That's A Wrap: State Legislature Ends Session With Votes On Tobacco, Vaccines, Health Care

May 6, 2019
Originally published on May 3, 2019 6:45 pm

The Colorado General Assembly didn’t end its 72nd session quietly. In the final days, they’ve taken big votes on some of the most consequential legislation of the year. Here’s what they’ve been up to in the final hours.

Tobacco tax snuffed out

Gov. Jared Polis suffered his first big setback in the Legislature late Thursday when Senate Democrats overwhelmingly rejected his proposal to ask voters to increase taxes on cigarettes and vaping products.

Polis said the taxes would decrease youth smoking rates and help fight a teen vaping crisis. Supporters estimated it would generate $300 million a year for smoking prevention efforts and preschool programming.

But Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg suggested this week the bill, which was introduced with just 11 days left in the session, didn’t land at the right time.

“That’s kind of a relatively new issue on the table for us, and frankly we’ve had blinders on the last several days of just what’s immediately in front of us in the Senate,” he said Wednesday. “To be honest, I don’t think that debate has happened yet in a robust way in our caucus. I think it’s an important issue for a lot of people in the caucus, I think there are some people who are hesitant to vote for it because they inherently aren’t crazy about tobacco taxes.”

The measure was also opposed by seven Democrats in the House.

Vaccine bill rejected

Democrats in the Senate also agreed to kill a contentious bill that aimed to get more children in the state vaccinated. The measure would have made it harder for parents to opt their kids out of immunizations by requiring them to fill out a form. Hundreds of parents testified against the change during a 14-hour hearing, saying vaccines can be harmful.

Polis also said he wouldn’t sign it. Supporters of the bill pointed to Colorado having one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country. They also cited concerns about ongoing measles outbreaks around the country.

Before Democrats agreed to kill the bill on Thursday, Republicans were already trying to block it by speaking at length about bills and trying to run out the clock on other pieces of legislation.

Republicans celebrated when the bill was tabled so that Democrats could move on to other priorities.

“This wasn’t worth the time and energy,” Sen. Owen Hill said. “It wasn’t a big enough priority.”

But Stephanie Wasserman, the director of the Colorado Children’s Immunization Coalition, accused lawmakers of putting politics over the safety of children.

“We are very disappointed in the last-minute actions of the Senate and their unwillingness to addressing an urgent public health concern in our state,” she said.

Health agenda advances

Lawmakers trying to lower the cost of health care in their districts celebrated a couple of legislative victories this week.

They got a reinsurance program and a measure to start the process of importing prescription drugs from Canada across the finish line.

Health policy experts said the reinsurance bill could be the most impactful health measure of the session.

Supporters predict it will lower premiums by 15 to 20 percent for people using the insurance marketplace on the Western Slope and in rural Colorado.

So how does it work?

The state is making a $120 million investment to help cover some of the most expensive insurance claims on the state’s marketplace.

It’s often referred to as insurance for insurance companies.

The hope is insurance companies will offer lower premiums when they know the state will help cover some of the highest-cost patients.

Sex ed bill passes, with a caveat

An effort to expand the sexual education curriculum in Colorado proved to be controversial up until the final week of the session. The debate put lawmakers who think students need to learn more about birth control, consent and LGBT relationships against parents who think they should have control over what their students learn about sex.

To get the bill across the finish line in the Senate, the bill sponsors agreed to heavily amend it on Thursday so that it would let charter schools opt out of the expanded sex-ed curriculum. It also put the focus on teaching consent and healthy relationships in schools.

Climate action plans passed

Democrats also passed a bill that makes it a goal for Colorado to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent before 2030.

The measure will give a state board the power to adopt regulations to help the state reach that goal.

Supporters said climate change is shrinking the state’s snowpack and leading to more intense wildfires. But opponents questioned who is most to blame for climate change.

Sen. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale, suggested it would be more effective to try and limit burping and flatulence from cows.

He pointed to a study in New Zealand showing adding garlic to a cow’s diet reduces that flatulence, and the subsequent methane emissions.

“Why are we reducing (coal plant) jobs in Craig, Colorado when we could be feeding cows more garlic?” he asked earlier this week on the Senate floor. “My premise is there are other things we can do. We don’t need to make the people in Craig, Colorado move to Wyoming to solve this problem. We can grow more garlic.”

Other highlights

Lawmakers also passed a bill to let local governments set their own minimum wages, and a measure asking voters to legalize sports betting to generate revenue for the Colorado Water Plan.

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