DENVER — Colorado lawmakers convened Wednesday to mark the start of the 2021 legislative session.
The day was absent of the normal pomp and circumstance, since most members didn’t bring in their families, and the normal jovial atmosphere of lawmakers seeing each other for the first time in months was non-existent.
“A little bit of somberness — I think it’s appropriate for what’s going on, and it calls to mind more of the duty aspect of it and the fact that we are here to do the work,” said incoming Rep. David Ortiz.
The halls of the Capitol and in the house and senate gallery were also emptier than normal with COVID-19 restrictions in place. There was, however, an increased presence of state troops around the building and in the halls as a result of last week’s riots in Washington, D.C.
The legislature is planning to convene for three days to pass several COVID-specific bill before adjourning for a month until Colorado’s COVID-19 numbers are lower and legislative members have a chance to get vaccinated.
“This will give us another month as a state for the vaccine to be deployed,” Sen. Chris Holbert said.
Among the bills being introduced over the three-day period is one to allow political parties to hold their organizational meetings remotely over the next few weeks to elect a chair and vice-chair.
“What we’re doing now is stuff that is timely in terms of deadlines that are expiring on debt collection, deadlines expiring on allowing aging Coloradans to sign their wills remotely, and we’re making sure that we’re cleaning up some things that we didn’t get exactly right during the special session to make sure money can get out to businesses that need it most,” Rep. Alec Garnett said.
Another bill will change some of the language to Senate bill 1, which passed during the special session to provide relief to small businesses. Of the $37 million in state grant money, roughly $4 million was set aside for minority-owned and historically disadvantaged businesses.
That part has faced legal challenges, so lawmakers said they would like to clean up the language so that the money for businesses isn’t at risk.
“We want to make sure we are going to release money to small businesses, and then, all of a sudden, we have to take it back or a court ruling or there could be some sort of penalty.” Sen. Steve Fenberg said.
Opening day also involved a fair bit of drama; first, republicans objected to appointing Garnett as the Speaker of the House. Minority leader Rep. Hugh McKean was also nominated to serve as speaker and a roll call vote was called, something that hasn’t happened before in Colorado. Garnett was eventually voted to be the speaker, though, and business continued.
“I think this was more a fight among the House Caucus then it was about me in particular. I think some members of the House Caucus were trying to put some members of the House Caucus on the record as voting for a Democrat. I hope that as the Republicans move forward, they can sort out the differences they may have with each other and make sure that it doesn’t infringe on the decorum and traditions,” Garnett said.
The drama continued in the House through the afternoon and into the evening as Republicans also objected to some of the temporary rules the legislature was trying to put in place due to COVID-19, including rule 44.
Normally, the vote on rules for the legislative session happen quickly and do not dominate opening day. However, Republicans expressed concerns with some of the COVID-19 changes, like remote testimony and not serving 120 consecutive days. The discussion lasted until nearly 5 p.m. before bills were eventually introduced and members broke out into committees.
“Unfortunately, the Republicans have set a tone today that is one where they are going to be dismissive right out of the gate. That’s unfortunate,” said Rep. Leslie Herod.
She believes the partisanship playing out on a national level is trickling down into state and local politics.
“The divisiveness is clear. Today was the first time that we voted for our speaker by a recorded vote on the floor, which is something that’s never happened before,” Herod said. “It is more divisive, but it doesn’t stop us from doing the work that we need to get done.”
Sen. Holbert, on the other hand, believes there should be some discussion this legislative session about the amount of power the executive branch has during emergency declarations in the future.
“The executive branch assumes a great deal of power, sort of one branch of government making all the decisions that isn’t very normal. It isn’t at all normal for how Colorado works as a local control state,” Holbert said. “We do want to have a conversation about the next pandemic and the next time that we’re under a long 10, 11 or 12 month declared disaster emergency, should the legislative branch have some role in that.”
Despite the drama, legislators said they are hoping they will be able to work in a bipartisan manner to help the state recover from COVID-19.
Lawmakers are hoping to wrap up this so-called soft start to the special session by Friday before recessing for a month. During that time, they will be finalizing the drafts of their bills for the session and holding town halls to speak to constituents.