As the annual state lawmaking session kicks off Wednesday, Western Slope legislators will be heading down the hill to Denver to take on a myriad of issues impacting their constituents, including bills related to short-term rental properties, housing costs and water.
The session, which will last until May 8, comes nearly two months after lawmakers convened for a three-day special session on property taxes where tensions soared between the two parties and within the Democratic caucuses.
Since then, two Democratic members of the House have resigned, citing the vitriol at the Capitol. Leadership from both parties have said they’re working to tamp down friction as the session begins.
With Democrats holding the governor’s office and majorities in the House and Senate, Republicans will be seeking ways to find compromises to accomplish their goals. During the 2023 session, Republicans heavily leaned on delay tactics — such as reading bills at length and debating for hours into the night — to force Democrats to compromise. In response, Democrats created a new precedent by using a rule to limit debate on some bills for the first time in at least a decade.
While the legislative session is sure to have unexpected twists and turns, here’s a look at some of the bills expected to be introduced that could impact Western Slope residents.
Amending the short-term rentals bill
A bill that would change the way short-term rentals are taxed in Colorado will likely be one of the most controversial topics impacting the Western Slope at the Capitol this year.
At present, the measure, which was approved by an interim committee to be introduced at the start of this session, would nearly quadruple property taxes on certain short-term rentals. Any property rented more than 90 days would be taxed at the state’s current lodging rate, 27.9%, instead of the residential rate, 6.765%.
“I think I can speak for my colleagues when I say it’s the No. 1 thing we’ve been hearing about in the months leading up to the session in terms of email volume and consistent feedback,” said Sen. Dylan Roberts, a Frisco Democrat who represents Clear Creek, Gilpin, Grand, Jackson, Moffat, Rio Blanco, Routt and Summit counties and parts of Eagle and Garfield counties.
Roberts and House Speaker Julie McCluskie, D-Dillon, both said they wouldn’t support the bill in its current form.
However, bill sponsor Sen. Chris Hansen, a Denver Democrat, said he plans to propose major changes to the legislation. In a pre-legislative session event hosted by The Colorado Sun, Hansen said he was looking at creating multiple tiers of tax rates based on a property’s usage instead of just the 90-day rule.
“The amendments we’re looking at would create different categories for very high-use properties that are very much like hotels and, say, medium-use properties that are maybe 100-150 days per year versus properties that are rented out 30-40 days per year,” he said.
McCluskie and Roberts both indicated their positions on the bill could change depending on amendments.
“It’s about finding that right balance,” McCluskie said. “How do we balance the needs of our tourism economy with the needs of working locals who need to have access to housing?”
Roberts said he plans to introduce a separate bill on the first day of session that would allow counties and municipalities to offer tax rebates to people who decide to rent long term instead of short term.
“The rightful concern that our constituents have about short-term rentals is that they have come in and taken up the stock of what used to be long-term rental housing,” he said.
That’s why he wants to create incentives for landlords to return to long-term rentals, he said.
Similar to the 2023 session, Democrats plan to focus on housing costs throughout the state, an issue that’s been repeatedly identified as one of the most important topics to Coloradans.
Gov. Jared Polis, whose landmark housing bill aimed at boosting density was rejected last session, said he won’t be pushing for one standalone piece of legislation like last year. Instead, there will be a variety of bills confronting the problem. Some of the ideas from Polis’ Senate Bill 213 are likely to come back in slightly different forms.
Polis has so far been vague on what those bills will look like and if they will again attempt to dictate local governments’ land use decisions — one of the most contentious elements of last year’s legislation. In the 2023 session, Republicans and moderate Democrats effectively sunk the bill, citing concerns over taking away the rights of local governments.
Lawmakers and lobbyists are expecting bills related to creating a statewide housing needs assessment, making it easier to build accessory-dwelling units and expanding transit-oriented housing. The governor has also said he wants to focus on boosting transit options as part of his focus on housing.
At the start of the 2023 legislative session, lawmakers talked about taking bold steps on water issues, but only a few bills dealing with the topic passed by the end of the session.
Senate Bill 295 created the Colorado River Drought Task Force, comprising municipal, agricultural, industrial and tribal representatives. The group worked over the summer and fall to find possible compromises on water-related bills for the upcoming session.
Legislators charged the task force with providing recommendations for ways to address drought in the Colorado River Basin, including water demand management and conservation projects.
The task force ended up making a few recommendations, none of which dealt directly with demand reduction programs. An idea brought forward by Andy Mueller, the general manager of the Colorado River District, would have recommended that the General Assembly adopt a resolution supporting standards for a theoretical demand reduction program.
Seven task force members voted in favor of the resolution. Nine voted against it. A major criticism of the concept was that it was premature to approve such a resolution before any program exists.
In his minority report on the subject, Mueller said it was unfortunate the task force wouldn’t give “clear guidance” to lawmakers on how to proceed if pressures to develop a demand management program grow.
“With critical reservoir storage on the Colorado River hovering at or below 35% of capacity, we are only one dry year away from returning to the state of crisis we saw last year at this time,” he wrote.
Roberts, one of the sponsors of the bill that created the task force, praised the work of the task force members but said they didn’t deliver everything he was expecting.
“I think I was expecting more recommendations that would substantively prepare Colorado for a worst-case-scenario future,” he said.
There are several concepts that received full support among the task members, including ones to increase funding for aging water infrastructure, expand the state’s existing turf removal program and continue funding for stream and snowpack measurements. Bills related to those ideas are likely to be introduced this session.
Other ideas, like one that would allow coal mine operators to temporarily loan their water rights to the state while developing new ways to produce energy over the next few decades, were narrowly defeated but still may find enough support among lawmakers to be introduced.
Another significant proposal expected this session relates to education funding. In his proposed budget released in November, Polis announced he would seek to “fully fund” K-12 education. That means the state would be meeting its voter-approved obligation for education dollars for the first time since 2009.
The funding would end the budget stabilization factor, which has allowed lawmakers to divert K-12 dollars to other areas.
The session will begin Wednesday, and the governor will deliver his annual State of the State speech on Thursday.
Elliott Wenzler is the Western Slope politics reporter for the Steamboat Pilot & Today and its sister publications in Glenwood Springs, Vail, Craig, Summit County and Grand County. Reach her at [email protected].