Legislative session previewed election

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By Greg Romberg

In one way or another, virtually every one of the 120 days in the 2009 session of the Colorado General Assembly was some kind of preview of the 2010 elections.

While amending this year’s budget and adopting next year’s version in the face of our economic difficulties were the most important and most difficult work the General Assembly had to accomplish before it adjourned last week, the sheer political realities of virtually every other high-profile issue made it obvious that both the issues that were raised and how they were resolved were a preview to what voters will see and hear in next year’s elections.

Gov. Bill Ritter was successful in his two highest legislative priorities: additional resources for highways and health care. Senate Bill 108 will use increased vehicle registration fees to fix unsafe bridges on Colorado’s roads and highways and will, in conjunction with federal stimulus funds, jump-start a number of other highway projects throughout the state. House Bill 1293 leverages additional federal funds to make health coverage available to Colorado residents who currently do not have health insurance. Ritter has been criticized for studying issues without concrete results, and passage of these two high-priority issues provide him concrete accomplishments to provide to voters.

However, both victories were hard fought. While Democrats argued these investments were necessary to get the economy moving and to address issues that are important to most Coloradans, Republicans worried the increased registration fees on the transportation bill and possible burden on state taxpayers if federal rules change on the health care initiative reflected too much government spending.

The budget also provided a lot of political drama that we’ll see and hear about in the future. By taking dramatically different approaches, both parties played to their bases. Democrats took pride in limiting cuts to programs despite having limited funds. Republicans said the budget didn’t reduce government and its role in ways that reflect the current economy. As Colorado’s voter registration rolls move closer to a third each for Democrats, Republicans and independents, how unaffiliated voters view things is likely to determine winners and losers in 2010.

Environmental and labor issues were also hot-button topics. Regulations on the oil and gas industry adopted by the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission were ultimately approved by the legislature, but not until after there had been emotional and controversial arguments that they were responsible for decreased drilling activity on the Western Slope. Labor-backed bills concerning collective bargaining for firefighters and rights for locked-out workers in labor disputes were adopted, but not until both were watered down considerably from their original forms.

It’s commonly believed that odd-year sessions of political bodies are less political than the election years that follow them, but 2009 reflected the high stakes that both parties place on the 2010 elections.

Greg Romberg is president of Romberg and Associates, a government relations and public affairs firm. He lives in Evergreen with his wife, Laurie, and three daughters.