Regular sessions of the Colorado legislature are, in many ways, carefully choreographed productions with bill language and scheduling and ultimately votes determined mostly in advance of whatever takes place in the public view.
The legislature’s upcoming special session, which begins at 10 a.m. Monday, will be even more strictly choreographed. With the coronavirus spreading uncontrolled throughout the state, lawmakers hope to spend as little time together as possible, and so they enter the special session with a specific and limited game plan. If all goes as expected, they’ll be in and out of the Capitol in three days — the minimum time it takes to pass a bill — having passed at least seven measures (and probably no more than 10) that’ll spread a total of about $328 million in COVID-19 relief around the state — $228 million in economic stimulus and $100 million to protect public health.
“Our objective is to go in there with precision, focused, with a greater majority on the items we’ve already identified and talked about,” said state Senate President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo. “There’s not time or need for any sorts of shenanigans, and they wont be tolerated by me.”
Everyone seems to be mostly on the same page.
Said state Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, R-Parker, “I don’t think there will be a lot of what generically might be referred to as filibustering. Maybe, but I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of that, because most of the bills will have bipartisan support. I think that takes away from extended arguments.”
Lawmakers and Gov. Jared Polis, who issued the call for the special session after consultation with the Democrats who run the legislature, also are in general agreement about state relief spending heading into Monday.
The plan, according to several lawmakers, is to allocate:
- $105 million in tax relief and direct aid for businesses.
- $100 million for public health response.
- $50 million for housing relief, including rental assistance.
- $45 million for child care providers.
- $20 million for expanded broadband access, with a focus on helping students.
- $3 million to address food insecurity.
- $5 million for utility payment assistance.
Lawmakers are hopeful that the Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse the money spent on public health response, whereas the remainder will simply be one-time General Fund expenditures. They stressed that the figures attached to the bills are merely starting points, and could be adjusted up or down during the process of passing the bill package.
“While these are the plans and these are the objectives we’re reaching towards, this is a democratic process,” Garcia said.
Whatever the final amount, it will be but a fraction of the relief money the state received from the federal CARES Act in the spring. Colorado cannot deficit-spend, unlike the federal government, and it faces a highly uncertain economic future that limits lawmakers’ ambitions for new spending. Democrats and Republicans alike have been clear that this special session will not cure Colorado’s many ills, though they do expect it will help.
Lawmakers have been open about the fact that they wouldn’t be having this special session if Congress had recently passed a new stimulus. Without one, though, they say they can’t delay.
The legislature is not expected to pass or even seriously consider many bills outside of the special session’s core half-dozen or so. There are multiple reasons for this, starting with the limited scope of the governor’s order for this session. Polis identified seven areas of focus — small business relief, child care support, housing and renter assistance, broadband access, food security, utilities assistance and public health — and legislation passed this week must stay on topic.
But many more bills will be introduced than will pass. As of Sunday evening, lawmakers had filed about 30 bills — most of which will be dead on arrival. All bills have been posted online at the legislature’s site.
The legislature’s regular 2021 session is set to begin Jan. 13, so lawmakers and the governor recognize that there will be plenty of opportunity soon for more a more wide-ranging and deliberative lawmaking process. It’s likely that some of the bills brought during the special session that almost no chance of passing will serve as previews of legislation to come in January.
As of Tuesday, the state estimated 1 in 41 Coloradans was contagious with COVID-19. It’s even worse in certain areas; the estimate for Pueblo, for example, was 1 in 29 as of Wednesday night. The state’s total coronavirus death toll stands just shy of 3,000, and state health officials warn it could double by the time the regular legislative session begins.
And so lawmakers will be even more careful this week than they were during the back half of the 2020 regular session, which featured temperature checks at the front door, remote participation options, acrylic partitions in the House and a mask rule that was followed mostly by Democrats and only somewhat by Republicans. (Senate Republicans were much stricter about mask-wearing than House Republicans, who as recently as mid-November convened an indoor caucus meeting in which 23 of 24 members were maskless.)
It’s expected that a significant portion of the 100-member legislature will participate from home, voting and speaking by video. The Senate will only convene two committees and the House will convene four, and shrink the size of those committees down to nine members each. Lawmakers in leadership have told their members to feel especially free to work from home if they do not sit on committees that are meeting.
About 10% of the legislature worked from home during the spring portion of this year’s regular session, and that figure will surely climb this week.
According to a memo that went out to lawmakers, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment will provide KN95 masks — one mask per person, per day — to lawmakers and staff who participate in person. Lawmakers have been asked to get COVID-19 tests ahead of the session, and the memo stated that rapid tests will be available during the week. Some lawmakers arranged to stay in hotels or otherwise isolate from their family during and after the session.
While legislative leaders have made clear that they do not want crowds at the Capitol, the special session will technically be open to the public, including lobbyists. Members of the public who do attend in person will be asked to follow public health guidelines.
But both the Senate and House plan to pass resolutions Monday to allow for remote testimony. Citizens can sign up to speak, or to submit a written comment, through the legislature’s site.
As always, committee chairs have the power to limit testimony to a set amount of time, and they may wield that power in the event that a bill draws a long list of speakers, in the interest of keeping the special session short.
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