Jerry Kopel


The aphorism "Better late than never" is truly stupid, as least as it applies to the Colorado legislature. A much better aphorism would be "Better late? NEVER!", and that's what Sens. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora, and Stan Matsunaka, D-Loveland, hope to achieve with Senate Joint Resolution 11.

SJR 11 would limit legislators to four bills, instead of the present five bills. To obtain additional bills, a legislator would need approval from two of the three members of House or Senate leadership (just as they do now), plus "two-thirds of the members of the respective house." That means 22 members of the House or 12 members of the Senate could block approval for introducing a late bill.

The problem is, the reason to reduce late bills is to provide more time to consider and debate bills introduced PRIOR to the deadline. But if you have 88 proposed late bills (the average over the past three years) you are going to have 88 debates at the microphone on whether or not to permit introduction, along with the 88 late bills to work on.

Giving Democrats the ability to block approval of late bills isn't going to stop late bills. Republicans will simply approve more Democratic late bills in order to get "their" bills approved with support from Democrats. And that will ADD to the number of late bills introduced. Once in a while, a truly outrageous late bill will be denied, but most late bills aren't outrageous, they are simply unnecessary.

Abuse of the "late bill" system really began in earnest in the 1990's. If you are presently a Republican in the House or Senate you get approval. If you are a Democrat, you don't get approval in the House unless you are a Democrat favored by the Republicans. The Senate however, has for some time, been less biased regarding Democratic late bills.

The late bill situation in the House is a parody of Cinderella. The mother (Anderson-Berry) dotes on the two ugly sisters (guess who?) and can't say "No" to whatever they want. Meanwhile step-sister Cinderella (the Democrats) does the drudge work (by attending committee meetings and offering amendments) and lives off the scraps (an occasional late bill bone). This could be a script idea for the annual Hummers' show by the House Democrats.

There is an easier way to reduce the number of bills, and Sens. Coffman and Matsunaka should consider it. Provide (as suggested) four bills per legislator to be introduced before the deadline. Allow each legislator one more bill that can be introduced early or "late", but not within the final three weeks of the session.

Not every legislator uses his or her allotted number of five bills each. Example: In 1995, 30 of the 100 legislators did not. Under this alternative approach, the total number of bills introduced will definitely decrease.

If, for some reason, there is a crisis that demands immediate attention within the last three weeks, run an amendment to the Joint House and Senate Rule on late bills, which amendment can go out of existence immediately after "those" late bills are introduced.

The beauty of this approach is that you don't foster "dealing" and "trading" between groups over late bills, and you still guarantee Republicans more late bills than Democrats.

Sometimes late bills ARE necessary as when Rep. Jeanne Faatz, R-Denver, was injured in a car accident and could not introduce bills until she returned after the deadline for bills. Similarly, in 1998, the addition of Rep. Lynn Hefley, R-El Paso, to the House after the deadline made her bill introductions, late bills. Language guaranteeing a replacement or injured legislator the right to introduce five bills regardless of deadlines would answer that problem.

How bad has the late bill abuse been and how has it affected the legislative work? In 1996, 24 of the 41 Senate late bills required major floor and conference committee action in the final 10 days of the session, as did 20 of the 39 late House bills. In 1997, the final ten days of the session were needed to complete work on 28 of 41 late bills from the Senate and 26 of the 48 late House bills. Without those additional bills, the legislature could easily have finished its work early.

Totals for late bills the preceding three years, excluding any appropriation or supplemental appropriation measures, but including bills by legislators appointed after the deadline or injured legislators:

In 1995 there were 95 late bills, in 1996 there were 80, and in 1997, there were 89. For all three years, in the House, there were 132 Republican late bills and 4 Democratic late bills, which is one Democratic late bill for every 33 Republican late bills. In the Senate there were 109 Republican late bills and 19 Democratic late bills. That totals 241 Republican and 23 Democratic late bills.

For 1998, through the close of business on March 19th, there were 60 late bills, 40 in the House (already more than in all of 1996) and 21 in the Senate. In the House there were 37 late Republican and 3 late Democratic bills. In the Senate there were 16 late Republican and 5 late Democratic bills. In the past, late bills have been introduced on the 118th day of the 120 day session.

With more than a month to go, the legislature should exceed the 95 late bill mark set in 1995, but probably not the record 106 bills introduced in 1993.

Colorado's Republicans, who have won both the House and Senate for the past 22 years, have stressed "efficiency in government and reduction of government waste." Yet in practice, they have allowed an inefficient system to deal with legislation and a waste of time and taxpayer money by not having the backbone to say "no" to late bills.

Who knows? That might be a good slogan for Democrats in the 1998 elections if they aim at specific Republicans who have abused the late bill system.

* * *

Mea culpa! In my Feb. 20th Statesman column, I criticized the drafters of the committee amendment to the Psychotherapy Grievance Board for repealing that portion of the law immunizing persons who file complaints in good faith with the board. The immunity actually appears twice in widely separated sections of the statute and I did not uncover the unrepealed section until after the column had been published.


Jerry Kopel writes a column for the Statesman based on 22 years past experience as a state legislator.

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