Understanding Colorado's Legislative Process
The vast majority of policy change in the United States happens through state legislatures, which introduce more bills and enact more laws than the federal legislature, aka the U.S. Congress. This makes state-level advocacy an effective pathway for Coloradans to advance LGBTQ+ rights.
The legislative process is difficult to track and decipher. But no bill can become law in Colorado without public input and advocacy. This resource covers the basics of Colorado’s legislative process and how you can effectively engage to influence our state laws and rights.
What is the legislative process, and why does it matter for LGBTQ+ advocacy?
The legislative process is the procedure proposed laws, or bills, go through to become laws. Each U.S. state and our federal government have slightly different but ultimately quite similar legislative, or lawmaking, processes.
Colorado’s legislative process impacts LGBTQ+ Coloradans by guiding how and when bills pass or fail and influences what laws we adopt as a society. No bill in Colorado can become law without the opportunity for public input, but navigating this process can prove difficult. There are many barriers to public participation, such as inaccessible public hearings, limited information, and unpredictable and ever changing schedules. Understanding the legislative process helps us navigate these barriers to be more effective advocates and shape our state’s laws and values.
The legislative process is just one part of the equation for how policies are adopted in Colorado: the legislature passes laws, courts interpret laws, and the executive branch implements laws. This means that there are many policy advocacy opportunities during the legislative process, as well as afterwards in the implementation of these laws, as state agencies, departments, and boards work to implement laws passed by the legislature.
What does the legislature do, and how does it operate?
Also known as the Colorado General Assembly, Colorado’s legislature is one of three branches of our state government. The legislature is responsible for setting our state budget and passing laws to make Colorado a safer and better place to live.
Colorado’s state legislature consists of two voting bodies, the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Senate and House work in tandem, and both chambers must approve a bill for it to pass the legislature.
The legislative process consists of two seasons: the legislative session and the interim.
The legislative session, or on-season, is an annual 120 day period from early January to early May when the legislature meets to consider bills. Rarely, an additional special session can occur at other times. LGBTQ+ Coloradans can engage in the legislative process during the session by sharing their perspectives with their representatives, asking them to vote in favor or against different bills, and testifying at public hearings.
- On the 120th day of the legislative session, the legislature will adjourn Sine Die, meaning they officially conclude the session. Any bills that have not passed through the legislative process by the time the legislature adjourns will be considered “failed on the calendar” and abandoned. This is why filibustering, or wasting time, can be an effective political tactic.
The interim, or off-season, is the rest of the year, during which advocates and lawmakers shift their focus to planning for the next session and sometimes, upcoming elections. LGBTQ+ Coloradans can engage in the process during the interim by organizing, sharing their ideas and perspectives with each other, legislators, and advocates to influence policy development and priorities, and by voting for and supporting pro-equality candidates.
How does a bill become a law in Colorado?
There are several ways a new policy can become law in Colorado. One way many voters are familiar with is policies that appear on our election ballots and pass with voter approval.
However the most frequent way a new policy becomes law is through the state legislature. New policies are usually introduced in the legislature as bills but can sometimes be introduced as resolutions or other less common forms of legislation. Below are the basic steps a bill will go through to become a law in Colorado through the state legislature:
Each law starts as an idea. These ideas can come from a variety of sources: a legislator, a community member, an advocacy group, another state, or elsewhere. While an idea can come from many places, a legislator must agree to propose the idea by sponsoring legislation, usually a bill, to be considered by the legislature.
Once a legislator agrees to sponsor a bill, the legislator will work with a nonpartisan lawyer with the Office of Legislative Legal Services, the in-house legal counsel for the Colorado General Assembly, to write the idea into a bill. Often, the legislator will work with stakeholders - such as other legislators, advocates, and lobbyists - to refine the language, ensure the bill achieves its intended effect, and gain initial support before the bill is introduced.
A bill becomes public and is officially under consideration by the legislature once it is introduced in either the House or Senate. This is also when it’s assigned a bill number and committee hearing(s).
- Bills that originate in the Senate are entitled “SB” for Senate Bill, then the year, followed by 3 numbers (for example, SB23-001). Bills that originate in the House are entitled “HB” for House Bill, then the year, followed by 4 numbers (for example, HB23-1001).
Whether a bill starts in the House or the Senate impacts the order but not the steps it must take to get through the legislative process:
- either way, a bill must pass both chambers, the House and the Senate, to pass the legislature. However, it does impact which chamber will consider the bill first, and there are sometimes political considerations or preferences from bill sponsors or their leadership that may influence where a bill starts its journey in the legislature.
Public Committee Hearing(s)
Upon introduction, each bill is assigned a public hearing in one or sometimes multiple committees. Each committee focuses on different issue areas, such as Education, Finance, or Health and Insurance, and consists of a small group of legislators from both parties who are appointed by their party leadership. During the hearing, the sponsor(s) will first present their bill to the committee and answer any questions. Then, the committee will call for public testimony.
- Public testimony is unique to committee hearings, and it is the only opportunity for the public to participate on the record in the legislative process. Public testimony is critical to the legislative process and allows LGBTQ+ Coloradans to share their perspectives, comment on the record about legislation, and ask our representatives to vote in a certain way.
- Read One Colorado’s guide about How to Testify at the Colorado State Capitol to learn more about public testimony.
Following public testimony, the committee will consider any amendments to the bill, and finally vote on whether to pass the bill forward to the next step in the process, or to postpone the bill indefinitely, failing the bill and ending its journey in the legislature.
If a bill is assigned to multiple committees, it will proceed from one to another each time it passes its committee vote until it has fulfilled each of its committee assignments.
House or Senate Votes
Once a bill passes through the committee phase, it will proceed to a vote of the full House or Senate. The first vote in this stage is known as “Second Reading.”
- This is a “voice vote,” during which legislators are asked to call out verbally if they support or oppose a bill. There is no objective decibel comparison or recorded vote during this stage of the process; the decision of which side yells louder is determined by the presiding majority party.
- If a bill passes this phase, it will then proceed to “Third Reading,” where legislators take a recorded vote to pass or fail the bill. If a bill passes with a majority vote, it passes the chamber.
When a House bill passes the House, or a Senate bill passes the Senate, its next step is to repeat the entire process in the second chamber, starting with Bill Introduction. The same version of a bill must pass both chambers. This means that:
- If the second chamber makes any amendments to the bill passed by the first chamber, the first chamber must reconsider the bill. The first chamber can accept the amendment(s) and repass the bill, set up a conference committee of Senators and Representatives to negotiate and compromise on a version that both chambers agree to pass, or reject the amendments and fail the bill.
To the Governor
Once a bill passes both chambers of the legislature, it is sent to the Governor’s Office for consideration. The Governor has 3 options:
- sign the bill into law,
- veto the bill, or
If the Governor signs the bill, it will become law. If the Governor vetoes the bill, the legislature may have an opportunity to override the veto, but only if the legislature is still in session and both chambers repass the bill with a two-thirds majority. The bill will fail to become law based on the Governor’s veto unless the legislature overrides the veto. If the Governor does neither, the bill will become law without their signature.
Becoming Law and Implementation
Each bill ends with an Effective Date, which states when the bill goes into effect as law if passed. Bills usually go into effect as laws several months after the legislative session but could go into effect sooner or later.
As bills go into effect as laws, this marks the end of the legislative process and the beginning of the implementation process and related advocacy. Power transitions from lawmakers in the legislative branch to implementers in the executive branch. This often involves state agencies, departments, and boards that are responsible for creating and overseeing rules and regulations to implement laws, which often includes follow up advocacy opportunities to influence rulemaking and ensure appropriate implementation.
For more information and a visual resource describing Colorado’s legislative process, check out How a Bill Becomes Colorado Law.
Who is involved in the legislative process?
The legislative process involves many different people and roles designed to check and balance each other. Here are a few of the key players:
The most high profile people in the legislative process are typically legislators - State Representatives and Senators - and other elected officials, such as the Governor. There are 100 legislators serving at a given time in the state legislature: 65 state representatives in the House, and 35 senators in the Senate. Representatives are democratically elected for 2 year terms, and Senators for 4 year terms.
Use this tool to Find Your Legislators.
While the Governor is not a legislator, they also have an important role in the legislative process. The Governor’s primary role is to sign or veto bills that have passed the legislature. Often, the Governor also plays a broader role in influencing the legislature, such as asking legislators to sponsor, amend bills, or oppose bills in line with the Governor’s agenda.
Legislators often form caucuses, or groups of legislators who come together to pursue shared goals. There are 4 primary caucuses in the state legislature: the House Democratic Caucus, the House Republican Caucus, the Senate Democratic Caucus, and the Senate Republican Caucus. These causes are also referred to as the House Majority and Minority and Senate Majority and Minority Causes, depending on which political party is in the majority and minority. Other caucuses have formed to address specific issues, such as the Gun Violence Prevention Caucus, or represent specific identities, such as the LGBTQ+ Caucus.
Legislative leadership plays a hugely influential role in the legislative process and consists of legislators appointed by their peers to lead each of the 4 primary caucuses. Leadership elections are held following General Elections, with representatives and senators voting amongst themselves to elect their caucus leadership. The top leadership positions are Speaker of the House and President of the Senate. Legislative leadership holds substantial power in presiding over the legislative session, implementing the rules and protocols of the House and Senate, overseeing the legislature’s calendar and agenda, and more.
Elected officials are supported by partisan and nonpartisan staff. This includes aides and interns hired by legislators to help manage their legislative offices; partisan staffers hired by legislative leadership to provide policy analysis, communications support, or other expertise; as well as nonpartisan staff, such as clerks, bill drafters, and fiscal analysts who are employed by the legislature to help facilitate the legislative process.
If you walk around the Capitol on a given day during the legislative session, you’ll likely run into many professional lobbyists. Professional lobbyists are people and organizations who receive compensation for lobbying, defined as communicating with a covered official, in this context usually a legislator, to influence a specific public policy.
Some professional lobbyists are full-time, contract lobbyists who work for a firm that is contracted by one or often multiple clients to represent their interests at the Capitol and lobby on a number of bills. Other professional lobbyists could be an employee at a non-profit, like One Colorado, who works on policy issues and also lobbies elected officials as part of their job.
One thing that all professional lobbyists have in common is that they have to file their lobbying activities with the Secretary of State. Searching the Secretary of State’s lobbyist registry can provide helpful insights on who is lobbying for or against different policies.
Many advocacy organizations, like One Colorado, engage in the legislative process by sharing public education with legislators and advocates, creating tools to support community engagement, organizing amongst ourselves and our partners to build power around shared priorities, and more.
Community members— in one way or another— are inherent to each part of the legislative process, but community is most involved in a few specific parts of the legislative process:
- sharing their ideas and perspectives with policymakers and advocacy organizations to support policy development;
- sharing public testimony during committee hearings; and
- collectively organizing to support or oppose legislation by sending emails, calling legislators, attending rallies, and more.
How can I monitor the legislative process and advocate for LGBTQ+ rights in Colorado?
There are many ways to monitor and engage in the legislative process throughout a bill’s lifecycle. Here are some highlights and key resources:
- A key resource to track the legislative process is the legislature’s website. Here you can search for and track bills, contact your legislators, and learn more about the process.
- One Colorado’s Legislative Tracker is a great tool to see what bills One Colorado is tracking and advocating for or against. You can also learn more about One Colorado’s policy advocacy by reading our Scorecards and Reports.
- For national legislative tracking, we recommend the Equality Federation’s State Legislation Tracker. To learn more about the state of LGBTQ+ policy in Colorado, check out Colorado’s Equality Profile by the Movement Advancement Project.
- Public testimony is critical to the legislative process. Read One Colorado's guide to learn more about How to Testify at the Colorado State Capitol.
- If you are interested in getting involved with One Colorado’s policy work, please email us at email@example.com for details about what we are working on and how you can support.