One Hundred Twentieth Legislative Day Brings Session to a Halt – Ready or Not

by Julie Pelegrin

With the advent of the 120th legislative day, the Seventieth General Assembly adjourned sine die Wednesday evening. The 2016 legislative session was busy with the introduction of 468 House bills – the most in a session in recent memory – as well as 217 Senate bills, nine concurrent resolutions, 68 joint resolutions, and five joint memorials. Of that number, they passed 387 bills, 178 of which the Governor has already signed. The Governor must act by June 10 on the remaining 209 bills that passed or they will become law without his signature. So far, the Governor has not vetoed any of the bills passed this year.

The 2016 legislative session saw many long committee hearings (the last House Judiciary Committee meeting began on May 5 and didn’t adjourn until 4:48 a.m. on May 6) during which the legislators debated many significant issues. They considered 20 bills that addressed marijuana in some way, 94 bills on education, and 61 bills that had something to do with taxes. They passed bills to legalize rain barrels; to address the sentences for juveniles who were tried as adults and convicted of a class 1 felony; to eventually allow for the sale of liquor in grocery stores; to change the procedures for emergency 72-hour mental health holds; and to increase the transparency and security around student personally identifiable information collected by the state and by school districts.

On top of all that, the House and the Senate adopted a balanced state budget of about $27 billion for fiscal year 2016-17, and they enacted a school finance bill that increased the total program funding for public education to a statewide average of $7,425 per student – $112 more than in fiscal year 2015-16.

The House and the Senate managed to complete almost all of the items on their calendars, unlike past years when several bills and resolutions expired at the final gavel. Items often die on the calendar because section 7 of article V of the state constitution requires the regular legislative session to end every year no later than midnight on the 120th legislative day, regardless of whether the legislative work is completed.

This has not always been the case. The 120-calendar-day-limit on regular legislative sessions is a relatively recent development.

The Colorado constitution originally required the General Assembly to meet at “12 o’clock, noon” on the first Wednesday in January in 1876 and again in 1879, and then every other year “forever thereafter, and at other times when convened by the Governor.” Once convened, the legislators could stay as long as they liked. When they convened in regular legislative session every other year, they could consider bills on any topics they thought necessary or important. And there were no limits on how many bills legislators could introduce in each legislative session.

But as we all know, nothing is forever. Things changed after about 75 years.

At the general election in 1950, the people of Colorado passed House Concurrent Resolution 11, changing the session times for the General Assembly. Starting in 1951, the General Assembly convened the regular legislative session at 10:00 a.m. on the first Wednesday after the first Tuesday in January every year. There was still no limit on how long they could meet, but in even-numbered years legislators could only enact bills that raised revenue or made appropriations or that addressed subjects that the Governor identified in writing within the first 10 days of the session. And there were no limits on the number of bills introduced.

In 1977, the General Assembly first limited the number of introduced bills. House Joint Resolution 1016 amended the joint rules to limit each legislator to introducing six bills during the session, not counting appropriations bills or bills that a legislator requested by December 1 and introduced by the first day of the session. A legislator could ask permission from the delayed bill committee in his or her chamber to introduce additional bills.

In 1982, the voters first limited the length of a legislative session with the adoption of Senate Concurrent Resolution 1. This amendment limited the regular legislative sessions in even-numbered years to 140 calendar days. But the legislators could consider any topics they thought necessary or important during those 140 days; the voters removed the Governor’s power to control the legislative agenda. Legislative sessions in odd-numbered years could still continue as long as the legislators thought necessary. The legislative deadline schedule for these years contemplated at least 175-day sessions.

In 1984, the General Assembly further limited the number of bills: Six bills during the legislative sessions in odd-numbered years and four bills during the legislative sessions in even-numbered years. A legislator could also introduce an unlimited number of appropriations bills and up to four interim committee bills, but the General Assembly eliminated the exception for pre-filed bills.

Finally, in 1988, the voters approved another Senate Concurrent Resolution 1, requiring the General Assembly to meet every year, no later than the second Wednesday of January, and adjourn no more than 120 calendar days later. The “calendar day” requirement means that, once the regular legislative session starts, every day counts whether the General Assembly meets or not. In 1990, the General Assembly amended the joint rules to limit each legislator to five bills introduced each regular legislative session, not counting interim committee bills or bills approved by certain statutory committees.

So far as we know now, the legislators will not convene again until Wednesday, January 11, 2017, when the members of the 71st General Assembly take office. But there’s always a chance the 70th General Assembly might reconvene during 2016. One never knows when the Governor or two-thirds of the legislators may decide to call a special legislative session

Sine Die

Correction: May 13, 2016
An earlier version of this post misstated the total number of passed by the General Assembly as 385. The Correct number is 387, and accordingly, the Governor must act by June 10 on the remaining 209 bills (not 207) that passed or they will become law without his signature.