From fire prevention to fentanyl: 5 highlights from Colorado’s last legislative session

The dust is just beginning to settle the day after Colorado’s legislative session. Lawmakers were working frantically Wednesday night to pass dozens of bills minutes before the midnight deadline. But all is not over. Here are some of the highlights from the final weeks of the Colorado legislative session.

A big year for forest firefighting

The session opened just days after the Marshall Fire destroyed entire neighborhoods and became the most destructive in the state.

Lawmakers responded by creating a new government office dedicated to helping communities prepare for wildfire risks.

They also force insurance companies to pay more money to people who lose their homes and allow displaced residents to continue voting in their hometowns while they wait for reconstruction.

But even as those bills passed, fire danger in Colorado escalated further in April, and the Front Range saw an unprecedented 19 consecutive red flag warnings.

Lawmakers responded by saying they were investing an additional $20 million to bring in more air support and launch a new statewide fire dispatch center.

Cover by Scott Franz/Capitol

Colorado will continue to rely on infrared cameras aboard a Pilatus PC-12 aircraft that can detect a campfire up to 25 miles away.

“We are entering the summer months with the most aggressive and richest fire response team we have ever had,” Senate Speaker Steve Fenberg, D. -Boulder.

But that answer won’t include the new cameras that other states like California are using to spot fires in remote areas more quickly.

A panel of Colorado lawmakers unanimously agreed in February to advance a $2 million plan this year to begin rolling them out.

But the bill did not get another hearing. Sponsor Dylan Roberts, D-Avon, said this week he was running out of time and couldn’t find the money for them this year.

He also blamed Republican filibuster attempts in the final days of the session for the bill’s demise.

A separate bill to bolster the state’s ability to investigate the causes of wildfires also died.

An emotional debate over fentanyl deaths

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agreed they needed to intervene in a worsening fentanyl crisis in the state.

More than 900 Coloradans overdosed and died from drugs last year, according to state data.

But lawmakers have clashed over whether to toughen criminal penalties for people who possess less than one gram of the drug.

Senator Julie Gonzales led efforts to make low-level possession a misdemeanor.

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Cover by Scott Franz/Capitol

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Lawmakers speak outside the Senate chambers on the last day of the 2022 legislative session.

But many Republicans have said it’s time for the state to “get tough” on fentanyl.

R-Weld County Sen. Barbara Kirkmeyer said lawmakers would be complicit in overdose deaths if they didn’t make it a more serious crime to possess even smaller amounts of the drug.

In the end, lawmakers only agreed to tougher penalties for possessing at least one gram.

The bill will also spend more than $30 million on programs that treat addiction and promote recovery and life-saving interventions.

The pandemic has lessened its grip

The session began with many lawmakers still wearing masks as the omicron variant of the coronavirus led to an increase in cases. For the first few weeks, there was also a free testing station outside the entrance to the Capitol. But as the session progressed, most lawmakers ditched their masks and began to focus beyond the pandemic.

A historical budget

In April, Governor Jared Polis signed the biggest budget in state history. Next year’s $36 billion spending plan will pay off a new tuition-covering program for in-state adoptive youth.

“We have recovered more than 100% of the jobs that we lost during the pandemic,” Polis said during the signing ceremony. “And as a result, there are a lot of funds coming in.”

The budget also includes funding for many other new initiatives, including ongoing efforts to reintroduce gray wolves and the rollout of free preschool classes starting next year.

The new program will provide 10 hours per week of free preschool education to all children the year before they enter kindergarten.

An immediate pivot to election season

Stunned and weary from three days of night work, lawmakers wasted no time on Thursday the day after their session to begin anticipating the November elections.

Democrats, standing in front of banners saying Colorado is moving forward and becoming more affordable, said they have passed policies to speed up the state’s recovery from the pandemic.

I said my number one priority this session was to bring down the cost of living in Colorado, make life more affordable, help put money in the pockets of families in our state, and I can say without hesitation, without a doubt, that’s what we did“, House Speaker Alec Garnett, D-Denver, said Thursday.

But Republicans held a very different press conference and lambasted Fenberg and other Democrats. They criticized them for expanding government programs and posted charts and graphs focused on rising crime rates and housing prices in Colorado.

I wonder why Democrats, with a legislative agenda largely modeled on ours, haven’t done more to address the issues of affordability, educational choice and rising crime,” said Sen. Chris Holbert, R. – Parker. mentioned.

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