DENVER — Familiar themes will dominate the 2012 legislative session — economic growth, school funding and taxes — but they'll be complicated by an election year in which lawmakers are fighting to keep their seats and a few are running for Congress.
With that in mind, Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper has been preaching collaboration for the session that starts Wednesday.
"If we're all willing to put our shoulders to it and really collaborate and work together at a very high level, we can again find that special sauce that has always defined the American can-do attitude," he told a group in downtown Denver last week.
The biggest test will come with the budget, where lawmakers have to make nearly $700 million in cuts.
Republicans in charge of the House are pushing hard to keep a $98.6 million property tax break for seniors. The voter-approved credit allows homeowners 65 years and older to deduct 50 percent of the first $200,000 of property value on their taxes.
Hickenlooper has said the state can't afford the whole tax break. He wants to keep only $17.5 million of it for rent, heat and property tax help for low-income seniors.
The GOP maintains that scaling back Medicaid spending — the biggest proposed spending increase in next year's budget — can pay for the senior tax break and for schools. Medicaid would account for $185.6 million of the $227.1 million spending increase in Hickenlooper's proposed general fund budget, which is expected to be at about $7.4 billion.
The bad economy has made more people eligible for Medicaid. Hickenlooper has repeatedly said increases in Medicaid spending are mandatory under federal law, and that because of the required increases, other areas of the budget must be cut.
The potential for gridlock doesn't end there.
Ask lawmakers what they'll work on next session and they usually say creating jobs and growing the economy. Republicans want to cut what they say are burdensome state regulations on businesses. Democrats, who control the Senate, want to create incentives for the state to buy Colorado-manufactured goods and to award more contracts to companies that employ local workers. The latter will be the first bill introduced in the Senate, but Republican House Speaker Frank McNulty has already rebuked it.
"Their first bill out of the chute, their first jobs bill, their first economic development bill, creates new hurdles to jump over and new hoops to jump through for Colorado businesses and those wishing to create jobs in our state," McNulty said recently.
Democratic Senate President Brandon Shaffer said he thinks it's an idea that will create jobs and one he believes Colorado residents support.
"I think conceptually — buy locally, buy Colorado-specific products and hire Colorado-specific employers and employees — makes a lot of sense. I think it's something that resonates with the people of Colorado for sure," he said.
Other matters lawmakers will debate this session:
— An overhaul of how the state treats its employees, including how they're hired and disciplined. Proposed changes would have to be referred to voters because the personnel system is laid out in the state constitution. Supporters of the change say the current personnel guidelines are too rigid, costly and give the state little flexibility in dealing with its employees.
— A proposal to allow same-sex couples to enter civil unions, with many of the benefits enjoyed by married couples. A bill introduced last year passed the Democrat-controlled Senate but failed in the House.
— A measure to grant in-state tuition to illegal immigrants who graduated from Colorado high schools. Last year's bill failed.
— A Republican proposal to reinstate a spending limit on the state budget, capping its growth at 6 percent from the previous year. Republicans want half the money above that limit to be put in the state reserves and use the rest for transportation and capital construction.
— More oversight of online schools, which critics argue are underperforming compared to traditional schools.
— K-12 education originally faced an $89 million cut to balance next year's budget, but better-than-expected tax receipts in December prompted Hickenlooper to propose rescinding the entire cut and also restore half of a $60 million proposed reduction to public colleges.
Some lawmakers voting on these issues face tough re-election campaigns, including Republican incumbents who now share the same districts because of a bitter state redistricting process. Democrats drew the maps and the state Supreme Court approved them.
The incumbent pairings and political ambitions of some lawmakers could produce little wiggle room for compromise as they try ingratiating themselves with folks at home.
Other lawmakers are running for Congress, setting up possible distractions.
Shaffer is challenging Republican Rep. Cory Gardner, the incumbent in the 4th District. Democratic Rep. Sal Pace is trying to unseat Republican Rep. Scott Tipton in the 3rd District, and in the 6th District, Democratic Rep. Joe Miklosi is seeking to upset Republican Rep. Mike Coffman.
Both Tipton and Gardner were serving in the Legislature when they ran for Congress in 2010, and Democrats charged then that they were missing too many votes while worrying about their federal races.
McNulty said he's mindful of the congressional contests and their potential impact on the session.
"It is something that I'm concerned about — one of those external forces that could weigh in at different times and in different ways this legislative session," he said.
Follow Ivan Moreno on Twitter: http://twitter.com/IvanJournalist