Jerry Kopel


By Jerry Kopel and Morgan Smith

Cole Porter said it best. "Is it an earthquake or simply a shock? Is it the good turtle soup or simply the mock?"

Razor-thin legislative majority control in both the House and Senate is still control, carrying with it committee chairs, many other perks to be distributed, and most importantly a four to two majority on the Joint Budget Committee.

Eleven of the 35 House Democrats are new to the legislature. And no House Democrat has ever served in the majority. That isn't true in the Senate where many of the 18 Senate Democrats served in 2001-2002. So this column is aimed mainly at the new House majority.

Kopel: "Out of 22 years in the House, I served in the majority four years, 1965-66 and 1975-76. Democrats went from 42 House seats in 1966 to 27 in 1967 and they went from 39 in 1976 to 30 in 1977. Why? The 42 seats in 1965 came from Barry Goldwater's presidential campaign and the 39 seats in 1975 came from Watergate. In both cases the shift was incidental to a national earthquake."

Smith: "I served in the majority in 1975-76. Democrats today have more than just the control we had in 1975. They have defining issues, the constitutional restrictions which are ratcheting Colorado's agencies down to the point of ineffectiveness. It is critical to focus on those issues despite the desire of each legislator to dote over his or her bills."

Democratic legislative and party leadership involvement both in money and oversight wasn't there for House Democrats in 1964, 1966, 1974, or 1976. But money and oversight were there for House Democrats in 2004. And it will have to be there again in 2006 to be successful.

The key to whether Democrats have returned to a power-sharing voice in House politics will depend on how they do, and how they are perceived in 2005-06. Here is how they must behave in 2005-06 to be major players in 2007:

House Speaker Andrew Romanoff told the House Democratic caucus: "The Golden Rule does not mean do unto the Republicans as they did unto us." Revenge is addictive. You have to carefully keep control over that impulse. If the media smells the same-old devisivness, it will trash Democrats just as they eventually did to Republicans.

Smith: "Stay disciplined. That doesn't mean voting a caucus position. It means thinking about how an issue affects Colorado rather than how it might play in your district. But it also means protecting those Democrats who will be targets in 2006. Achieving a majority depends on winning a few swing seats. Keeping a majority requires retaining those seats."

Kopel: "Between January, 1949 and January, 1967, Democrats and Republicans shared majority control in the House, 10 years Democratic, eight years Republican. There was no panic. Whoever was in charge ran the House, which was the most powerful body since it had the ability to initiate bills raising taxes. When I served in 1965-66 as a new legislator and successfully carried some major bills, there was no belief that you had to get everything passed at that time, or forever hold your breath. And we were courteous to each other."

That changed in 1975 after being out of power for eight years. Only six of the 39 House Democrats had served in the majority. Each House committee had 15 members, too large to move measures with expediency.

Smith: "But we had no term limits, no spending restrictions (except for the Constitutional provision requiring a balanced budget), no limits on raising taxes and no limit on the number of bills an individual legislator could introduce."

Kopel: "Every Democrat who had been shut out in previous years decided to get as many bills passed as possible. Starvation vs. a banquet. We both admit "we were among the guilty ones". In 1975, we had 751 House bills or better than eleven on average. In 2004, there were 465 House bills. That's still too many."

Smith: "The House Democrats made promises to their constituents about the major issues confronting the state. They must take the state out of the morass first. Leave the fluff and de minimus debate on minor bills for later."

In the end, newspapers called our legislature "unproductive" as to major issues. Of course it was. The disciplined Republican Senate held firm as a bottleneck. The 65th General Assembly doesn't have that excuse.

Kopel: "Discipline means following the rules. Do Democrats want to continue to control the House in 2007 or would they rather wait another 30 years? Apply the limitation of five bills per legislator to both political parties."

Smith: "Appoint Democrats to the State Affairs Committee who would be re-elected even if they were dead. Send resolutions and bills that shed more heat than light to State Affairs."

Don't shut Republicans out from substantive participation in the debates either in committee or on the floor. Let House Republicans pick their members to serve on various statewide committees, something House Republicans have long denied Democrats.

Kopel: "Allow Republicans an opportunity to chair the calendar for debate on second reading. Apply the rules fairly and evenly. Make the rules permanent once any needed changes are made to the temporary rules."

Smith: "Only a few years ago Colorado was at or near the top of states in terms of our economy, our technology, and our entrepreneurship. The days when ranking organizations would put us in first or second place are long gone. We are now at best in the middle of the pack. That's inexcusable for a state whose natural beauty has attracted so much talent and investment and for a population that continues to rank among the highest educated in the nation."

Kopel: "Show the state (and the media will do it for you) that you can lead to change our course as well as behave as legislators should, and you will continue to lead in 2007."

(Jerry Kopel was House Judiciary Chairman and Morgan Smith was chairman of the Joint Budget Committee during the 1975-76 General Assembly.)

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Copyright 2015 Jerry Kopel & David Kopel