HD 29 Day at the Capitol

Wednesday, February 13

My representative in the Colorado House, Tracy Kraft-Tharp, hosts a day at the Capitol every year. At least, I think she does. This is the third year I heard about it but the first time I’ve attended. Of course, it always happens on a weekday and it took me this long to decide it was worth taking a day off work. Being curious about how our democracy really works, I should have done it sooner.

This is the agenda we received:

  • 8:45 am : Meet at the foot of the main staircase on the first floor of Capitol building.
  • 9:00 am : The House convenes, we will be sitting on the House floor.
  • 10:30 am : A couple of options:
    • Tour of the Capitol building
    • Public Health Care & Human Services Committee
    • Senate Education Committee
  • 12:00 pm-1:15 pm : Lunch in HCR 0109 in the Capitol Basement.
  • 1:15 pm : Business Affairs & Labor Committee (in the Legislative Services Building, on the corner of 14th and Sherman St. The meeting is in room LSB A.)

We were given a list of parking lots nearby, but I decided that rather than spend $10 to $16 on parking I’d take the train. That meant an earlier departure, but I wouldn’t have to worry about arriving at a full parking lot and needing to search for an alternate. The train stops at Union Station and I’d take the 16th Street Mall shuttle to the Civic Center station across the street from the Capitol. Based on the train schedule I’d have a few spare minutes to check out the environs.

Capitol Building, west side

I’m sad to admit that I’ve lived in Denver (or hereabouts) for forty years and have never set foot in the Capitol. The building sits on top of what is now called Capitol Hill but was formerly called Brown’s Bluff. Although Colorado was not yet a state during the Civil War, the building is surrounded by reminders of that war. It is bounded by Lincoln St. on the west and Grant St. on the east and by Colfax Ave. on the north and 14th Ave. on the south. At the top of the steps in front of the west entrance are a statue of a Civil War soldier flanked by two cannons. On the exterior wall by the doors are two plaques, one with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and the other memorializing General Logan (whose street is a block east of Grant’s).

Lincoln, of course, was President during the war. Grant was the Union’s most successful general and later served two terms as President. Logan was also a general, and later served as Senator from Illinois. Schuyler Colfax was a founding member of the Republican Party, an energetic opponent of slavery, and eventually Grant’s Vice President. He is one of only two men to serve as both Speaker of the House and Vice President. Sherman St. is also here; or it would be if the building wasn’t in the way. I’m guessing that Sherman St. is named for the general and not his younger brother who served as Senator from Ohio (author of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act) and Secretary of State under McKinley.

Denver is the Mile High City. The local sports teams would have you believe the football field (Broncos Stadium at Mile High) or the basketball court is a mile above sea level. They may be, for all I know. Of course, the area is not exactly flat and any number spots may be a mile high. But standing on the steps near the door of the Capitol you are a mile high.

Mile High step

Once inside, I made my way to the base of the staircase in the rotunda. After everyone arrived, we made our way to Tracy Kraft-Tharp’s office where we discussed our plans for the day. Our first stop was the floor of the House.

The House convenes every day of the session. This is generally a short meeting. Most of the public business of legislation is done in committee meetings and hearings. Before the call to order (and to a lesser degree, during the session) the room is in a state of pandemonium. The legislators and guests on the floor are in constant motion, squeezing past each other, exchanging greetings and having short conversations. The general dress code of the legislators is business attire, but many avoid the staid shades of blue, gray, and brown and sport bright colors or plaids. Not quite as loud as the attire of commodities trading floors, but reminiscent of them nonetheless.

Our group, on the floor of the House

The session was called to order at 9:00am. First there is a prayer, then the Pledge of Allegiance. Next is the roll call. Legislators get no sick days; by the end of the roll call, a board shows who is in attendance and who has an unexcused absence. (Later in the session I did hear one or two legislators request permission to be absent at tomorrow’s meeting.) After the roll call was the approval of yesterday’s journal. The journal is essentially the same as minutes for a meeting. These were approved by a voice vote, in spite of the “nays” sounding louder than the “yeas”. I learned later that this vocal disapproval is a standing joke.

Floor of the House

Next, various guest groups were announced. These included us, the HD 29 group. There was also a group of international students and an LGBTQ group. Then a number of members announced various events scheduled for the next day or two.

With all the preliminaries handled, the House got around to some actual business. For today, this was just two items: consideration of two Senate Joint Memorials. A “memorial” in this context is a petition. The Colorado House of Representatives is asking the Federal Government to take some action. Both of these had to do with water issues along the Arkansas River.

First was about the Arkansas Valley Conduit Project. This is a project that was originally approved in the Kennedy administration. It is to provide filtered water ready for treatment to forty communities east of Pueblo. My understanding is that the project is still uncompleted. In any event, the water provided to 15 of the 40 communities violates national standards for radionuclides. The second item calls for the Army Corps of Engineers to dredge sections of the lower Arkansas River. The riverbed is full of mud and debris as a result of flooding and is in some places sixteen feet higher than usual. Because of this mud and debris, flooding is occurring quite often. Both items passed, but it is expected that neither of these issues are likely to be acted on by the Federal Government.

This concluded the business for the day, and the motion was made to “lay over the calendar” to the following day. That’s a motion to adjourn. A voice vote was taken, and just as the motion to accept yesterday’s journal was loudly voted against, this motion was also passed in spite of a raucous “no” vote. The session adjourned at 9:40am.

For the next couple of hours we split up, with the choice of a couple of committee meetings or a tour of the building. I opted for the Senate Education Committee where HB19-1008 was discussed. That’s a bill sponsored by Rep. Kraft-Tharp to bring shop classes back to schools. I think it’s unfortunate that shop classes are generally no longer offered and was quite interested in seeing how this hearing went, but unfortunately I had to take some personal phone calls and missed most of it. Rather than go in and out of the room between calls, I wandered the building.

Senate chamber

I really love these old public buildings. The Colorado Capitol was built over a fifteen year period and completed in 1901. It is mainly open space, with the large chambers (Senate, House, Supreme Court) and offices situated on the exterior walls. On both the north and south sides of the center dome and rotunda is a large atrium. The offices house the Governor, Lt. Governor, and Treasurer as well as many (most? all?) of the legislators. There are also some small meeting rooms. (Larger meeting rooms are in neighboring buildings.)

At the time it was built, the cost was about $3 million. It’s impossible to know what it might cost if built today. (The use of local materials actually increased the cost of construction. It would have been cheaper to ship marble from Italy than to transport it through the mountains.) The exterior walls are made of granite from Gunnison, the foundations are sandstone from Ft. Collins, and two different marbles comprise the interior. The floors are yule marble from Marble and the rose onyx wainscotting is from Beulah.

View from above the grand staircase

The stone in the floors looks fairly uniform to me. But the rose onyx has quite a bit of variation from place to place. I’m told that more than a thousand likenesses have been found in the in the stone, some resembling famous people. I couldn’t find either George Washington or Molly Brown. I didn’t see anybody else, either, but just as you can find all sorts of things in cloud formations, I’m sure you can see a variety of sights in this stone. Colorado rose onyx is so rare that all the known supply was used in the construction of this building.

They just don’t make buildings like this any more. There is a considerable amount of detail hand-carved woodwork that would be prohibitively expensive today. Also, there’s quite a bit of worked brass in the light fixtures and balusters. Ornamental iron is common, making up the risers in the stairwells and in the interior windows (for example, in the walls between the stairwells and the atria.) On the first floor there are also some interesting murals, featuring man’s use and transformation of Colorado’s terrain with some poetic captions.

Dome, stained glass Colorado figures, Presidential portraits

On the third floor under the dome are portraits of all the US Presidents. Well, almost all: Trump’s portrait isn’t there yet, although the little brass marker is present. Above the presidents are stained glass likenesses of various important figures in early Colorado history. Although I recognized many of the names, the stories of these men are mostly forgotten today. There are stained glass panels in several other places in the building, not limited to early Colorado history, and sometimes not limited to Colorado.

After exploring the building, I found the rest of the group and together we had lunch. After lunch we went next door to the Legislative Services Building and sat in on the proceedings of the Business Affairs and Labor Committee. This committee is chaired by Rep. Kraft-Tharp. We heard three bills: one on cryptocurrencies, one on reform of regulations of professions and occupations, and one on criminal background checks.

I’ve never been to one of these meetings before, and although I had copies of the bills I spent my time exploring instead of reading them. I didn’t take very good notes, but the process went something like this: the bill’s sponsor testifies and is questioned by the committee. Then witnesses are allowed to testify and be questioned. Next, amendments can be made to the bill. In the end there are a few possibilities. One is a motion to move the bill forward in the process and another is to postpone the bill indefinitely. Indefinite postponement is essentially killing it. After either of these motions, there’s a roll call vote on that motion. (Two of the bills passed the committee, one was postponed indefinitely.)

Rep. Kraft-Tharp urged me to testify, but I didn’t really have anything to contribute. On the regulation reform bill, there was one issue I might have spoken about, but it was clarified by the questioning from the committee.

This part of the process covers a portion of what happens to a bill in a committee. There’s much more to it, of course, but I haven’t seen any of it first hand. After a bill is passed by the committee, it may get routed to another committee. When a bill survives the committees, the entire House gets to vote on it. It will then go through the Senate and if they make any changes there’s some sort of reconciliation process. If it passes both chambers, it goes to the Governor for signing (or veto).

All in all, it was an interesting and enjoyable day. There are a couple reasons I’d like to go back and do it again. There’s a tour of the dome that I’d like to take. I’d definitely like to get a closer look. Also, I’d like to see a session of the House (or Senate) when a bill comes up for a vote to see how that process works.

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