As Colorado’s legislative session reaches the halfway point, lawmakers have introduced more than 400 bills. Many bills cover controversial topics and are short-lived, though the debates and hearings can last hours. So why do lawmakers spend so much time on legislation that never sees the light of day?
For some, it’s intended to send a message. Others are aiming for long-term goals.
Colorado is one of seven states with a split legislature -- Democrats control the House and Republicans, the Senate. That means for a bill to reach the governor’s desk, it needs broad, bi-partisan support. But it also gives lawmakers a chance to talk about controversial issues, knowing that their proposals will never become law.
“Whatever the message bill is, we get frustrated because there’s really important work that we have to do here at the capitol,” said Kelly Brough, the president and CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce.
She said some issues can be damaging just by discussing them. She points to a religious freedom bill (House Bill 1013) that mirrored measures in other states. It would have allowed business owners opposed to same-sex marriages to deny services to LGBT individuals. It failed in its first Democratic controlled committee hearing.
“When we’ve had a conversation and so many people in Colorado have weighed in, I think we could move onto things like how are we going to solve the educational challenges we face,” said Brough.
But lawmakers in both parties say there is a role for these so-called message bills. Republican Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert of Parker said they reflect the state’s diversity.
“And I think it’s good for us to remember that our communities aren’t just allowed to be different, but really that’s what makes us strong,” he said.
His counterpart in the House, Majority Leader KC Becker of Boulder echoes that sentiment. She said a key part of being a good lawmaker is hearing from people in the district you represent -- and responding.
“Republicans are going to keep pushing their issues and we’re going to keep pushing ours,” she said. “I certainly bring things that are tough fights, but I’m also willing to bring stuff where I know I can reach across the aisle and get something done.”
Certain lawmakers are known for their penchant for sponsoring divisive bills. Republican Rep. Justin Everett of Littleton, for example, has only sponsored a handful of successful bills during his three years at the statehouse, but he has crafted many that target a set of gun laws passed by Democrats in 2013.
“You can’t really let that issue die just because the lines in the legislature are drawn to favor one party, especially in the House,” he said. “We still need to have these conversations and show people that yeah, I mean, this is still an issue that matters. It’s not just something that falls by the wayside. Until something changes in the right direction, I think we’ll keep on having these dialogues.”
Message bills aren’t just a product of one party. Democratic Rep. Joe Salazar of Thornton is known for being feisty during floor debates and for sponsoring measures he knows are destined to fail in the GOP-controlled Senate. One example is a proposal to change the name of Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day.
“I move on bills where that I know decades, hopefully not decades, but maybe a few years down the road we can look back on it and say why didn’t we do that earlier,” he said.
Salazar added that it’s not just about having the discussion.
“I run my bills hoping that they’ll pass,” he said. “Hoping that there’s some type of epiphany over in a Senate controlled by Republicans.”
And sometimes, he succeeds. Two years ago he sponsored a successful bill to underscore the public’s right to record police activities. He’s also pushed proposals to make it harder to jail people who can’t afford fines for low-level offenses.
There are also lawmakers who said they won’t ever run a message bill.
“If there’s an important message that’s been swept under the rug by everybody --I can see where legislators would see that they might not have any alternative, but candidly, that’s not my style,” said freshman Sen. Jim Smallwood (R- Parker). “It’s something that I made a commitment to in my campaign, to try to work on the big problems of this state.”
Yet his first bill in the legislature -- Senate Bill 3, to repeal Colorado’s health care exchange in favor of moving the state to the federal system -- has become one of the most controversial bills of the current session. Smallwood said it’s about saving money, not an indictment of the Affordable Care Act. Nevertheless, it has become part of larger political fight about the future of Obamacare nationally.
Capitol Coverage is a collaborative public policy reporting project, providing news and analysis to communities across Colorado for more than a decade. Fifteen public radio stations participate in Capitol Coverage from throughout Colorado.