Legislature in for an interesting session

DENVER - For four years, Colorado legislators have slogged through their annual session with dreary debates on how to budget during the Great Recession.

Now that the state is finally recovering, the 2013 version of the Legislature promises to be something it hasn't been in a long time: Interesting.

Suddenly, legislators have found themselves squarely in the middle of sensitive debates on guns, drugs and personal freedoms - hot issues on which voters already hold strong opinions.

When the four-month session begins Jan. 9, Democrats will be firmly in control of the Capitol after kicking Republicans out of the House majority. They also will have a governor, John Hickenlooper, who goes to great lengths to stay above the partisan fray.

The incoming speaker of the House, Rep. Mark Ferrandino, D-Denver, promised a more cooperative attitude in the House than was on display in 2012, when a bitter fight over gay rights shut the chamber down in the closing hours of the session.

"The Legislature is no place for rugged individualism. What works in the real world is cooperation," Ferrandino said.

That spirit will be tested when legislators consider bills to restrict automatic weapons, increase local control over gas and oil drilling, deal with Obamacare, figure out how to allow marijuana sales and give college tuition discounts to young illegal immigrants.

Despite the plethora of social issues, Republicans say they will keep their focus on the economy and cutting business regulations.

"What we do in the next 120 days should be to promote the paycheck, and not the unemployment check," said House Minority Leader Mark Waller, R-Colorado Springs.

Here's a look at some of the top issues of the session:

Fracking: After Hickenlooper's election seemed to bring a truce in the gas and oil war that waged during Gov. Bill Ritter's tenure, the fight is back on.

This time, it's not a fight between the industry and state government. Instead, it's angry Front Range citizens who were taken by surprise when oil companies showed up in their neighborhoods to hydraulically fracture mineral deposits that were not able to be drilled until a few years ago.

The fight pits Hickenlooper and Republicans in the Legislature against many Democrats, who want cities and counties to have more control over drilling. Hickenlooper supports lawsuits against Longmont, which has banned hydraulic fracturing in its city limits.

The Legislature will convene just as Hickenlooper's Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is set to finish writing a rule on how close drilling rigs can get to homes and buildings.

"For communities that have never experienced oil and gas exploration . it's alarming for them," Hickenlooper said. "Setbacks are an important way of letting people feel that the world as they knew it is not collapsed."

But the proposed setbacks of 350 feet are not enough for some activists and legislators. Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, has threatened to introduce a bill mandating a 2,000-foot setback.

Marijuana: Voters in November legalized marijuana for recreational use and gave the Legislature until July 1 to have rules in place for legal sales. Hickenlooper created a task force to recommend new laws, and it is supposed to issue its report by the end of February.

Gun violence: The Aurora movie theater massacre in July led Hickenlooper to review Colorado's mental health system. He's proposing an $18.5 million fix that could divert troubled people from jails and emergency rooms into five new crisis centers. He also wants to make court information on unstable people quickly available for background checks for gun sales.

The governor also signaled a willingness to talk about tighter gun control. Democratic legislators are considering bans on certain types of assault weapons and high-capacity clips.

Civil unions: The Legislature ground to a halt last May in the debate over rights for same-sex partners. Next year, with clear majorities in both the House and Senate supporting civil unions, the bill is likely to be passed quickly, and the Legislature will move on to other topics by mid-winter.

Immigrant tuition: The same political math works in favor of another Democratic bill that was thwarted in 2012. It would offer tuition discounts at in-state public colleges to high school graduates who crossed the border illegally as children. The bill failed two years in a row in the Republican-led House and, as recently as 2009, could not even pass the Democratic-run Senate.

Obamacare: Hickenlooper and the Legislature will have to decide whether to expand Medicaid for the poor as part of the federal Affordable Care Act. The Supreme Court upheld the law but left the Medicaid expansion up to states. In general, Democrats favor it and Republicans are skeptical.

"How do you justify expanding expenditures from a government that borrows 43 cents for every dollar it spends?" said Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs.

joeh@cortezjournal.com