State Senate President Brandon Shaffer seems unflappable.
At least he does during this hour-long discussion at the Independent, during which he lays out the Senate Democrats' agenda for the 2012 legislative session, which started Wednesday. It's headlined by job creation.
"I think that is clearly the top issue that the people of Colorado want us to focus on," says Shaffer, of Longmont.
The sentiment is echoed in an interview with House Assistant Majority Leader Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs.
"This is our goal as well," Waller says, "doing our part to help the private sector be more successful in job creation."
The state is struggling to bring its number of jobs up to pre-recession numbers. In December 2007, Colorado had 2.35 million jobs; in November 2011, it had 2.25 million. Considering that the state has experienced a 6.6 percent growth in working age-population during that time, the Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute points out that we actually need 258,400 jobs to match pre-recession employment rates.
But there is some reason to be hopeful. According to statistics from the U.S. Labor Bureau, as of November 2011 Colorado's unemployment rate was 8 percent, the lowest it has been since March 2009. Also in November, the state's labor force swelled by 18,000 — making it the largest Colorado's labor force has been in more than two years.
So can the two parties take advantage of this momentum, put aside their political struggles for a while, and pass legislation that assists the economy?
"Unfortunately in the past year or so, we've run into more of the political cloud," says Shaffer. "We've always had political debates, but it never stalled legislation. That's the reality of the dynamics that we are looking at."
Shaffer lays out a number of possible bills, parts of what he calls the 2012 Colorado Works Jobs Package.
• The Colorado Entrepreneur Act would create a state matching fund for investments in start-ups.
• The Colorado Tech-Cluster Jobs Act would establish an office within the governor's Office of Economic Development and International Trade to promote the state's aerospace, biotech and green jobs. Think a tourism staff for the high-tech.
• A bill sponsored by Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass Village, to promote electronics recycling aims to create more jobs in the recycling industry.
• The HIRE Colorado Act, arguably the showpiece of the Senate Democrats' package, would give an advantage to companies bidding on state contracts if they employ Coloradans. "A similar provision exists in 26 other states," says Shaffer. "The idea here isn't to preclude out-of-state companies from bidding on Colorado projects; the idea is to incentivize any company who is awarded that contract to hire Colorado workers to do it."
• And finally, the Fair Hire Act would prevent the use of a credit check in the hiring process. "In this economy," Shaffer says, "there are a lot of people who have had to file for bankruptcy or have done something that nicked their credit. And it is a real barrier for people who are trying to get hired."
Don't expect the Republicans to be impressed.
Of the Fair Hire Act, Waller asks, "How does an employer being able to decide which employee they want to hire, based on a credit check, have anything to do with creating jobs in Colorado? Nothing. That doesn't create a job. How does that create a job?"
At least three of the Democrats' bills, including the HIRE Colorado Act, are similar to ones that died in Republican-controlled committees last session. As the House GOP claims in a mocking blog on their website, these "job snatchers ... were overwhelmingly opposed by businesses."
If the Democrats' bills will help create private sector jobs, says Waller, then he'll be all for them. "That's the kind of stuff that we can get behind. If they are about trying to create more government jobs and grow bureaucracy, well, that's a different sort of deal."
But even a bill to reduce regulations for local farmers, which seems more aligned with Republican values, gets a smackdown.
"That sounds like picking winners and losers," Waller says. "If you are reducing the regulating burden on local producers, why shouldn't we be reducing that burden on all users?"
House Republicans have presented their own jobs legislation, much of it focusing on the reduction of regulations, such as postponing fines for 20 days for businesses to rectify state infractions. Two local Republicans, House Majority Leader Amy Stephens and Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, have also proposed a bill to ensure state "departments are pursuing Colorado-specific solutions by requiring them to annually report on opportunities for the state to opt out of federal regulations in favor of state solutions," according to a press statement.
While the makeup of the Legislature is identical to last, with the Senate held by the Democrats, 20 to 15, and the Republicans holding the House, 33 to 32, the idea that this session will just be a repeat of last year's is probably off the mark, says Waller. For one thing, there's an election coming up this year that will burden many of his House and Senate colleagues with challenges.
One of those challenges, as has been reported, will be for none other than the majority leader in the House, Amy Stephens. Thanks to the recent redrawing of district boundaries, the Monument Republican is running against an incumbent from her own party, Rep. Marsha Looper of Calhan. As far as Waller is aware, that's a first: "We're in uncharted territories," he says.
Again thanks to reapportionment, he says, at a minimum there will be 20 new representatives next year, not even counting people who decide not to run or lose their re-election bids. "That's a third of the House, effectively."
House Minority Leader Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, points out that the county caucuses will be happening during the session, "and it will have an impact on people who are running and have primaries."
"Hopefully the politics of those will stay out of the capitol, but that's hard to see happening," he says. The election "will have a shadow over the session."
And on top of all of the chaos of the state races, there are three legislators, including Shaffer, who are running for U.S. Congress.
"There are so many unknown variables going into this session," says Waller. "I'm kind of curious to see how it turns out."