Jan 12, 2011 4:18 PM by Bea Karnes

Colorado has first divided Legislature in a decade

DENVER (AP) - Republicans are back in charge in Colorado's House, vowing to slash spending and stick to conservative principles as the Legislature opened its 2011 session Wednesday.

Their top agenda: jobs and the economy. It was the top priority for Democrats, too, as leaders from both parties promised to work together while warning of fiscal belt-tightening to cover a $1 billion deficit.

They won't have much choice but to work together. After the 100 state lawmakers took their oaths, Republicans had a thin one-seat House majority. Democrats control the Senate by a comfortable margin, giving Colorado its first divided Legislature in a decade.

The Republican rebound was part of a national trend in midterm elections this year following a Democratic groundswell led by President Barack Obama.

New House Speaker Frank McNulty, a Republican from Highlands Ranch, says Colorado families have been tightening their belts for the past four years and it's time for the state to do the same.

"Last November, Coloradans sent us a message: They want us to work together earnestly to find solutions to our economic ills and to set this state on the right track again. Coloradans want a state government that knows its role -- a government that lives within its means and facilitates economic growth," McNulty said in remarks prepared for opening day.

Senate President Brandon Shaffer, a Democrat from Longmont, is warning lawmakers looking to ax spending. In prepared remarks, Shaffer urged his colleagues to spare education from deep cuts but acknowledged, "we are staring down the barrel of millions of dollars of cuts to our K-12 and higher education systems."

McNulty said Republicans' goal next year is to find common ground with Democrats on major issues facing the state, including the state budget, creating jobs, finding funds for education and higher education.

However, a big task certain to spark political fire this term is redistricting. Lawmakers will redraw congressional and state legislative district lines, a requirement every 10 years.

In the fall, former Gov. Bill Ritter proposed a $19.1 billion budget for the coming budget year, warning it could be one of the toughest yet.

So far during the recession, lawmakers have covered $4.5 billion in tax revenue shortfalls, both by making actual cuts to programs and by taking money from other funds.

Ritter's budget proposal includes more cuts for public education and state programs as well as reducing prison populations.

Other issues facing lawmakers this year:

- Immigration: Some Republican lawmakers favor an Arizona-style crackdown on illegal immigration.

- Marijuana: Lawmakers will be asked to further refine rules for medical marijuana. Democratic Rep. Claire Levy of Boulder plans to propose the nation's first marijuana-impairment standard for drivers. And state regulators trying to implement the sweeping rules passed by lawmakers last year will likely be back asking for changes.

- Fetal homicide: Republican Rep. Mark Waller of Colorado Springs says he wants to sponsor a law criminalizing fetal homicide. It's a question more lawmakers may be willing to consider after a December hit-and-run accident in Denver that took the life of an unborn boy. Legislators in Colorado and other states have struggled to make fetal homicide a crime without infringing on abortion rights.

Lawmakers seem resigned to a gritty session haggling over spending cuts and political lines.

"It won't be easy, and we will make many tough decisions," Shaffer said.



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