DENVER — The Colorado Legislature reconvened Wednesday for its 2022 session with both majority Democrats and minority Republicans promising legislation to tackle the state’s increasing unaffordability and rise in crime.
After two sessions defined by the COVID-19 pandemic, this year lawmakers will decide where to allocate nearly $2.6 billion of federal American Rescue Plan Act funds over the 120-day session. Sen. President Leroy Garcia called it “a once in a lifetime gift” to shape Colorado’s future.
House Speaker Alec Garnett challenged colleagues to act quickly to ease the cost of living, create affordable housing, continue programs to rein in health care and prescription drug costs, and make a record investment in K-12 schools. His top priority, he said, is to save residents money.
“The people of Colorado deserve to do more than just get by,” Garnett said.
Democrats plan to invest nearly $500 million in affordable housing and create a revolving fund to finance housing construction, he said. State fees for starting businesses, professional licenses and a host of other items will be reduced, Garnett said.
At a news conference announcing 44 Republican-sponsored bills, Senate Minority leader Chris Holbert accused Democrats of changing their priorities in an election year and “copying” Republican priorities by talking about reducing crime and dealing with the surging cost of living.
Holbert also went after what he said was Democrats’ “reckless” spending at the federal and state level as a way to “toll their way to governmental prosperity.” He blamed rising costs for things like energy on increased regulation and government fees.
“People are increasingly aware that our current circumstances have evolved under one-party control,” Holbert said in his opening speech for the 2022 session.
Both parties plan to introduce legislation aimed at reducing crime. Democrats announced measures that would increase behavioral health resources for those in the justice system suffering mental health issues. They will also look at funding community policing and programs to reduce homelessness, cut repeat offender rates and deal with substance abuse.
“We will not go back to the failed policies of the past that overpopulated our prisons, wasted taxpayer dollars, that have left us with high recidivism and not nearly enough rehabilitation,” Garnett said.
Citing an increase in violent crimes, murder and earning the top spot nationwide for auto theft, Republicans blamed previous police accountability legislation that outlawed chokeholds, set requirements for body cameras and allowed officers to be sued for misconduct.
“This legislature has passed bills that have eviscerated the state of policing in Colorado,” declared Republican Rep. Hugh McKean.
Holbert said Republicans would instead propose additional funds for police officer training such as crisis intervention and recruitment of officers “who come from the very communities that they would be patrolling.”
On the issue of affordability, McKean said state fees for things like business startups, vehicle registrations, and a new gas fee to help fund transportation need to be eliminated, not reduced or postponed, as recently suggested by Gov. Jared Polis.
“So instead of playing tricksy with words, let’s actually make things more affordable here in Colorado,” McKean said. “The current state of our state is not good.”
Republicans also plan to push legislation to elevate the status those who have natural immunity from having had COVID-19 to “equal footing” as people who have been vaccinated against the virus.
Citing last month’s destructive Boulder County wildfire and poor air quality that dogged the Denver metropolitan area last year, Garnett said Democrats will keep working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Republicans announced their own measures, such as Rep. Dan Woog’s plan to “put Colorado at the forefront of renewable energy” with investments in micro-nuclear technology and hydro-electricity capacity.
“We do not reject climate change. We do not reject the idea of transitioning to renewable energy. We do take the position that our goals are perhaps unrealistic,” said Republican Sen. Bob Rankin, adding that the party’s goals are to increase the variety of options outside of wind and solar.
Garnett also said Democrats will work to codify into law the right to an abortion in Colorado in reaction to the possibility that the U.S. Supreme Court could roll back abortion rights, and possibly overturn its landmark Roe V. Wade decision, in a ruling expected later this year.
Nieberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.