Colorado’s legislative session runs 120 calendar days. Once the clock hits zero, all legislative activity ceases. Uncompleted bills die and must be reintroduced next year.
Is this a problem? To some, it absolutely is. This deadline kills needed legislative action. As a result, the state should consider moving to a full-time legislative session, they contend.
This proposal, however, both misunderstands the problem and fails to offer a compelling solution. A full-time legislature would cloud accountability and lead to more spending and taxes. It would also not guarantee a more productive legislature, entrench partisanship, and leave the legislators more insulated from their constituents—and thus more under the sway of special interests.
In sum, a full-time legislative calendar is the enemy of both good governance and liberty.
Most obviously, a longer legislative session allows the party in power to escape scrutiny. A shorter legislative session focuses the public’s attention on the biggest priorities. If the legislature is always moving, however, the biggest bills will receive less debate and scrutiny. Denver is thus more likely to pass unpopular and damaging taxes and regulations.
And it is no surprise that proponents of a full-time legislative session argue that the change would allow the state to make “progress.” The reality is, the legislative clock is one of only a few tools that the opposition party can use, and eliminating the deadline would simply give the party in power more time to pass their priorities. As a result, expanding the legislative calendar is a short-sighted, partisan power-grab.
Ironically, expanding the legislative session would likely undermine advocates’ own goals. Partisanship is the enemy of a smoothly functioning legislature—see, for example, Congress—while bipartisan cooperation can move bills quickly. Removing one of the minority’s few tools erodes trust across party lines, making it less likely for there to be compromise and the discovery of common ground.
Further, it isn’t clear that making the legislative calendar year-round would make legislators better at their jobs. In a “full-time” legislature, legislators spend on average 84% of their time on the body’s work, yet Colorado’s legislators already spend 74% of their time on legislative work.
In other words, increasing the time for bills would not appreciably increase the time commitment from legislators. It would simply reallocate how they spend their time—more time focused on the particularities of bills, less on hearings and constituent services. As a result, your representatives in Denver would hear less from you and more from a few powerful lobby groups.
And your representatives could become even more insulated through this change. A full-time legislative session would require the state to pay each legislator more—increasing the risk of a professionalized political class interested only in keeping the job rather than representing you to the best of their abilities.
But the biggest problem is that this proposal misunderstands our problems and how best to address them. A full-time legislative calendar assumes that solutions to Colorado’s challenges must be large-scale policy initiatives coming down from Denver.
That’s just not true. Our biggest problems—high energy costs, expensive health care, effective education—will not be, and indeed cannot be, fundamentally solved by our state government. The solutions must come from enterprising Coloradan families and businesses who implement solutions to meet their own needs. There certainly is a role for the state legislature in that process, but empowering Colorado’s people likely takes less than 120 days, not more.
Expanding the legislative calendar is a recipe for wasting time and wasting money. Let’s not do it.
Jesse Mallory is state director at Americans for Prosperity-Colorado.
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