DENVER — State lawmakers in Colorado sure know how to keep elementary school kids entertained.
Instead of debating actual policy and voting on legislation while a fourth grade class from Timberline Elementary School in Centennial watched from the upstairs gallery, State Senators argued over attendance.
"We're not changing any bills, we're not adding any amendments, all we're looking to do is to go into the journal, in those particular votes where I was marked 'absent' and have it changed to where I would be marked as 'excused,'" said Sen. Jim Smallwood (R-Parker).
Smallwood and four other Republican Senators left early on Friday before the voice vote on the red flag bill was taken.
The other Republican Senators are:
- Ray Scott (Grand Junction)
- Kevin Priola (Henderson)
- Don Coram (Montrose)
- Larry Crowder (Alamosa)
"I was actually marked as 'absent,' as if I did not do my part in communicating to everybody that I needed to be excused," said Smallwood.
Senate Democratic leadership knew four of the five Senators had planned to leave early, but apparently none of the Senators notified and asked permission from Senate President Leroy Garcia.
And because they didn't get permission from Garcia, they were marked absent.
Regardless of "absent" or "excused," their votes wouldn't have been recorded either way.
"Honestly, it doesn't matter. It basically means that, on the vote count, instead of saying 'E' for 'excused,' it says 'A' for 'absent,'" said Senate Majority Leader Stephen Fenberg (D-Boulder). "The vote count would still be they did not vote on the bill."
So, what was the point of asking the Friday record to be changed from absent to excused?
"I feel like I'm stuck in an Alanis Morrissette song, isn't it ironic?" said Sen. Jeff Bridges (D-Greenwood Village). "(Republicans) who have filed a lawsuit over the rules of the Senate, asking that we ignore, for them for that one instance, the rules of the Senate."
Senate Republican leadership sued Garcia and Senate Secretary Cindi Markwell after they had multiple computers read aloud a 2,000-page bill, after it was requested to be read at length. A Denver District Court judge ruled that the Senate must "employ a methodology that is designed to read legislation in an intelligible and comprehensive manner, and at an understandable speed."
"This is not about the rules, this is about the norms that the Senate runs on," said Bridges.
"Did we violate the rules? Absolutely we did. Absolutely we did. And I understand why the majority is not very happy with us right now," said Scott. "So, we're in, kind of, a weird tug of war back and forth, and how that tug of war ends, I don't know."
During the debate that lasted more than two hours, a fourth grade class from Timberline Elementary School observed from the gallery.
A teacher told Next that she wished that the Senators had debated a bill or taken a vote instead of argued over attendance from a previous day.
"I think it's unfortunate. I agree, I wish we had voted on real legislation and bills, rather than debating for two-plus hours about who was or was not in the chamber on Friday," said Fenberg. "People elected us to actually have debates about policy, not to fight like, as if we're children."
"It's important for kids of all ages to know how the process works. It's not always pretty. It's not always fun and games," said Smallwood. "I think, as much as anything, it's a really good lesson on how bipartisanship works."
Smallwood said he left early on Friday to take his child to the airport.
Scott said he left to catch his regularly scheduled flight home to Grand Junction.
Crowder, whose absence did not appear to be known ahead of time, left to go home to Alamosa. He said he only goes home every other weekend and wanted to get home to his wife.
After a voice vote, their absences remained as "absent" instead of "excused."
Coram said he went home to be with his ill spouse. He called for a recorded vote, which required each Senator to say "yes" or "no" on the record. His absence was changed to "excused" with a vote of 32-2, with Sen. Jessie Danielson (D-Wheat Ridge) and Sen. Kerry Donovan (D-Vail) voting no.
Priola left early to catch a flight with his wife for their 23rd wedding anniversary.
He also called for a roll call vote. His absence was changed to "excused" with a vote of 18-16. Sen. Faith Winter (D-Westminster) and Sen. Mike Foote (D-Boulder) voted with the Republicans to allow the change.
"I think we can agree on one thing today, that the Senatorial courtesy that has existed here for many years is in question," said Garcia, who for the first time all year, spoke from the floor of the Senate.
The attendance arguments were interrupted when leadership from both parties met in the Senate President's office. When they emerged, no announcement on any agreements or concessions were made.
"We are not children. We are not in grade school. We are Senators. We are in the Colorado Senate. I hope for the rest of this session we can act like it," said Fenberg.
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