What did the Colorado Legislature do in 2023?

What did the Colorado Legislature do in 2023?


By Will Cornelius
The Surveyor

At midnight on May 8, the Colorado General Assembly finished its 2023 legislative session with only one party remaining in the Capitol building. Republican house and senate members stormed out in protest of Democrats invoking a rare rule to end debate on a controversial property tax proposition voters will decide this November.

The 2023 session featured the introduction of 681 bills, resolutions and other declarations — with 473 of them successfully passing through both chambers of the legislature and avoiding a veto from Gov. Jared Polis, to become laws.

The Surveyor has analyzed and summarized the major legislation passed this year along with the ones that did not. Below is an overview of the 2023 Colorado legislative session’s accomplishments and failings.

Gun laws dominate debates
The most recent legislative session was one of the most consequential for gun rights. Five major bills that will restrict gun ownership passed the legislature and were signed into law, but a bill that proposed banning assault weapons died in committee.

Always a national issue, gun rights and laws are becoming increasingly partisan at the state level. At the statehouse in Denver, Democrats pushed to make it harder to acquire a gun this year after several high-profile mass shootings over the past 18 months. Republicans have generally opposed these measures in full while promoting other solutions like addressing mental health and further supporting school resource officers.

Passed mostly along party lines, the five bills would: raise the age to purchase a firearm to 21, require a three-day waiting period, make it easier to sue firearm manufacturers for liability, ban ghost guns and expand the list of people who can petition a court to have someone’s firearms temporarily removed if they are a danger to themselves or others. The bills have already faced legal challenges with Loveland-based Rocky Mountain Gun Owners filing two lawsuits challenging the new age restriction and waiting day period.

But the most controversial gun bill died in its first committee hearing when three Democrats voted against it. HB23-1230 would have banned assault weapons in Colorado for everyone except peace officers and members of the armed forces. A major concern in the bill’s language was the vagueness in defining assault weapons.

The bill as written would have banned almost all forms of semi-automatic rifles, pistols and shotguns. Between 1994 and 2004 the federal government had an assault weapon ban that included some semi-automatic weapons, but also specified which models and types of weapons were banned. Since the ban elapsed AR-15-style rifles, or ‘modern sporting rifles’ as the industry has adopted, have become one of the most popular firearms in the U.S. A Washington Post poll in 2022 and analysis in 2023 estimated that one in 20 Americans owns an AR-15-style rifle.

Housing bills fall flat
Big plans for housing reform went nowhere in the general assembly. Polis’ signature land-use bill, SB23-213, was met with swift opposition from across the political spectrum. His original plan called for an end to single-family zoning in major cities across Colorado to create more dense and affordable housing options. The governor announced the plan as a solution to combat the rising cost of housing in the state.

The original bill would have eliminated single-family house zoning in every major Colorado metropolitan area, from Denver to Loveland. Berthoud would have been classified as a Tier Two municipality under the plan with less stringent requirements. One major change proposed for Tier Two municipalities was a right for all residents to build an Accessory Dwelling Unit or ADUs — something that Berthoud already allows. ADUs are typically granny flats, basement apartments or other small housing options on the same premise as a single-family home.

While the bill was widely opposed to begin with, after significant changes, watered-down versions of the bill were presented in both chambers later in the session. These truncated versions were either killed off or never voted on as the bill was finally abandoned on the last day of the legislative session.

Another bill that sought to make it harder for landlords to evict renters passed the house but never saw the light of day in the senate. HB23-1171 would have given renters a first right of refusal to renew their rental lease and make it harder for landlords to evict renters. The bill’s prime sponsor was Democratic State Representative Javier Mabrey, a first-term eviction defense lawyer and tenants’ rights advocate. Mabrey was also a prime sponsor of HB23-1115, a bill that would remove Colorado’s state-wide ban on rent control. The bill ultimately failed this session. Along with 31 other states, Colorado has banned rent control since 1981. Interestingly, while Polis has sought reform to Colorado’s housing laws and regulations, he has remained staunchly against rent control.

One significant housing bill that was passed was HB23-1255 which eliminates growth caps on population and residential buildings in municipalities. Boulder, Lakewood and Golden have annual growth caps that will now be disallowed under the new bill. Neighboring communities had argued that banning growth in one town just moves it down the road to the next town. The bill was the final bill Polis signed this session, something he said was intentional given the significance of the bill.

TABOR and November ballot measures
At least two bills related to TABOR will need to be approved by voters this November.

Crammed through the general assembly in the final week, SB23-303 will ask voters if they want to reduce property tax rates, by using existing TABOR funds. Republicans walked out of the statehouse in protest when Democrats invoked a rarely used rule to end debate and force a vote. Over the past two years, house prices have risen by 40% on average in the Centennial State. This increase is now starting to show up on property tax bills.

The Democrat-backed bill will ask voters if property taxes should be reduced for ten years, by using TABOR funds. The ballot measure, Proposition HH, attempts to strike a balance for all by reducing property taxes universally and making the 2023 TABOR refunds equal for all, estimated to be $672 per person next year. But if approved, the state would keep up to $10 billion of TABOR funds over 10 years, instead of refunding them to residents, to make up for the reduction in property taxes.

Another proposition will ask voters what to do with too much tax collected from Proposition EE in 2020. Proposition EE raised the excise tax on tobacco products to fund early childhood education programs, specifically universal preschool which begins this fall. HB23-1290 asks voters what to do with $23.65 billion in extra revenue raised from the tax, but the choices are not exactly equal. Voters can choose to either keep the tax revenue and dedicate it to more early childhood education programs or distribute it back to the tobacco wholesalers and distributors and reduce the excise tax rate going forward.

Other notable bills
By July 2025, prisoners in Colorado will have access to free phone calls to stay connected thanks to HB23-1133. The Colorado Sun reported that people incarcerated in the state pay on average eight cents a minute for a phone call and typically spend seven minutes per day on the phone. The state will cover the costs for phone calls, which are estimated to be $1.3 million a year. The law came to fruition after Worth Rises, a non-profit advocacy group that seeks to dismantle the prison industry, received data from the Colorado Department of Corrections that found families collectively spent $7.7 million annually on prison phone calls.

The laws of the seas, or lakes in the case of Colorado, were also changed with SB23-069. The bill requires boat operators to be at least 14 years old, and those under the age of 18 are required to take and pass a boating safety course. There are exceptions to the age limit for bodies of water on private property.
Starting in January 2024, newly built public buildings in Colorado will be required to have non-gendered restroom options if restroom renovations exceed $10,000. The requirement is part of HB23-1057, a bill passed along party lines. The bill also requires baby diaper changing stations and appropriate signage for the services.

Public and private Colorado colleges can openly pursue name, image and likeness (NIL) deals for their student-athletes after the passage of SB23-293. NIL opportunities allow college athletes to benefit financially from their fame and ability while still competing under an athletic scholarship. In 2021, the Supreme Court of the United States made a unanimous ruling stating that colleges were violating anti-trust laws by not allowing student-athletes to profit off their name, image and likeness. Since then, college sports — especially football and basketball — have been transformed with some 18-year-olds becoming millionaires before they even compete in college.

The state created an insurer-of-last-resort for residents with HB23-1288. Residents who have difficulty getting property insurance coverage, like in areas prone to wildfire, will be able to access the state-run insurance platform. The state is directed to create a program that includes “coverage limits not to exceed $750,000 for property and $5,000,000 for commercial property owners.”

Farmers rejoice, HB23-1011 will ensure that agriculture equipment manufacturers provide parts, manuals or even software to assist with independent repair and maintenance. Colorado becomes the first state in the nation to pass an agricultural right-to-repair law. “This is a huge win for farmers and ranchers in Colorado and across the country,” said National Farmers Union president Rob Larew Pupon passage of the bill.

Renters with animals will see relief with HB23-1068. The bill limits the amount landlords can charge renters in pet fees to $35 a month or 1% of rent, whichever is greater. The amount for a pet deposit on a rental is also capped at $300 under the bill.

And finally, Colorado motorists will be able to live their highway dreams with a new special state license plate that reads “Born to be Wild” with a Grey Wolf on it. Money collected from the new license plate will help fund implementing nonlethal means of mitigating and preventing conflict with gray wolves.
Polis hits double-digits with vetoes

Ten bills were stopped by the Governor’s pen this session. A bill to create a uniform application process for clemency was vetoed by Polis on constitutional grounds. “The Colorado Supreme Court has repeatedly held that granting clemency is an exclusive power of the Governor and has held that intrusions into this power are unconstitutional violations of the doctrine of separation of powers,” he stated in a letter detailing his reasons for vetoing the bill.

He also vetoed a bipartisan bill that sought to delay the reintroduction of gray wolves in Colorado stating that it was “unnecessary and undermines the voters’ intent.”

Another veto concerned a bill that would have created an affordable driver education program. Polis prevented the bill from becoming law because he said it would raise the price of issuing or renewing driver licenses by over $10 per person.

A bill that would give local governments the first right of refusal for sales of multi-family homes was axed because Polis said it “adds costs and time to transactions.” Polis cited similar cost concerns for vetoing a handful of similar bills that sought to regulate event ticketing sales, how employees accept cash tips and the creation of a drug crime cost task force.

Polis questioned the need for a bill that allowed casinos to offer $1,000 credit lines to patrons. “I worry that the bill would contribute to problematic gaming activities and hurt Coloradans, in particular those of limited means, by facilitating dubious instances of consent from persons who are suffering from addiction,” Polis wrote in a letter detailing his disapproval and veto of the bill.

A pair of bills tailored to address a single person or entity were also vetoed by the Governor. Polis vetoed a bill that created an exception to Colorado’s open meeting laws, arguing that lack of compliance and not overzealous litigation was the problem. His letter explaining the veto stated, “we should strive for increased transparency and accountability, not less transparency and accountability.”

State senator Janice Marchman of Loveland was a prime sponsor of SB23-273, another bill vetoed by Polis. The bill arose from the controversial Centerra South urban renewal plan in Loveland which designated farmland south of U.S. Highway 34 as blighted. The bill would have closed a loophole allowing for farmland to be deemed blight. Polis disagreed with a bill that was created to address a single local issue. “Passing a law that retroactively changes the playing field would create greater uncertainty across our state and discourage investment in housing,” he stated.

Looking ahead to 2024
Bills that failed in 2023 could get another shot in 2024. The controversial land-use bill that sought to increase the housing supply by eliminating many local zoning powers could return in a new form next session. As the bill failed in the waning hours of the legislative session Polis cryptically tweeted from his personal Twitter account a Friedrich Nietzsche quote “That which does not kills us, makes us stronger.”

Propositions will be much more prominent in the next session due to the upcoming presidential election year. Since Roe v. Wade was overturned by the Supreme Court of the United States last summer, rumors have swirled around Denver that a proposition to make abortion a state constitutional right will be on the November 2024 ballot for Coloradans. This would require a bill to pass through both chambers and be signed into law by the governor before heading to voters.

Requests for voters to approve using TABOR funds for new government projects are also always a possibility. If voters approve Proposition HH this November, legislators may feel emboldened to ask voters for more TABOR changes in the future. If voters reject Proposition HH, it may force legislators to try a different mechanism for dealing with rising property taxes, also possibly needing voter approval.

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