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Democrats in control for the first time in 44 years

Efforts to ban abortion, outlaw gay marriage and expand school vouchers -- the bedrock of Colorado's Republican-controlled legislative agenda for the past several years -- are officially on hold.

Instead, when the 100-member lawmaking body convenes on Jan. 12, the focus will be on improving Colorado's economy and balancing the budget. And the party leading the charge? The Democrats.

"For the people of El Paso County, this should be a happy return to the real world," said Andrew Romanoff, a Denver Democrat who will serve as the new speaker of the House. "Republicans have been consumed with cosmetic concerns, a social agenda that doesn't really put food on the table and medicine in the cabinet."

Rep. Keith King, a Republican from Colorado Springs who until election night expected he would be the next House speaker, says he is still committed to vouchers and conservative social agenda issues. "I'm also a realist," he said, "in knowing those types of issues won't go anywhere in the next two years."

Seizing control

On Nov. 2, for the first time in 44 years, the Democratic Party seized control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives -- sending shockwaves through the ranks of the state's Grand Old Party.

Colorado was the only state in the country that experienced such a shift. Some, including King and outgoing Republican Senate President John Andrews, blame the outcome on voter-approved restrictions on campaign-finance laws and an influx of millions of dollars from wealthy Democrats.

However, some analysts have surmised that voters have grown weary of extreme candidates and officeholders whose main focus has been hot-button social issues.

For their part, many Democrats have been emphasizing the need to improve Colorado's economy, including spurring job growth and addressing a $263 million shortfall in the state's budget.

With the turn of events, Gov. Bill Owens, a Republican who has resisted past efforts to reform the Taxpayer Bill of Rights -- now appears ready to play ball.

Two weeks ago, Owens called a press conference in which he outlined an economic plan virtually identical to the one crafted several months ago by Romanoff. The plan would slightly reduce the state's income tax while amending TABOR to eliminate the "ratchet effect" that restricts revenue growth.

Romanoff says the law, approved by voters in 1992, has resulted in painful cuts to public health programs and higher education during the recent down-turned economy. Even as the state's economic condition improves, the state cannot reinstall services due to the "ratchet effect" restrictions.

In addition to offering his support for asking voters to remove that restriction, Owens also announced a plan to push for a vote to retain $500 million in TABOR surplus revenues -- a little more than half of which would be applied to the state's budget shortfall.

"We'd like to start from zero again," Romanoff said.

The governor's plan also calls for $100 million in annual transportation borrowing to complete $1.7 billion in projects statewide. One of the projects likely to receive funds is the long-planned expansion of Powers Boulevard in Colorado Springs.

Working with everybody

Locally, the shift of control to the Democrats will have a major impact -- not only for the county's 13-member mostly Republican delegation, but also for those who lobby for the interests of the city, including the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce.

It's unclear exactly how the Chamber -- which has not endorsed a Democrat in years -- plans to reach out to the new majority party. Notably, this year the local group did not endorse incumbent Rep. Michael Merrifield, the only Democrat from El Paso County.

"You have to work with everyone who is there," said Jeff Crank, a lobbyist for the Chamber, of Merrifield.

Crank said the Chamber plans to work with lawmakers to secure funds to expand main transportation arterials in the area, as well as backing initiatives that make it easier to turn schools into charter schools.

But Merrifield, who will be the chairman of the education committee and also a member of the local government committee, has yet to hear from Crank -- or from the City of Colorado Springs, whose mayor, Lionel Rivera is an active Republican.

"That's what's interesting," Merrifield said. "None of them have made an effort to contact me -- not the Chamber, the city or Colorado Springs Utilities."

The city and its publicly owned utility have plenty of proposals on their wish list, including making it easier to annex land. City officials also want the Legislature to embrace Bush administration revisions to the Clean Air Act -- which are staunchly opposed by environmentalists and which Democrats have said is unlikely.

Cara DeGette contributed to this report.

  • Democrats in control for the first time in 44 years

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