When Democrats attained a bicameral majority in the Colorado General Assembly in 2019, Senate leadership pledged to stop using so-called “kill committees” to save members of their party from taking difficult votes. Then Senate President Leroy Garcia told CPR News when he took the gavel, “I wouldn’t feel good about myself going back to my district saying I’m stifling the process.” This session, Democrats have diverged sharply from that commitment at the expense of thorough consideration and debate over legislation.
As of close of legislative business on March 3rd, Senate leadership has sent 23 bills to the chamber’s dedicated kill committee—the Committee on State, Civic, Military, & Veterans Affairs—that do not belong there based on subject matter. Nine have already died in committee.
A similar trend has emerged in the House where 13 of the bills sent to the kill committee do not belong there based on their topics. The Democratic majority has killed six so far with a vote to “postpone indefinitely.”
Democratic protections in Colorado’s Constitution
Under the Colorado Constitution, every bill must receive a committee hearing. Each committee focuses on specific policy topics like education, energy, or labor, and bills generally get assigned to committees based on their topic. To advance to the next committee or the full House or Senate, a bill must receive favorable votes from a majority of the legislators on the assigned committee. The party in control of each chamber determines committee membership and always holds the majority on each committee.
Notably, the requirement for every bill to receive a hearing in committee is not found in many other states. Colorado’s requirement is intended to generate transparency and deliberation over issues important to citizens.
Kill committees exist to block policy changes with which the majority party disagrees and to protect vulnerable incumbents in the wider chamber from having to take difficult votes that could impact their elections.
A License to kill
While all bills must receive a committee hearing, the party that holds the majority in each chamber decides which bills get assigned to which committees. Leadership of the majority party sends bills to kill committees for several reasons. They may determine that a bill would force an uncomfortable vote for its vulnerable members if sent to the proper committee of jurisdiction. In many cases, they use the committee to signal that they dislike the bill. Sometimes they simply want to avoid prolonged deliberation in other committees.
Leadership stacks the kill committees–commonly known as “State Affairs” in each chamber–with members from “safe” districts. These legislators understand their job: Kill bills to protect majority members from accountability. And do not under any circumstances give them airtime with serious discussion or debate.
Both parties have employed this tactic to varying degrees whilst holding the majority.
The State Affairs committee has jurisdiction over bills concerning elections, campaign finance, and military and veterans affairs. Yet, over half of the bills assigned to the House and Senate State Affairs committees so far this session does not belong there topically. They deal with issues like alternative energy development, tax reduction, criminal justice reform, gun rights, government transparency, and more.
Each of these issues has a constituency and deserves robust legislative dialogue. The kill committee all but guarantees they won’t get it.
Democrats dodge deliberation and debate
Take Senate Bill 22-038, which would have allowed hospitals to provide more transparency in patient billing. The three Democrats who control the Senate State Affairs committee killed it less than a month into session without any debate or discussion whatsoever.
Current law prohibits healthcare providers from disclosing the Hospital Provider Fee—a state-imposed tax on medical providers—as a line item on patient bills. The Republican-led bill would have removed this prohibition.
After witness testimony, the Democratic majority voted along party-lines to end all future consideration of the bill. They asked no questions of the bill sponsors or witnesses and provided no arguments against the legislation.
When committee Democrats snuff out a bill in this way, they unironically cast their vote saying, “respectfully no.”
Imagine a criminal trial in which the defense makes its case while the prosecution offers no evidence, no argumentation, and brings forth no witnesses. Then, without any deliberation, the jury passes its verdict: “respectfully guilty.”
That’s not how democracy is supposed to work.
Another bill, set to receive its kill committee hearing on March 14, would lower the state’s income tax rate from 4.55% to 4.4%.
The bill, House Bill 22-1021, mirrors an identical citizens’ ballot measure, Initiative 31, which collected more than the 125,000 voter signatures required to appear on the ballot this November. Coloradans passed a similar income tax reduction in 2020 by a nearly sixteen-point margin. Governor Polis endorsed that measure and supports reducing the income tax further.
If Democrats want to vote against a bill to reduce the state income tax, that’s fine. They won the last election; they have the power to decide what bills the legislature adopts. But there’s clearly interest amongst Coloradans for reducing the income tax. The measure deserves real consideration.
The fifty-eight percent of voters who supported the last income tax reduction deserve to know where their elected officials stand on income tax reductions—not just where the three Democrats sitting on State Affairs stand.
Democrats’ disdain for democracy
So far this session, Democratic leadership in the House and Senate has sent 63 bills to their respective State Affairs committees. Less than half fall under the proper scope of the committee. Thirty-six arguably belong elsewhere, and thirty of those have only Republican sponsors. The majority has already killed sixteen of them along party lines with little to no debate. Of the seven that have made it through the committee alive, five had Democratic sponsors.
The use of kill committees this session to circumvent democratic debate and accountability should come as no surprise. Colorado Democrats have a growing track record of showing disdain for democracy.
When Democrats took the Senate in 2019, they told Coloradans they would abstain from excessive use of kill committees. But the party has not hesitated to leverage this partisan tool this session. Representative legislatures exist to facilitate open, public debate over issues of the day. It’s time we get back to that.
Ben Murrey is fiscal policy director at the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver. Jordan Cottrell is a fiscal policy research associate at the Institute.
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