Colo. lawmakers expected to tackle big issues

6:35 PM, Jan 8, 2013   |    comments
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In the November election, Democrats held on to control of the state Senate and took control of the state House of Representatives.

Democrats also have one of their own in the Governor's Office. To some extent, Republicans expect Gov. John Hickenlooper to help keep his own party in check moving forward.

Still, the new political landscape promises to deliver some action on some controversial issues, as do outside events.

CIVIL UNIONS

A bill died last year which would have allowed same-sex couples to enter into civil unions and enjoy many of the same rights as married couples.

The proposal wasn't voted down, it wasn't allowed to come up for a vote. There were enough GOP votes to pass the measure, but Republican Speaker Frank McNulty did not bring it to a floor vote by the deadline, prompting outrage from gay rights supporters.

This year, the bill's House sponsor is the new House Speaker.

Democrat Mark Ferrandino becomes the first openly gay speaker in Colorado history on Wednesday, and he says he'll have the civil unions bill on the Governor's desk in January or February.

Gov. Hickenlooper will sign the bill. He called for civil unions in last year's State of the State address.

Short of pulling the fire alarm in the Capitol building, Republicans opposed to the idea don't have much power to stop it from becoming law. State lawmakers don't have an equivalent of the US Senate's filibuster.

MARIJUANA

Some senior lawmakers scoff at the attention paid to legislation around pot, but they'll have no choice but to work on marijuana this time.

By passing Amendment 64, voters legalized recreational use of pot and instructed the legislature to work on taxing and regulating the drug.

Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, further complicating the issue.

Bills have been introduced over the past several years to establish a DUI limit to determine when a person is too stoned to drive.

Now that pot is legal under state law, that issue may be taken more seriously by lawmakers.

"The legislature may try to head off [DUI] problems in advance by setting strict limits," said 9NEWS political expert Andrew Romanoff, a Democrat and former Colorado House Speaker. "Or they may decide to see what happens. Of course the consequences [of waiting] could be dangerous."

GUN CONTROL

In the wake of last year's mass shooting, which killed a dozen people at the Century 16 movie theater in Aurora, Gov. Hickenlooper asked lawmakers to work on gun control.

Shortly after he made that announcement, we witnessed an even higher death toll at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Conn.

Lawmakers supportive of gun control have already announced plans that would do anything from tightening background check rules to banning some types of weapons.

The political fate of those proposals is uncertain, but there does seem to be bipartisan support for limiting access to firearms by mentally ill people.

"The one common denominator amongst these shooting tragedies is that each of these individuals have mental illness," said 9NEWS political expert Ryan Frazier, a Republican and former congressional candidate.

MENTAL HEALTH

Hickenlooper has also called for a package of changes to mental health policy.

The governor wants $18.5 million to improve mental health services. He's also called for an overhaul of the state laws that deal with having people committed for mental illness.

Mental health advocates call it a great start, but they'd like to see a much larger restoration of the overall mental health system.

The price tag of such a proposal would almost certainly cause problems elsewhere in the state budget, which must be balanced under state law.

THE BUDGET

Forget the old storylines of fighting over which programs get cut and which are spared.

Thanks to some economic improvement, more tax dollars are forecast to be collected by Colorado, which means we move on to a happier battle: how to use the extra funds.

It's expected to be at least $380 million extra and lawmakers have a hundred different sets of priorities for spending it.

There seems to be broad support to restore education funds to one degree or another, an idea which may be attached to altering the way funds are distributed to Colorado public schools.

"If your buildings are falling apart, if you're losing top-flight teachers to other jobs or other states, if you're not investing in early childhood education, eventually you're going to get what you pay for," said Romanoff.

JOBS / ECONOMY

Legislative leaders still consider the economy issue number one.

You can expect several proposals to spur job growth from lawmakers on both sides, though the parties sometimes disagree on how best to do so.

(KUSA-TV © 2013 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)

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