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This is the full text of the 2023 Opening Day address by Colorado Senate President Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, to the Colorado State Senate. Be forewarned —  it is long, but it outlines the major focus areas of the Senate majority for the coming 120-day session.

Fenberg gave an overview of renovations to the historic Senate chamber and highlighted Senate Democrats’ 2023 goals. These include: making our state more affordable by reducing the cost of housing and health care; investing in public schools; improving public safety; addressing climate change and securing clean air and water; and defending our freedoms and democracy:

“Mr. Majority Leader, Mr. President Pro Tempore, Mr. Minority Leader – friends, loved ones, and honored guests: good morning, and welcome to the 74th General Assembly of the Colorado State Senate!

It is an honor to be with you all today as we find ourselves at the outset of what promises to be a challenging, yet rewarding 120 days.

Before we get started, I invite you all to look around and take a second to appreciate the changes we’ve made during the interim to the Senate Chamber. Spearheaded by our indomitable Secretary Cindi Markwell, whose commitment to the Senate remains unrivaled, we’ve spruced things up quite a bit:

All of the member’s desks, the front desk, and virtually every piece of wood was removed from the chamber, stripped, and brought back to its original shine. Countless improvements, including new steel-reinforced floors.
We even gave the lobby a little upgrade, uncovering and bringing back the original stenciling. But another priority of these improvements was to make our historic senate chamber–our place of business–more accessible to those with different abilities.

We’ve installed T-Coils throughout so folks with hearing impairments can receive a direct audio feed into their hearing aids.

We removed a level from the floor and brought the well up to the same level as the floor. A ramp has been custom-built for the one step that remains on the chamber floor.

We’ve also laid the groundwork for the next phase of accessibility improvements, which will include an adjustable podium in the well and either a ramp or a lift up to the president’s dais.

All of this was done with an eye towards ensuring this historic, beloved chamber in the people’s house evolves to be a more welcoming and inclusive space. So, I hope you’ll enjoy the new and improved Senate. I know I will. And with the election behind us, I’m finally settling into not just the chamber, but my office.

Unpacking boxes, a fresh coat of paint. I may even get some new drapes—actually, Senator Lundeen, I believe you measured them already right? Can you let me know what those measurements were?

In all seriousness, the fact that we can convene here today with a level of normalcy. A sense of relative safety. In the context of having one of the strongest economies in the country. It’s nothing short of amazing and we should all be incredibly grateful. But, it’s been a long journey. And that journey for Colorado’s families and businesses is still far from over.

The past couple of years have been tough, not just because of the global pandemic and the economic impacts of that pandemic, but also the rise in political violence, instability, and hate of all kinds.

Last November, we added another horrific chapter to the long history of hate and violence in Colorado. Five beautiful lives were murdered and countless others were forever altered. A community was attacked and shaken to its core. To our LGBTQ friends, family, and loved ones, know this: we will stand with you no matter what.

From a suburban high school… to a midnight movie showing… to a neighborhood grocery store, far too many families have suffered through the unimaginable pain of having someone murdered by gun violence while they were just simply going about their lives.

But we also must remember that the vast majority of gun deaths don’t make the national news.

They’re the thousands of lives that end alone after a long battle that was raging within themselves. Or the thousands of lives that were taken as a result of crime and violence on the streets within our communities.

As leaders in our state, it is our job to solve the problems facing our constituents and our communities.

We lost more than 1,000 Coloradans to gun violence in 2021. That is simply unacceptable.

We owe it to each of those victims  and their families to do more. Yes, it’s a mental health issue. But it’s also an economic justice issue. And a public safety issue. And an education issue. And, yes, it is also a gun issue.

Colorado State Senate Chambers. Image by Flickr

That is why this session we will prioritize preventing gun violence. Among other bills we’ll consider, Senator Sullivan will introduce a bill to expand and improve Colorado’s extreme risk protection orders. So if local law enforcement can’t – or won’t – be the ones to bring the issue to a judge, others like district attorneys and counselors can and will.

Nobody is saying that Coloradans don’t have the right to defend themselves and own a gun. We’re saying that, in a civilized society, where people expect the freedom to live with basic security and safety, we must be willing to consider that there are some people who are not fit to possess a deadly weapon because of the extreme risk they pose to themselves and others.

And for those who can’t or won’t secure your firearms–either at home or in your vehicle–perhaps you’re not the responsible gun owner you think you are. Guns have no place in the hands of children, criminals, or those who aren’t well. And if you’re the reason they’re entering those hands, you are part of the problem.

We must do more as a society to protect innocent lives.

We owe it to Raymond Vance…to Kelly Loving…to Daniel Aston…to Derrick Rump…and to Ashley Paugh.

We owe it to Javad and Vivian.

And we owe it to Alex.

I’d also like to take a moment to remember a leader from the other chamber who left us far too soon. Like all of you, I was shocked to hear that we lost the House Minority Leader–our friend, Hugh McKean.

Hugh was a good man. A loving father, and a dedicated public servant. He had a huge heart, and he used his own unique blend of humor and hard work to break down barriers and try to solve problems.

This session, let’s embrace Hugh’s approach to our work. More jokes. More smiles. And more love.

Let’s do what Hugh did every day: take our work seriously. But not ourselves.

As we begin to map out the path before us for these 120 days, I think it’s important to take stock of where we’ve been, so we can better understand where we’re going.

We’ve been through a deadly pandemic, a public health emergency the likes of which we haven’t seen for over a century and that stole more from us than any of us will ever truly understand.

We’ve endured an escalating housing crisis that’s priced countless families out of their communities and put thousands out of their homes entirely.

We’ve seen shootings, mudslides, fires, crime waves, and more.

Heck, we even watched in horror as an attempted insurrection was mounted on the U.S. Capitol.

But time and time again, the people of Colorado have shown their toughness and their resiliency in the face of disaster. Because we’ve also had wonderful rainstorms, and beautiful days spent outside with loved ones.

We’ve graduated from school, landed jobs, bought homes, gotten married, had kids…some of us had our hair grow gray…

We’ve loved together, mourned together, and persevered together.

Colorado has had more good days than bad – and it’s our mission to make sure there are even more good days to come. We have before us an awesome and humbling opportunity to be changemakers.

But let’s be honest: everyone in this room is here for slightly different reasons. One person’s progress may be another’s backslide.

But regardless of why you’re here, how you’re here will determine whether this session is a successful one or not.

Will we pursue grievance and anger, to accuse and betray and lay blame while shirking responsibility?  //  Or will we search for understanding and compassion, and seek compromise and progress?

Will we play politics and preen for the cameras? // Or will we put those differences aside, roll up our sleeves, and govern?

Will we listen to our better angels? // Or will our demons consume us and foil any chance we have at consensus?

Clearly, we are living in hyper-partisan and polarized times. And at times it probably seems like our differences are so vast that we could never meet each other half-way.

But I wager that this democratic process–specifically, this legislative process–as flawed and imperfect as it is, provides us the antidote to what too often seems like a toxic and poisoned political process.

This session, let’s do what the Senate was designed to do: slow down when needed. Authentically deliberate. (Maybe take an occasional nap.) And solve real problems for real people. Let’s not rush to judgment because of who the sponsor is, the title of the bill, or the party that’s supporting it.

Not only is that what our constituents would prefer, it’s also in the spirit of the rules and procedures that govern our work.

The legislative process was never meant to be a sport with two teams. It was not designed to have predetermined outcomes simply based on which team has more players on the field. The Senate was intended to be a body that genuinely deliberated–sometimes painstakingly so–in order to reach the outcome that was most acceptable to the most number of members.

The idea was to counter the Hobbesian theory that humans, left to their own devices, are fundamentally selfish and power-hungry, which is why the legislative process was designed to prevent one person from accumulating too much power, influence, or authority.

Instead, it distributes that power and authority throughout, After all, the essence of majority rule – the cornerstone of the parliamentary process – is the ultimate guardrail against a small minority claiming too much influence.

But there’s a flaw in these assumptions: it ignores the fact that, in the political sphere, the main human characteristic we should be cognizant of isn’t that humans are selfish. It’s that we’re group-ish. We follow the thinking of our group. There are different names for this these days–tribalism, partisanship, identity politics, us-versus-them mentality, etc.

Obviously self-selecting into affinities or identities is not a bad thing. Quite the contrary: it can lead to incredibly valuable and powerful aspects of the human experience–altruism, looking out for others within a community, and the most essential part of being human: culture.

But in the context of politics, it can lead to some problematic behaviors and patterns. It leads us to use what scientists call “post hoc rationalization.”  Which is a fancy way to describe decision-making not based on reason or facts, but based on a gut reaction of what we think our tribe would believe. In other words, all too often, we have a knee-jerk opinion first, and then we rationalize why we’re right second.

Rather than being open to changing our mind, it seems that it’s more advantageous in politics to defend a position at all costs even if the facts don’t support it.

This causes people to dig in and defend original beliefs, rather than change their minds when presented with contradictory evidence or new facts. Taken to its extreme, it can have a devastating effect on democratic norms. Hence why vast portions of America still vehemently believe that Donald Trump won the 2020 election, despite all evidence pointing to the contrary.

So how do we break this cycle? How do we deliberate–as the founders of the parliamentary process intended–and reach the best policy outcome rather than simply pursue the policy that reinforces a worldview?

How do we, as 35 individuals in just one American legislative chamber, begin to stop a pattern of behavior that is plaguing our politics and keeping us from just simply working towards creating the most good.

How do we turn “us-versus-them” into “out of many, one.”

It’s actually quite simple: It turns out that we are much more likely to grow or change our minds when we know and understand other people who have different views. That’s how we begin to see that the “other” isn’t an enemy –  they simply have different life experiences, different traditions, and different values that are held sacred.

If we better understand why someone else thinks the way they do, it helps us find the common ground necessary to begin problem-solving together.

We don’t need to abandon or turn our backs on our tribe. But we need to build fewer walls and more bridges between our tribes. We need to build authentic relationships with those who are outside of our insular groups. In other words: we need to become friends.

So that’s my challenge for all of us this year. Build those relationships. Especially because it was a lot harder over these past few years in the middle of a pandemic. And in the middle of a polarizing election cycle.

But now, get that beer after a long committee hearing. Sit in each other’s offices and get lost in conversation. Visit each other in our districts, get to know each other’s families. If we can commit to doing the most human thing we can do–build relationships–then we’re more likely to solve problems not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Coloradans.

And, if we can do that, it can have a bigger impact than on just us. Because when we show to our respective communities that we truly know each other. That we respect each other. And that from time to time, we can change each other’s minds and be open to compromise, collaboration, and even consensus, it reinforces to our tribes that intentional deliberation isn’t a foregone idea. It’s still something we can do in American politics.

I would argue that not only can we do this, but we have a moral responsibility to do it.

The level of polarization and divisiveness in American politics today requires those with the power to reduce the polarization to do so.

The 35 of us here today have a unique role to play. We are leaders of our groups. Let’s find the courage to stop seeing ourselves as foot soldiers for those tribes. To stop being performative because it gains us retweets or social status within said tribe. And instead, use that position of privilege, respect, and honor that we’ve been given to do something that America desperately needs—to reduce the volume, to retract the hate, and remove the polarization.

Given the events in our country in recent years. Given the rise in political violence, the anger and distrust and lies, I think this is not just a nice thing that we should do. I think the fate of our democracy quite literally depends on it.

One simple way to start. From time to time, I encourage you to do this one simple exercise: Pick up a bill that’s scheduled soon for committee. Read it cover to cover without reading the title, or the bill summary, or the names of the sponsors. You might find that you identify amendments or modifications to the policy that you otherwise wouldn’t. Or you might even find yourself voting for a bill that you otherwise wouldn’t have.

Now, to be clear, I’m not saying any of us should check our beliefs or agendas at the door. That would be foolish and is not what this job is about. We are here to fight for what we believe in.

For instance, I’m not advocating for my party to look at these historic majorities and decide not to utilize them. The voters clearly gave us a mandate. A mandate for what? Well, you’ll find at least 23 different opinions.

But let’s talk about that. What should we be taking from this past election that sent us here today? Clearly the electorate was sending a message. They weren’t wholeheartedly endorsing everything that my party was selling, nor were they embracing everything we’ve done in recent years. But, in my opinion, voters were sending us a crystal clear message on a few issues that felt increasingly existential to them:

Democracy: voters said STOP it with the conspiracy theories. Stop it with the grifting. And stop it with the politically-inspired violence.  And so this year we will defend Colorado’s gold standard for election administration and we’ll continue to make improvements so that every eligible voter who wants to vote, will vote.

Choice: Coloradans have made up their minds, a woman’s choice is a woman’s choice. No ifs, ands, or buts. And so this year we will further expand protections for women’s access to reproductive health care. And for all of those Republican candidates who saw the polling and changed their tune towards the end by saying “abortion is a settled question in Colorado” …well, you’re in luck because this session you’ll have the opportunity to vote to further expand protections for women’s reproductive health care!

Climate: The existential threat of climate change is wreaking havoc on communities, livelihoods, and lives. To those who lost their homes in one of the many devastating fires in recent years, there isn’t a question: we are causing immense changes to our climate and we must reverse course as soon as possible. So this year we will continue to bring down our emissions, prioritize getting our air quality under control, conserving and improving water quality, and do everything we can to protect our landscapes from devastating wildfires.

But what about the areas that aren’t so cut and dry? We heard a lot about crime rates and public safety. About the rapidly rising cost of living in Colorado. And, of course, about the important issues in Colorado’s classrooms, like “Critical Cat Theory” and children embracing that dangerous ideology of furries.

For what it’s worth, here’s my perspective on these issues:

On the issue of public safety: We can’t ignore the unmistakable reality that the rates of some crimes have gone up. Every single one of us have either had a car stolen or a close friend who had theirs stolen recently. People rely on their car for their jobs and livelihoods. Let’s work together this year to pass real policy that ends this spike in crime. But let’s also recognize that there are societal problems that lead to the stealing of a car that aren’t just going to disappear by increasing penalties. We have to address those root causes to end the cycles. We have to do more to counter poverty and addiction.

Addiction continues to be a plague and overdoses are tearing families apart each and every day. But let’s give last year’s bipartisan fentanyl bill a chance to work. There will come a time to make changes and improvements, but let’s do it based on science and data, not politics.

How and at what level we support our public education system in Colorado also needs a mature and thoughtful debate. Let’s build on the successes from the past years when we expanded access to universal preschool, full day kindergarten, and investing historic levels of funding in classrooms. Let’s make another historic investment that isn’t just a one-year windfall, but instead is done in a way that is a sustainable and long term promise to our teachers, students, and parents.

And, likely the biggest issue – and the most difficult one to solve – is the runaway costs that families and businesses are facing. Although it feels out of our hands at some points, let’s choose to focus on the areas that we do have control over.

When it comes to the cost of housing, Colorado is becoming less and less affordable year after year. Let’s work together and fix this problem before we turn into San Francisco. There’s no question: Colorado will continue to grow. People like living here. But the real question is how will we grow?

Will it be done in a way that pushes people out of their communities and farther from where they work and play? Or will it be done in a way that prioritizes denser housing along transit corridors? It’s not too late to pursue smart growth–our air quality, our pocketbooks, and our quality of life depend on it.

And, of course, we will need to tackle all of these issues in an uncertain economic environment. It’s likely to be a tough budget year as we settle into the reality of global economic conditions. Luckily, the Senate has three whip-smart members serving on the Joint Budget Committee.

I know Senator Zenzinger will lead that committee with her usual combination of passion and preparedness, and will chart a course to fiscal prosperity for our state. Senator Bridges, you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be and I’m excited to see you bring innovation and fresh thinking to our state’s finances. And Senator Kirkmeyer, D.C.’s loss is the JBC’s gain. Thank you for doubling down on your investment here at home.

We have a lot of work to do. But luckily, we’re equipped with the right leaders to get the job done. I’m proud to say that voters sent us the most diverse legislature in the history of Colorado to solve these problems. The Colorado General Assembly reflects the communities who sent us here.

After this year’s elections, we added more women and more diverse voices to both chambers. For the first time ever, there are more women than men serving in the General Assembly, a milestone that shows just how far our state has come since becoming the first state to approve women’s suffrage at the ballot box.

I am also proud to note that in just a few short days, Tribal leaders from the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe will deliver their first annual address to a joint session of the General Assembly.

Our Tribal partners shouldn’t be left on the sidelines when it comes to policy making – they should be front and center, because their priorities are Colorado’s priorities.

Including more voices into the halls of power matters and we should always be asking ourselves which voices are being left out. We have more work to do on that front. So let’s take stock and then continue to identify how we can make this a more inclusive and accessible institution for all.

And we should give credit where credit’s due because this is an area where our Republican friends across the aisle have also made progress – for the first time since I became a legislator, you now officially have more women in your caucus than you have men named Kevin.

In all seriousness – the Senate in recent years has enjoyed remarkable stability and functionality – our two caucuses have real disagreements, but we’ve learned how to communicate with respect. After a rather rocky start, previous Senate leadership was able to forge a working relationship based on openness and trust, and the body – and our state – was all the better for it.

Senator Lundeen, I credit your calm and mature temperament for much of this functionality. You’ve taught me that when things get heated, it’s probably best to take a breather and talk. I look forward to our continued partnership with you in your new role this session.

But, of course, a huge reason why this chamber has had so much success recently, is in large part because of my work husband, Majority Leader Moreno. Senator Moreno, the respect you’ve garnered from every single person in this chamber, your commitment to this institution, and your intelligence make you the natural leader that this institution deserves. Thank you for your tireless work and all that you’ll do for Colorado this coming session. I couldn’t ask for a better partner in crime.

But before I wrap up, I want to leave you with this: these jobs are hard. There are going to be a lot of late nights, hard conversations, and difficult votes. You’ll get into arguments, disagree with friends, and be disappointed in your colleagues. No doubt you’ll disappoint your family when the nights get long and you miss dinner or bedtimes.

But it’s also a unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and one that should never be taken for granted. So take a moment now and then, maybe during a quiet night in your office, or an early morning on the floor, to pause and remember why you’re here. I trust some of you will remind me to do that from time to time.

With only 119 left, our days are numbered. Let’s use them to their fullest because we have our work cut out for us. I hope, more often than not, we’ll do it together rather than apart. But what matters most is that we deliver for the people of Colorado. And let’s show them we can have a lot of fun while doing it.

Thank you.