aspire to at the start of every session, but it belied the circumstances that brought it about: the successful recall elections that ousted two Democrats, including former Senate President John Morse, from office as part of an ongoing, bitterly partisan battle over gun laws.

And Carroll’s opening day speech, in which she attempted to focus attention on what lawmakers plan to do to expand economic and educational opportunities for Coloradans, stood in stark contrast to the one delivered by her Republican counterpart, Minority Leader Bill Cadman, who mostly admonished Democrats for dividing the state by pushing such a progressive and polarizing agenda last year.

The speeches, whatever their tonal similarities, offered a crystal clear contrast — and an indication of how Democrats and Republicans are approaching the 2014 session ahead of November’s election.

Democrats are desperate to turn the page — and Republicans aren’t about to let them.

In a speech marked by feminist undertones, Carroll, the second woman elected senate president, described the importance of creating opportunities, especially for women; and she touted Senate Bill 1, a Democratic initiative to make college more affordable by increasing state funding for higher education and capping tuition hikes at six percent for the next year.

“For my family, an education was not only a path for a career, but the path to freedom and independence, and acquiring the skills to advocate for other people and their rights,” she said. “If you have been on the other side of being poor, trapped, or discriminated against, you don’t forget it, and when you make it — you have an obligation to ensure others can do the same.”

Cadman was humble in congratulating Carroll and in thanking the ousted Democrats for their service, even noting that he invited Morse to attend opening day as his guest but that he declined.

But he criticized the Democratic side of the aisle for dividing the state, blaming the majority party’s push for tougher gun laws for the resulting backlash — recall elections, lawsuits challenging the new statutes and last year’s short-lived rural secession movement — that has shrunk the Democratic majority from its 20-15 edge last year to just 18-17 this year, with two Republicans filling the seats of Morse and Sen. Angela Giron, D-Pueblo, who were recalled.

“The formula is wrong. Democrats divided by Republicans does not produce outcomes that are representative of this state,” Cadman said. “In addition to the historic events, that formula produced a hyper-partisan toxin that affected this entire institution, those who serve here and all who visited here, we started looking like congress.

“When the left side of this chamber is divided by the right side of this chamber, this place does not represent who’s outside this chamber.”

Some Democrats bristled at being chided so publicly on a day normally reserved for sweet bipartisan platitudes; Carroll, presiding over the chamber, clapped along with the Republican side of the room, where most lawmakers rose to their feet.

In their remarks, both Carroll and House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, attempted to put the controversy from last year’s session behind them — and in their preferred context, as a small piece of a session that was, they argue, largely bipartisan.

“Last session was a busy and productive session and much of what we actually worked on was eclipsed by marijuana and guns in the major headlines,” Carroll said. “While [Washington], DC was criticized for doing too little, some questioned whether in Colorado we did too much.

“But 95 percent of all we did in Colorado we did with bi-partisan support and while some issues were no doubt controversial, most of the policies we pursued, and results we obtained, are supported by a strong majority of Coloradans.”

Ferrandino, entering his final legislative session, urged lawmakers to move forward, an implicit warning that GOP efforts to repeal the Democrats’ 2013 legislative accomplishments aren’t likely to go very far on his watch.

“Now is not the time to take a step backward, to relitigate the fights of the past, to descend into Washington-style impasse and dysfunction,” Ferrandino said.

While lawmakers will no doubt find common ground on legislation to assist victims of last year’s catastrophic flooding, and perhaps on much of the governor’s proposed budget, there’s no getting around the fact that 2014 is an election year — one in which control of the state senate, never mind the governor’s office on the first floor, hangs in the balance.

But Cadman, who has already indicated that Republicans will push to repeal most of the gun laws passed in 2013 if for no other reason than to keep the issue alive heading into the fall’s election season, expressed optimism that lawmakers can tone down the partisanship for the next four months.

“The upcoming campaign year brings uncertainty about who serves here in the future,” Cadman noted. “Both sides will do their best to win more seats, both sides will do their best to change the numbers.

“Our challenge today is to change the formula. Our challenge is to build up relationships that tear down partisanship.

“If you believe The left side of this chamber plus the right side of this chamber equals what’s best for those who are outside of this chamber, then we can make history every day – we have 119 to go.”