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Colorado Legislators Are In The Middle Of Lengthy Political Fight


This next story starts with a short history lesson. When Colorado became a state in 1876, not every lawmaker could read. So the state constitution required that all bills be read on the floor out loud and in full. Since then, the provision has been amended slightly. Lawmakers have had little use for it until now. Bente Birkeland of Colorado Public Radio reports.

BENTE BIRKELAND, BYLINE: In November, Democrats in Colorado won big. After taking the House, Senate and the governor's mansion, they set out with an ambitious agenda - stricter oil and gas regulations, paid family leave, a red flag gun law. That doesn't sit well with Republicans, who say Democrats are moving too quickly on big bills. To slow down their opponents and the process, they're employing that old tactic - asking bills to be read out loud in full.



JOHN COOKE: Thank you, Mr. Chair. I also move House bill 1172 and ask that it be read at length.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I object to the motion and ask that the journal be read at length.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: So I respectfully request that Senate bill 99 be read at length.

BIRKELAND: Chris Holbert is Colorado's Senate Republican minority leader. He says there just isn't much else his party can do.

CHRIS HOLBERT: The only thing that we have as leverage in the minority when both chambers are in the minority is having bills read at length.

BIRKELAND: One of those bills was 2,000 pages long. To read out loud, it would have taken Senate staff a week. Democratic Senate president Leroy Garcia says during that time, no other Senate business could have been accomplished.

LEROY GARCIA: I see my colleagues from the other side reverting to Trump-like tactics and the style of Washington, D.C. And it's not Colorado. It's not what people send us here to do.

BIRKELAND: So in order to speed things along, Garcia brought in a bank of five computers to read the bill at 650 words per minute.


BIRKELAND: It was a truly bizarre sound on the Senate floor.


GARCIA: We have to be responsible and continue to get the work of the people done.


BIRKELAND: But that's not the end of this story. Republicans then sued Garcia for violating the at-length provision of the constitution. The Senate's rules don't say anything explicitly about whether a bill reading must be understandable. But a Denver district court sided with the GOP and says bill readings have to be intelligible.

OWEN HILL: If they're complaining about reading a bill, that's on them.

BIRKELAND: That's Republican state senator Owen Hill. After the court's decision, he's requested various bills be read at length. He says it's to help bring his party to the negotiating table.

HILL: We need to slow things down and have better deliberation about all of these big changes.

BIRKELAND: His efforts may be starting to work. Senate Democrats signed off on his idea to put more money for transportation into the state budget - a top priority for Republicans. But Democrats in both chambers are not on board with this delay tactic and are appealing the judge's decision. Two years ago, the Mississippi Supreme Court threw out a similar case, citing separation of powers. Colorado's House speaker K.C. Becker says much of her party's agenda could be in jeopardy.

K C BECKER: It's a purely obstructionist move that the Denver district court just completely enabled. And so it's a complete overreach because it's really within the general assembly's purview to interpret our rules and how we do business.

BIRKELAND: And now Republicans in the House are regularly asking for bills to be read. But trying to play by the court's rules, Democrats in that chamber are using just one computer.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: In any other cases identified in subsection 1 of this section 17 in which the initial complaint, petition or other commencing pleading...

BIRKELAND: For NPR News, I'm Bente Birkeland in Denver.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: ...First hearing whether the... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bente Birkeland has covered Colorado politics and government since spring of 2006. She loves the variety and challenge of the state capitol beat and talking to people from all walks of life. Bente's work has aired on NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered, American PublicMedia's Marketplace, and she was a contributor for WNYC's The Next Big Thing. She has won numerous local and national awards, including best beat reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors. Bente grew up in Minnesota and England, and loves skiing, hiking, and is an aspiring cello player. She lives in Lakewood with her husband.