What was supposed to be a breakneck special session of the Colorado legislature instead turned to pure brakes Friday evening as the Senate’s majority Democrats battled with Republicans over rules that threatened to prolong consideration of bills by days.
The beginning of the special session chugged along for most of the day, as Democrats, who hold wide majorities in the legislature, planned for a three-day sprint through Sunday to pass legislation aimed at softening historic property tax increases facing Coloradans early next year. The proposals include spending hundreds of millions of dollars to cut property tax rates and make up at least some of the resulting losses that local governments and school districts would feel from the cuts.
But Republicans forced Democrats to take an evening floor vote to allow for the fast-tracking they planned for legislation in that chamber, via a special order. Without it, the Senate’s normal rules that govern the time between hearings and votes would slow down the handling of bills, potentially extending work into Monday or Tuesday. Democrats contended that the quicker movement was typical in past special sessions.
The 23-12 party-line failed by one vote to clear a needed two-thirds majority threshold. On a quick revote, Senate President Steve Fenberg pressed ahead with a voice vote rather than calling for a roll call — and then declared, over Republicans’ howls, that the motion had passed.
A Republican appeal failed in another floor vote.
In the fallout, the Senate adjourned for the night at 9:20 p.m. rather than taking preliminary floor votes on bills. The resulting delay leaves lawmakers facing a four-day session that will last at least through Monday.
The dispute about timing had been brewing for much of the day, but the action played out quickly late Friday.
“This isn’t about time. It’s about political theater — and it’s exhausting,” Fenberg said before the first rules vote. “If you think people want property tax cuts, then let’s give them property tax cuts and go home. It’s irresponsible (to delay), and I think it’s dishonest to the people of Colorado.”
Later, Sen. Mark Baisley, a Woodland Park Republican, told Fenberg: “There’s an integrity issue here.”
“Yes,” Fenberg responded, holding his ground. “And it does have consequences.”
Fenberg and Minority Leader Paul Lundeen also tangled, with Fenberg insisting that “If you break the norms, the norms are broken.”
In seeking to slow down action, the Republicans invoked the three-day rush last session that put Proposition HH in front of voters. They said they were willing to push the special session into Thanksgiving week to give voters, who resoundingly rejected Proposition HH last week, a chance to digest the Democrats’ proposals.
The state House didn’t face as much uncertainty over its rules as the special session, the state’s first since the pandemic, began.
In committee hearings, the Democratic majorities in both chambers shot down every Republican proposal, broadly called the bills “fiscally irresponsible,” and shuttled through their own proposals to ease the cost of living in the wake of Proposition HH’s defeat. Some of those bills were likely to reach preliminary floor votes late Friday, with final votes beginning Saturday — and then an exchange of bills between the chambers, depending on any delays.
In addition to property taxes, the Democrats are seeking to provide more money for emergency rental assistance and increase tax credits for low-income Coloradans.
The day began with 14 introduced bills. By mid-afternoon, the number had been cut in half.
The major remaining proposals include:
- Property tax cuts that would be achieved by changes in the formula used to determine residential property taxes. The deduction from a property’s value for tax purposes would rise from $15,000 to $50,o00. The assessment rate, which is applied to determine the assessed value, or what’s taxable, would be reduced from 6.765% to 6.7%.
- Sending out equal tax refunds to all Colorado taxpayers, a temporary change — also implemented last year — from the normal income-based system in which higher-income Coloradans receive more money back. The amount each taxpayer will receive hasn’t been finalized, pending the outcome of other legislation, but co-sponsor Sen. Nick Hinrichsen’s early estimate Friday was $847.
- Doubling the state’s 25% matching credit provided to recipients of the federal Earned Income Tax Credit. The EITC sends money directly to workers who earn less than $59,187 under this year’s guidelines. The tax credit is scaling, with more going to families with children, and a sponsor has estimated the proposed change would mean anywhere from $300 to $3,700 more for those who are eligible. The bill would cut into the state’s TABOR surplus by roughly $185 million, according to sponsor Rep. Jenny Willford.
- Adding $30 million to the state’s emergency rental assistance program, which is currently budgeted at $35 million, to help renters who are at risk of eviction. The caveat is that it must be spent by June 30, when the state’s fiscal year ends.
Gov. Jared Polis called the special session in the aftermath of Proposition HH’s loss almost two weeks ago. He and Democratic legislators backed that multifaceted measure as a way to trim back the extent of coming property tax spikes due to rocketing property values, without shortchanging local governments that rely on property taxes.
Republicans argued that HH’s loss, by nearly 19 percentage points, showed voters don’t want the refunds due to them under the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR, tampered with at all, even if that surplus went toward tamping down property tax bills.
Broadly, Democrats argued that the result showed voters rejected that specific measure. However, the renewed property tax effort in the session isn’t aiming to tap into those refunds for the property tax relief. It instead relies on $200 million from the general fund that was already earmarked for property tax help.
“Those sides are pretty dug in, for better or worse,” said Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat and the architect of both HH and the new property tax proposal.
The House continued forward with its slate of bills late Friday. The chamber was set to advance the earned-income tax credit bill, the rental assistance measure, and a bill to create a property tax task force to come up with a long-term solution to recurring property tax increases.
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