Historic changes in state senate
SUMMIT COUNTY – The state Senate saw some historic changes last week when Democrats named Sen. Joan Fitz-Gerald as the first female president of the state Senate and then began gearing up to take control of both legislative chambers for the first time in 44 years.”I was surprised Democrats took over the House and Senate – I didn’t think I’d live this long,” Fitz-Gerald joked. “I think the House members were stunned.”Fitz-Gerald, of Jefferson County, represents District 16, which includes Summit County. State Rep. Andrew Romanoff, D-Denver, was named speaker of the House and Peter Groff as the president pro tem.Republicans named state Sen. Mark Hillman, R-Burlington, and state Rep. Joe Stengel, R-Littleton, as minority leaders of the state Senate and House. They will all be confirmed in their respective chambers the first day of the legislative session Jan. 12.As president, Fitz-Gerald will preside over the Senate and arguably most importantly, assign bills to committees.
“Where you send them is often a life and death experience for a bill,” she said. “It gives us the opportunity to put bills on the governor’s desk that will improve the quality of life in Colorado.”Fitz-Gerald, who was elected to the Senate in 2000, said Democrats will work toward solving the state’s budget problems first.Legislators are caught between two conflicting constitutional amendments, one that limits taxes – the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR) and the other that requires increased funding for public education – Amendment 23.Fitz-Gerald said she hasn’t quite grasped the magnitude of having both a Democratic House and Senate, primarily because she just returned from the East Coast where her brother died after a short illness with bone cancer. Their mother died three weeks to the day prior to him.But she is ready to begin work and part of that will involve restoring fairness to both chambers, she said.
“I think the component of being president has been missing over the past two years; it’s been done in a partisan manner,” Fitz-Gerald said. “This will give us the opportunity for fairness, one that I would like to seize. The Republicans in the Senate acted like a majority of one with a mandate. I will not do that. It’s time to be respectful and restore senatorial courtesy. Once fairness and respect for the rules have been restored, it will make life easier.”The comment was a direct commentary of former Republican Senate President John Andrews who left the Legislature because of term limits.Fitz-Gerald plans to put the state’s financial crisis on the front burner. In the past, that issue has been postponed until the end of the session, making it impossible to address the problems.Solving the state’s fiscal woes could include changing TABOR to allow the state to keep extra money for a rainy day and eliminate the so-called “ratcheting-down” effect, which doesn’t allow the state to spend extra money in good years without a vote of the public.Fitz-Gerald, a proponent of public education, doesn’t want to touch Amendment 23, which increases the amount of money that funds schools. One reason she wants to keep it intact is because of voters’ overwhelming acceptance of referendums to finance education on the Front Range at the polls Nov. 2.
“If we touch school funding, that will have many negative implications,” she said. “That would be a big mistake.”Other issues Fitz-Gerald hopes to address include solving public health insurance problems, notably access, cost and bulk purchases of prescription drugs – especially in Medicaid.She said she believes a lot of bipartisan consensus will develop on issues facing the state. And she said she’s discussed some issues with Gov. Bill Owens, who is not adverse to changing some of the elements of TABOR.”That’s huge when you compare it to where we were two years ago,” she said. “In addition to (everyone) recognizing there’s a crisis, we have the two bodies controlled by members who want to make it happen. And I’ve heard a lot of creative solutions. But it’s a political hot potato. It will take a lot of political courage that’s long past due.”Jane Stebbins can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 228, or email@example.com.
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