'The world has changed a little, obviously, in a year," says state Senate President John Morse.
It has, in fact, changed overnight. On the evening of Nov. 6, not only did Colorado Democrats maintain their five-seat majority in the Senate, they also flipped control of the state House of Representatives. House Republicans, who stymied Democratic bills during the past two sessions with a 33-32 advantage, could only look on as their opponents won the right to decide which bills move forward in 2013, now with 37 House seats to the GOP's 28.
Backers of civil unions legislation and the ASSET Bill, which would reduce tuition costs for undocumented Colorado college kids, immediately grew hopeful. And Morse, who by moving up from Senate majority leader now fully controls that chamber's agenda, says those measures indeed are likely to return after the session kicks off Jan. 9.
But the Colorado Springs-area legislator says the Capitol won't be a Democratic playground under his watch. Instead, he says, his party will focus on identifying long-term solutions to issues related to education, environment, health care, civil rights, and jobs and financial security.
"We are going to try to figure out big solutions instead of small bills," he says, adding that the question will be: "Are there grand bargains that we can put together now?"
These bargains, says Morse, most likely will be struck with Republicans — but not necessarily the ones sitting in the Legislature. "Frankly, the elected Republicans are pretty ideological," he says, "but the real-world Republicans are not."
As an example, he points to folks from the oil and gas industry, who usually vote GOP, and who believe there's much business to be done in Colorado. Morse foresees that determining "setbacks," or the distances that drilling rigs must be from residential areas, will be a big deal this session. And there, he sees fodder for negotiation: "We can deal with the minutiae of that, or we can come up with a grander bargain that says, 'Let's talk more about climate change, and how we can increase the demand for natural gas.'"
If Dems can help the push for cleaner-burning natural gas — which, obviously, the drilling industry wants — over coal, while pushing for 1,000-foot setbacks, Morse says, everyone can win. "Whereas, if we aren't going to do anything for demand and we want a thousand-foot setback," he says, "then it's going to be World War Three."
In public education, Morse says Democrats will solicit ideas and expertise from educators and business leaders. "Right now," he says, "our outcomes on education are bad. They need to be better. And some of that is that we are not investing enough money, and some of that is that we are not investing on the right things."
That in mind, Springs Rep. Mark Waller, a Republican who will serve as House minority leader, already anticipates that Democrats may put a tax increase question on the ballot. Morse agrees that this is a possibility; after all, Colorado's K-through-12 funding is "still a billion dollars behind where we were four years ago."
If the situation comes to that, Morse says, he and his colleagues will not shrink in the face of Republican rhetoric; they will explain exactly why schools need the money, and how government will spend and track it.
"People understand the Republican mantra that you can never raise taxes is blatantly false; it's always been blatantly false, but the public is now catching up and realizing that we got to do something," he says. "But the Democrats are realizing that we have to explain exactly what we are doing, and how, that people can buy into."
Last year, Democratic Rep. Pete Lee, who represents House District 18, put forward a Hire Colorado bill that would grant preference to Colorado-based employers. It was one of the cornerstones of the Democrats' economic package, but it died in committee. Lee expects to see it return.
"I'm not sure what form it is going to take," he says, "but it definitely will be the centerpiece of our economic recovery program."
However, Waller cautions: "The Democrats are in a kind of tricky situation. They know that the focus moving forward still needs to remain on jobs and the economy. And I think that Pete Lee's [Hire Colorado] bill is the perfect example of that. He ran that bill last year, and he didn't have any support from the business community. ... I think that to call something a jobs bill doesn't necessarily mean that it is."
Waller points out that the last time the Democrats controlled both chambers of the Legislature, they enacted what Republicans coined the "Dirty Dozen," bills that increased state revenues.
"And just like we had a five-seat swing this time, we had a six-seat swing last time," he says. "I certainly don't think that they have a mandate moving forward, by any stretch."
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