Lawmakers face tests

With the new year comes another session of the Colorado Legislature, which convened Wednesday in Denver amid a mixture of expectations, high and low.

High, because the state enters 2014 in good financial condition, with enough reserves for lawmakers to improve funding in various areas where there is need.

Low, because it’s an election year, with everyone in the 65-member state House and 17 of the 35 Senate incumbents up for election — if they’re not term-limited.

Adding to the mix, Gov. John Hickenlooper will be seeking his second term in office, which means he’ll be stepping gingerly through the political maze.

Normally, such a climate would lead us toward an unproductive General Assembly, with the two major parties doing their best to avoid giving the other any campaign ammunition. In past election years, that has meant little more being accomplished beyond the required state budget and assorted other low-profile actions.

But this year is different, for two clear reasons, which gives us more hope for this Legislature.

The first reason is the necessity for measures to address the fire and flood damage of 2013 along the Front Range, obviously in El Paso County but even more between Boulder and Fort Collins. As one legislator aptly put it, those floods and fires didn’t affect just one party. They impacted everyone.

Thus, dealing with infrastructure needs as well as mitigation should not turn into a tense, partisan debate. It should be an opportunity for the two sides to work together without having to worry about  possible consequences.

Second, there’s a new reality at the Capitol: Democrats no longer have the same dominance as last year. Because of the recalls that removed Senate President John Morse of Colorado Springs and Sen. Angela Giron of Pueblo, the Dems’ 20-15 Senate advantage has dwindled to 18-17.

And considering that two other Denver-area Democratic senators have been known to vote with Republicans — including on business issues — that should be encouraging to the Colorado Springs business community.

It should mean that business-related legislation of importance to El Paso County, and supported by Republicans, should have a better chance of making it through the Senate. Topping that list would be removing the state business personal property tax, which now has support on both sides of the aisle. Let’s not forget, either, that Senate Minority Leader Bill Cadman of Colorado Springs will play a key role in how the session unfolds.

Yet another reason for hope is the refreshing civility between the two state House leaders, House Speaker Mark Ferrandino of Denver and House Minority Leader Brian DelGrosso of Loveland. Granted, neither comes from El Paso County, but both have visited here in recent months and clearly understand this area’s priorities.

We know better than to count on bipartisan harmony on more than a few agenda items. But having a solid financial situation should help the two sides find common ground in areas such as education. In addition to K-12 funding, though, we’d like to see more support this year for higher education, a vital ingredient in the state’s economic and workforce development moving forward.

The sooner the better, too, because at some point that reality of 2014 being an election year will come into play. Let’s just hope the Legislature can do some substantial work first.