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Cram session

Midway between elections and 2015's legislative action, local politicians gird for debate

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The time following the November elections and before Colorado's legislative session begins on Jan. 7 may seem like a break for state legislators, but newly elected state Sen. Michael Merrifield, D-Colorado Springs, relates it's anything but.

"It's been a whirlwind," he says.

Following the elections, the parties pick their leadership teams, then those teams assign legislators to committees (education, judicial, finance, etc.). Legislators are allowed to propose five bills — which often align with their committee assignments — but they must pick those bills quickly.

According to legislative staff, returning members had to turn in three bills each by Dec. 1; new members were given until Dec. 15. All senators must have their remaining two bills in by Jan. 9, and representatives by Jan. 13.

"We've only got five bills we can carry and I've got 20-some ideas," Merrifield says, "so I've been meeting frantically with advocates and organizations and lobbyists."

Merrifield, who has been appointed to the Senate's education and judiciary committees, is still in better shape than members of the House, who haven't even received their appointments yet. Both Rep. Dan Nordberg, R-Colorado Springs, and Pete Lee, D-Colorado Springs, tell the Indy they're eagerly awaiting those announcements, which could come later this week.

Merrifield, who served four terms as a state representative after being elected in 2002, says some of his ideas for bills include limiting the violations that can cause a parolee to go back to prison; outlawing the boxes on job applications that ask about previous criminal history; allowing local governments to raise their minimum wage; and increasing incentives for developing poor areas like southeast Colorado Springs.

But Merrifield, who is a retired teacher, is most focused on education. He says he'd like to expand free public preschool, especially for the poor; rescind legislation that ties teacher evaluations to student test scores; and cut back on standardized testing. That last item is one of his priorities, and it could be an area where he's able to make headway. Merrifield says he's already spoken to the Education Committee chair, Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, who shares Merrifield's distaste for the barrage of tests students take every year. (Hill didn't return our phone calls for this story.)

"I really think there are some opportunities to work with Owen on issues that we agree on," Merrifield says. "And there's more that we agree on than disagree."

Cooperation will be necessary in this legislature. The Republicans have a one-vote majority in the Senate, and the Democrats have a two-vote majority in the House. Gov. John Hickenlooper is a Democrat.

Daniel Cole, executive director of the El Paso County Republican Party, says he thinks that will have an interesting impact.

"I expect a legislature that passes better, if fewer, bills," he says. "The Democrats will no longer be able to pass legislation Governor Hickenlooper has to apologize for after signing. I bet Hick is secretly pleased the Republicans took the Senate."

Nordberg adds, "You are going to have more compromise just because the construct is such that you have to. But at the very least, where we have great political differences, you're going to have more deliberation, and wherever you're at on an issue, I think that's a good thing."

Merrifield says despite the differences between the parties, he doesn't expect the gridlock seen in the U.S. Congress.

"Of course it's going to make things difficult," he says. "That's not to say that I don't think that there's going to be issues that we can agree on. I've actually had some conversations with Republicans on the other side that have really been pleasantly gratifying."

Merrifield says that he may consider running some bills two years from now, when the Senate could flip. He notes that a tenants'-rights bill he sponsored as a representative took four years to pass under a Republican majority.

"I'm really struggling to make decisions on what would be the most logical, [have] the most chance of passing — or do I want to run into legislation that may not pass but at least creates a discussion and a debate?"

Merrifield recalls a bill that created strict penalties for owners of dogs that bite people, which he introduced as a state representative in 2004, when the House had a Republican majority. The bill was killed. But shortly afterward, a Republican introduced a similar bill. Merrifield co-sponsored it, and it passed.

"It just goes with the territory," he says. "As far as I'm concerned, at least I got the idea out there and we got it done, so what the heck."

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