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How will Colorado's legislative priorities shift following a return from recess amid COVID-19?

Posted at 6:52 AM, May 26, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-26 08:52:03-04

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Colorado lawmakers return to work this week after an unprecedented, mid-session, multi-month recess.

The Colorado legislature called a recess on March 14 out of an abundance of caution after the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) began to quickly spread throughout the state.

In normal years, the session would come to an end in mid-May. However, after a Colorado Supreme Court ruling that decided the legislative session does not have to be served for 120 consecutive days, lawmakers will be allowed to return to finish out the session.

When they return, lawmakers will be coming back to a drastically different situation than the one they left; many of the previous priorities are being put on hold as legislators deal with a $3.3 billion budget shortfall.

Along with trying to balance the budget, there are also a number of bills Democrats and Republicans would like to see introduced to provide some relief for people impacted by the pandemic.

Denver7 takes a 360 look at the shifting legislative priorities as the 2020 session resumes.

The Last Holdouts

From the very beginning of the legislative session, with control of the House, Senate and Governor’s mansion, Democrats were betting on big ideas.

Party priorities like a public health care option bill looked like they stood a chance of passing this year until the pandemic hit. Now, almost every bill with a fiscal note attached to it is on the backburner.

“There were about 350-plus bills in the pipeline when we very quickly went out of session on March 14,” said Speaker KC Becker. “The majority of those bills will just wind up getting postponed.”

Along with having no money to make those bills a reality, there’s no time to debate them.

However, there are still a few final holdouts Democrats and Republicans are hoping to get passed.

For Democrats, bills to help decrease regulations are still on the table. So are the ones that help keep the government moving or that must be passed, like the school finance act.

Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg is also looking for bills that were previously in the process that could still be even more valuable during the pandemic.

“There are bills on telehealth and making sure the doctors can get reimbursed and insurance companies cover telehealth,” Fenberg said. “There’s things like remote notary making sure people can get things notarized remotely rather than going into a bank.”

He also wants to keep working on a bill that protects public sector workers so that they have the ability to organize amongst themselves to advocate for their rights.

Both Fenberg and Becker brought up the possibility of moving forward on clean air legislation as well.

Meanwhile, from the start of the session, Republicans have had an uphill battle in order to get their bills passed.

Still, there are a few things they are hoping will move forward. For Rep. Rod Pelton, there are two bills he said he believes could make a difference on a county level that he’s hoping will survive.

One of the bills would lower the category designation for a few counties so that elected officials wouldn’t collect as high of a salary.

“I’ve got another one where if a county commissioner or elected official so chooses they don’t have to take their full salary and it can be diverted before payroll and holdings,” said Pelton, who’s a former county official himself.

Rep. Lori Saine, meanwhile, believes the bipartisan bills that roll back some regulations or cut through legislative red tape also still stand a chance.

However, House minority leader Rep. Patrick Neville doesn’t want things to return to business as usual as the state reopens and the legislature resumes.

Instead, he says it’s going to take a new perspective to help the state recover.

“We have to get back to business with a focus," Neville said. "We shouldn’t go back and redo every single bill that was already in the system. We have to look at everything through a new lens and see how we can actually help get Colorado back on track with a very specific focus."

New Bills, New Hope

Along with figuring out which bills to move forward with and which ones to postpone for another year, state lawmakers are also considering a number of new bills to introduce to help people and businesses recover from the pandemic.

For Democrats, help for frontline workers and relief for families struggling financially are top priorities.

“There’s some housing assistance we hope to do to help people stay in their homes if they’re not able to make rent or mortgage payments. We’re looking for something similar for utility payments,” Fenberg said.

He said he'd also like to see a bill to protect employees if they feel they are in an unsafe work environment and another to offer a basic level of paid sick leave for employees.

Becker, meanwhile, is considering potential legislation around price gouging, as well as how to deal with speedy trials during the pandemic.

On the other hand, Neville says the hands of Republicans are tied when it comes to introducing new legislation this late in the session.

“I can’t run a bill, I can’t introduce a bill at this point in the session, it takes (the majority’s) approval,” he said.

So, a week before the session was to resume, Republican lawmakers came together on the east steps of the Colorado State Capitol to hold a rally to highlight their priorities.

“The message to the majority is we're here to help and we’re part of the solution and we want to see Colorado get back on track,” Neville said.

During the rally, one by one lawmakers came up to highlight some of the work they would like to see done when the session resumes.

For Saine, that means protections for small businesses in the form of waiving late fees on property taxes and delaying the due dates.

“Property taxes are going to be paid no matter what, but if we could just push that out a little bit to say Oct. 31, that would give these businesses time to get some cash in,” she said.

She also wants to keep the unemployment insurance premiums at the current levels for businesses and use money from the CARES Act to backfill the state’s unemployment fund when it runs out of money, which is projected to happen in late June or early July.

Pelton would like to see more support for Colorado Proud, a program to promote the state’s food producers.

Sen. Bob Rankin, meanwhile, would like to see more flexibility in the budgeting process, particularly when it comes to how the state distributes federal aid money.

A second stimulus package could come in the summer, when the legislature is already out of session, which Rankin says makes distributing the money difficult.

“If new money comes in, we need to change our process either temporarily or permanently so we can take that new money and get it spent,” he said.

Budget Woes

Looming over all of the good intention and ideas for how to help the state recover is a $3.3 billion budget shortfall.

For lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, that means deep, painful budget cuts. For weeks, the Joint Budget Committee has sifted through staff recommendations and listened to pleas to save certain programs as they work to draft a budget bill.

“There’s no corner of the state it’s going to be left untouched by this,” Becker said.

Colorado’s constitution mandates that the state must pass a balanced budget, where the state only spends what it has available from new revenue or revenue saved in a reserve from the prior year.

Already, the committee has made deep cuts to higher education and more.

“After you get rid of all the stuff that maybe you think the government shouldn’t be doing in the first place, you still have about $2.5 billion that you have to get out of the budget,” said Rankin, who’s a member of the committee.

Members of the JBC are also working with their respective parties to try to alleviate the drama before the long bill is sent to the legislature.

Rankin hopes the work the JBC is doing beforehand will result in an easier passage of the budget. However, he knows there are some areas Democrats and Republicans won’t agree on when it comes to cuts, such as education and senior homestead property exemptions.

“I do think the biggest fight will probably have going back into session when it comes to the budget is probably on the senior homestead exemption. I think it’s absolutely atrocious that we would not let seniors have that exemption that they rely on just to stay in their homes,” Neville said.

That portion of the budget will likely head to the legislature in a parallel bill for debate.

Rankin is also trying to protect funding for tourism marketing for the state as a way to help spur economic recovery.

“Our tourism budget right now is funding our marketing plan to bring people here next winter and next summer or next spring. If we aren’t hopeful about next year, then I mean, what are we doing here?” he said. “I want us to think more about the future.”

Ultimately though, both sides acknowledge that tough cuts are ahead, and they will need to work together to get through them.

“We’re living in a moment of history and I think we have to do everything we can to solve problems and make sure Colorado gets through this,” Fenberg said.

Lessons from the Past

Perhaps no one knows the dark times that are ahead for state lawmakers better than Terrance Carroll.

Carroll was the speaker of the House from 2009 to 2010 and had to work through significant budget cuts during the Great Recession.

“It was about $3 billion that we cut over two years,” Carroll said. “As opposed to the money they have to cut now, it seems like chump change.”

Like the current leadership, Carroll took over during a time when it looked like the state would have a surplus and Democrats would be able to push some of their legislative priorities forward.

“But all of a sudden, the bubble burst,” he said.

Now, as he keeps track of what state lawmakers are doing from his law office just a couple of blocks away from the state capitol, he can’t help but to feel bad for them.

“I can tell you from a personal perspective, I lost a lot of sleep over two years because of what we had to do with the budget because it was the great unknown,” he said.

There are things Carroll thinks the legislature did well during that time but also mistakes he hopes today’s lawmakers will not repeat.

One of his big regrets is not finding a way to protect more funding for higher education. The budget stabilization factor (also known as the negative factor) for K-12 education was also developed during his tenure, which restructured school finance.

“I wish we could’ve avoided that but that’s one of the things we did to try to keep the state education fund whole,” Carroll said. “Really, it was something to try to ease the pain and make it across the board. It didn’t quite work out that way.”

The negative factor is still having an effect on school finance a decade later.

Carroll hopes the members of the Joint Budget Committee and legislature keep in mind as they move forward that the decisions they are making now will affect the state for years to come.

He also projects some similar cuts to the ones that happened in 2009 and 2010 for the old age pension fund, programs like meals on wheels, the senior property tax exemption as well as the closure of some correctional facilities and less reliance on private prisons.

Any decision lawmakers make today could also take a toll on their political future.

“People will look at what types of votes you took," Carroll said. "What areas of the budget did you target? For instance, if you cut funds to the department of corrections, does that make you soft on crime? What does that say about your values? And, someone may make an ad about that."

Carroll’s best advice to the lawmakers of today is to work together, assume everything is on the table and to be open with their constituents about the circumstances.

“Be honest and transparent with the people of Colorado, don’t play hide the ball. Folks will understand much better what’s going on if we’re clear from the very beginning,” he said.

In the end, though, Carroll knows all too well there are no easy answers when the budget situation is this dire.

A Look Ahead

In its 125-year history, the Colorado state capitol has been no stranger to change. Some of those changes have been physical, like refurbishing the iconic gold dome or, in a COVID-19 world, installing plexiglass guards between the seats of lawmakers.

As state lawmakers return to the capitol, more change is on the way in the form of deep budget cuts and help to families and businesses hurt by the pandemic.

There are no easy answers for how to move forward. For lawmakers, they’re hoping the swift economic downturn is followed by a quick recovery so that Colorado can get back to work.