This year’s session of the Colorado General Assembly was truly historic. After two years of divided control and stagnation in the legislature, a large backlog of high-priority, common-sense reforms awaited lawmakers in January. Working tirelessly in the face of right-wing obstruction, smear campaigns, and even threats of violence, the progressive majorities in the Colorado House and Senate passed historic legislation to create jobs and boost Colorado’s economy, to preserve public safety, to make great strides toward equality for every Colorado family, and to give all children in Colorado the education they deserve.

As we bring to a close the most successful and productive legislative session anyone can remember in Colorado, here are some of the highlights—and the disgraces—that we’ll be talking about for years to come.

WINNERS

Common sense

For the 2013 Colorado legislative session, the big winner is easy: common sense. This session, progressive legislators in Colorado kept their promises on many important pieces of legislation that will make our lives and communities better. Progressives created new economic opportunities, expanded access to health care, worked to protect our communities and helped level the playing field for workers at all Colorado businesses. After years of stagnation in our legislature, the pent-up demand for progress most Coloradans want was finally realized.

Colorado’s economy and workers

Important legislation passed this year that will pay dividends for Colorado’s economy for years to come. The Advanced Industries Accelerator Act will help bring high-tech industry to the state. House Bill 1292, the Keep Jobs in Colorado Act, will focus taxpayer dollars and state contracts on the goal of creating good-paying jobs in Colorado. After watching tax credits go to businesses for years, this year new tax credits for working families will provide relief to those who need it most while injecting money directly into Colorado’s economy. The regulation and taxation of retail marijuana sales will bring millions in new revenues to the state and thousands of new jobs. And a new chance to properly fund public education in this state, which is key to any long-term growth strategy, is headed for the ballot this fall. These bread and butter bills might not have earned as much ink as other issues, but their passage will have real benefits for Colorado families. The legislature’s progressive majority focus on jobs and the economy paid off.

Gun safety

Thanks to the bravery of Colorado progressives in the face of lies, angry mobs, and even death threats, our state is now a model for the passage of common sense gun safety legislation. In Colorado, we respect the rights of every law-abiding citizen to own guns. Our experience with terrible gun violence tragedies in recent years has given Colorado a new perspective on this issue. Progressives, responding to overwhelming public support for responsible gun laws, responded by passing publicly popular legislation closing the background check loophole as well as limits on capacity of gun magazines. While Americans continue to be disappointed on the federal level on this issue, Colorado is leading the way on solutions to the vexing problem of gun violence in America.

Committed gay and lesbian couples and their families

In 2012, the Republican-controlled Colorado House used shady procedural rules to shut down debate in that chamber to prevent passage of civil unions for committed gays and lesbians in our state. Then-Speaker Frank McNulty did this because he knew the bill would pass with bipartisan support if he allowed a vote. Statewide outrage over the actions of Republican leadership led directly to massive losses in the legislature for Republicans last year, and the retaking of the legislature by Mark Ferrandino and a new progressive majority. With obstructionist Republicans swept from power, civil unions passed into law easily this year—a good step forward toward full equality for our state’s LGBT citizens.

Voters in 2013 and beyond

Passage of the Voter Access and Modernized Elections Act will greatly benefit current and future Colorado voters. This bipartisan election reform bill makes voting easier for more legally eligible Colorado citizens. The bill resolves problems that have cropped up with “inactive” voters, and helps ensure every Coloradan gets the opportunity to vote conveniently and securely. Right-wing opponents of the bill relied on falsehoods and baseless conspiracy theories to conceal their true motivation—fewer people voting.

The Future

Some great things are happening for Coloradans of the future. School kids, college kids and people who like clean air and good energy jobs are all winners. After years of devastating recession and over $1 billion in cuts, public education funding in Colorado is slowly recovering. But the state is so far behind the curve now that a lawsuit recently found Colorado’s education system to be fundamentally unequal and woefully underfunded. This year, a bold new plan for funding our public schools has emerged, and voters will go to the polls in the fall to approve a ballot measure to solve this longstanding problem. A bill passed this year to allow undocumented graduates of Colorado high schools to attend college at in-state rates, ensuring the investment we’ve already made in these children is not wasted, and that all Colorado students can reach their potential. A bill extending the benefits of clean renewable energy to rural Colorado is still another way Colorado progressives are looking to the future.

Progressive women

Progressive women led the way this session and their victories were all of our victories. With a record number of women in leadership positions, it was women who fought to get landmark gun safety legislation passed, to push civil unions across the finish line and to better Colorado’s economy while making sure kids and schools weren’t left behind. This year’s gun safety bills were sponsored by progressive women, like Rep. Rhonda Fields who lost her son to gun violence, and Sen. Morgan Carroll, who represents the area of Aurora including the movie theater where a dozen people were gunned down last July. In response, progressive women legislators were subjected to disgusting personal threats of violence and sexual assault. Thanks to speedy intervention by law enforcement, arrests have been made in some of these threat cases—and thanks to the perseverance of progressive women, common-sense gun safety is the law in Colorado.

Legislative leadership

This year’s progressive legislative leaders, Senate President John Morse and House Speaker Mark Ferrandino, as well as Majority Leaders Senator Morgan Carroll and Rep Dickie Lee Hullinghorst and President Pro Tem Senator Lucia Guzman and Speaker Pro Tem Rep Claire Levy (a record number of women in leadership positions) presided over the most productive and rewarding legislative session that anyone can remember. Communication between leadership, legislators, and the Governor’s office this year allowed for much better success in getting bills passed and signed into law. Huge victories like civil unions, gun safety, and education funding would not have been possible without both chambers working together to get things done—a marked contrast to the last two years of divided control and political stagnation at the Colorado Capitol.

State employees

After years of pay cuts, hiring freezes, and doing more with less, state employees are finally receiving a modest 2% across the board raise, with the possibility of additional increases for the highest performers. This is critical not just to public workers, but to the communities across Colorado that depend on them economically. Another bill passed the legislature granting firefighters more say in safety issues on the job. It took a progressive legislature to remind us how public workers contribute a double-value to Colorado—providing services while generating private sector jobs and contributing to our economic recovery.

Crowdsourced journalism

More than ever, the Colorado political press is under pressure to deliver quality and objective news coverage of state politics with fewer staff and resources than ever. It’s a tough job, but fortunately, news gathering has changed with the advent of social media streaming out of the Capitol from both sides. The easy availability of source material provided by social media and the ability for every stakeholder to make their voice equally part of the debate, has given hard-pressed journalists a powerful new tool: for not just meeting deadlines, but supplying quality journalism to citizens and voters. In turn, activists and stakeholders can push back against deficient and biased news coverage in ways they never could before.
 

LOSERS

Haters

As progressives worked this year catching Colorado up after years of stagnation under a divided legislature, the influence of bigotry and intolerance plummeted. The Colorado Civil Union Act passed this year with bipartisan support after Colorado voters took away power from intolerant Republican legislative leadership in 2012. After years of trying, the legislature finally passed the ASSET bill providing in-state tuition to undocumented graduates of Colorado high schools. And a radical Republican bill to ban all abortions was not only defeated, but ridiculed in the press as a throwback. As Colorado has changed in recent years, and the divided legislature failed to keep pace, progressives never gave up—and this year, that patience and perseverance finally paid off. Once powerful, the forces of intolerance are weaker than ever in Colorado.

Gun nuts

After tragic mass shooting incidents in Aurora, Sandy Hook and elsewhere in 2012, the call grew louder to enact common sense measures to reduce the scourge of gun violence that takes the lives of an estimated thirty-three Americans every day. Colorado’s progressive majority in the General Assembly and Gov. John Hickenlooper answered the call, and introduced a slate of sensible legislation to enhance public safety while protecting the rights of law-abiding Coloradans to own guns. The gun lobby and Republican legislators responded with an avalanche of misinformation, in some cases flat out lies about what these bills actually do. These falsehoods and scare tactics filled the Capitol with angry mobs and prompted death threats to those carrying the bills. Colorado progressives held together and passed legislation to strengthen background checks and limit high-capacity magazines. Other bills protect victims of domestic violence from gun-wielding partners and require concealed-carry courses be taken at least partly in-person. Polling overwhelmingly shows the public supports this legislation.

GOP outreach

In the wake of another stinging electoral defeat in Colorado last year, many Republicans nationwide realized that it is time to stop alienating the fastest growing segments of the electorate: young voters, women voters, and Hispanic voters. Instead of taking that advice, Colorado Republicans launched a campaign to ban abortions even in cases of rape or incest. They mostly opposed the ASSET legislation for fair tuition, and stood by as civil unions for gays and lesbians passed without their help. Continued opposition to common sense progress proves once again that Republicans have learned nothing from repeated losses in Colorado.

Secretary of State Scott Gessler

Secretary of State Scott Gessler could go down in history as the worst and most partisan Secretary of State Colorado has ever had. Elected in 2010, Gessler’s time in office has been marked by repeated instances of partisan favoritism in enforcing election law, brazen disregard for the rights of voters, and naked attempts to stack the deck in Colorado elections to favor his fellow Republicans. This year, Gessler led the dishonest right-wing opposition to the Voter Access and Modernized Elections Act, a bill to make it easier for more people to vote securely. Gessler’s testimony against this bill was even counteracted by Republican county clerks—the people whose job it is to carry out elections in this state. The same people who helped write the bill and debunked the over-the-top claims from Gessler and right-wing legislators. Gessler proved that the real objection to this bill was political—that right-wing extremists don’t want to make voting easier because they fear the results will drive them out of office.

Sen. Greg Brophy

Always one of Colorado’s most controversial right-wing legislators, Sen. Greg Brophy made headlines this year when he vowed to disobey a new law limiting gun magazine capacity to fifteen rounds. A rumored gubernatorial candidate in 2014, Brophy has repeatedly sparked controversy by claiming that the poor spends their money on “cigarettes and air conditioning” instead of health care, or telling contraceptive coverage supporter Sandra Fluke that he doesn’t “want to buy your booze or your birth control.” Brophy’s vow to disregard a law passed by the legislature should disqualify him from higher office because it is an affront to our democratic process.

House Minority Leader Mark Waller

House Minority Leader Mark Waller has a reputation as a good-faith mediator, but he was unable to get control of his radical caucus. Waller was publicly criticized by fellow Republicans including Rep. Amy Stephens for failing to mount a vigorous enough opposition to the civil unions bill that passed this year. Waller’s future political aspirations will always have a black mark from his role in the 2012 shutdown of the legislature, and in 2013 he ineffectively presided over an obstructionist, radical caucus that he could not control.

Assistant House Minority Leader Libby Szabo

Rep. Libby Szabo’s radical-right voting record is no secret, but this year she brought relations in the General Assembly to a horrifying new low. Appearing on FOX News’ O’Reilly Factor, Szabo actually accused House Speaker Mark Ferrandino of protecting child predators even though Colorado already has life sentences for these crimes! Curtis Hubbard, Denver Post opinion editor, condemned these attacks on Speaker Ferrandino, saying they “should offend all Coloradans.”

Colorado county sheriffs

In the debate over gun safety legislation this year, a number of elected county sheriffs in Colorado joined in dishonest right-wing attacks against these bills. County sheriffs lent an undeserved credibility to the extreme and false claims about gun safety legislation proving they are politicians first—and public safety officials second. One county sheriff, El Paso County Sheriff Terry Maketa, was forced to retract baseless claims of “intimidation” at the state capitol over a bill to raise county sheriff salaries. Sheriffs may be great at enforcing the law in their counties, but when it comes to politics, they’re not ready for prime time.

Colorado’s public health and environment

There was one issue on which not enough progress was made this year, and that is the growing need to protect Colorado’s land, water, and communities from the harmful effects of “fracking” for oil and gas. Numerous important pieces of legislation, including bills to reduce conflicts of interest among oil and gas regulators and to remove industry-friendly loopholes from statewide water testing standards, were killed under pressure from the industry and Gov. John Hickenlooper. Looking ahead, Gov. Hickenlooper must be held accountable to communities demanding better from the state—and a balance must be struck that allows safe development of natural resources without compromising public health.

Independence Institute

The right-wing Independence Institute severely damaged their reputation during the gun safety debate. Appearing in a video widely circulated among conservatives and covered in local media, Independence Institute director Jon Caldara absurdly claimed that gun safety legislation would mean that “almost all guns in Colorado will never be able to get a magazine again.” The Independence Institute’s “research director,” Dave Kopel, claimed that proponents support “a lifetime ban on gun possession for anyone who has ever been arrested for a drug offense.” This is a blatant falsehood at both the state and federal level. It will take time for the full extent of the Independence Institute’s false claims about these bills to be understood, but the credibility of this once-influential organization has been permanently damaged.