In the clearest sign yet that the Colorado legislature is nearing a temporary shut down in response to the new coronavirus, top lawmakers on Thursday rushed toward votes on legislation they say must pass before a recess.
The stoppage, which legislative leaders say is imminent, could come as soon as this weekend after the General Assembly ties off loose ends.
A new bill introduced Thursday afternoon will allow the state’s political parties to delay assemblies and conventions — scheduled to begin Saturday — because of the coronavirus. The measure also gives them leeway to consider remote voting methods in order to avoid convening large crowds with populations vulnerable to COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.
The House rushed the measure — House Bill 1359 — through its first two votes hours after introduction on Thursday evening in order to allow for final passage in the Senate as soon as Saturday. Leadership says it must pass before they break and told lawmakers to prepare to return to the Capitol on Saturday.
“We are on the fastest track that we can be,” House Majority Leader Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat, told reporters. “This isn’t like just canceling school or canceling an event. We have to make sure we are thinking through the bills that we must pass and we are thinking through what we must do to go into recess. We’re in the process of just getting our house in order.”
The major outstanding item is the state budget — the only bill that lawmakers are required by the state constitution to approve each year — but lawmakers have until the end of June to finalize it. The legislative budget bill is separate and nearing approval, and leaders are considering whether to add provisions to continue paying themselves and staffers who are put out of work because of the stoppage.
Any recess is expected to be temporary, said House Speaker KC Becker, a Boulder Democrat, but it’s not clear when the legislature would return and pick back up the work. To keep the budget on track, the leadership is discussing whether to allow the Joint Budget Committee to continue work even while other lawmaking is halted.
The rapidly changing situation prompted anxiety at the Capitol on Thursday, where lawmakers were told to be flexible but also to stay calm amid the uncertainty. The day began with Democrats gathering in a hastily organized, meant-to-be-secret meeting where Becker urged calm and excoriated her members for spreading rumors to the press about the virus and a potential Capitol shutdown.
“It is helpful if people don’t spread rumors,” she said. “Because I keep having people come to me saying ‘I hear this,’ ‘I hear that.’”
In a matter of days the question of whether to continue the legislative session has gone from wait-and-see to a frenzy of closed-door meetings and action, mimicking the coronavirus’ rapid spread and the pressure it’s putting on state government.
The virus had infected at least 49 people in Colorado through midday Thursday. Gov. Jared Polis earlier this week declared a state of emergency and warned Wednesday that the situation will worsen.
Delaying county assemblies for coronavirus
The quick drafting and introduction of the bipartisan bill to change the county assembly and convention dates came after a flurry of meetings with the Democratic and Republican party leaders.
The county assemblies are crucial because it’s one way candidates — including in the marquee U.S. Senate race — can qualify for the June primary ballot. The other method is collecting signatures from voters. The process cannot be altered without the passage of a law.
Under legislative rules, lawmakers can approve a bill in as little as three days with a suspension of the rules, and it’s now likely they will work through the weekend to do so.
House Bill 1359 allows the parties to delay county assemblies and conventions — which typically draw hundreds of party members and skew older — until April 11. The statewide meetings, set now for April 18, would need to take place by April 25. The remote voting, if approved by the party, could include email, mobile application or other means, conducted over a seven-day period.
“What this is doing is really taking into consideration the large groups of delegates that are going to be coming together, much of which is an at-risk population that could be very vulnerable to the spread of the coronavirus,” Garnett said. “So for the first time, in this very narrow instance, we’re allowing the parties to amend their rules … to take into consideration this public health crisis.”
The first version didn’t include extra time for the candidates who are collecting signatures. Lorena Garcia, a Democratic U.S. Senate candidate, suggested it’s unfair to allow more time for one and not the other. “The legislature needs to take action because of the fact that we are putting our canvassers, our volunteers, at risk going door to door,” she said.
The measure’s introduction came as Garcia was canvassing door to door in Colorado Springs, asking voters to sign her petitions. People were home when she knocked — one upside of the concern about the disease. But it took a little extra encouragement to get them to sign.
Garcia carried a small bottle of sanitizer with her and wiped down the pen before handing it to each person. Once done, she squirted another dose of sanitizer in the person’s hands. “There’s not really too much alarm,” she said. “They’ll sign and then they’ll wash their hands.”
What else needs to get done at the Capitol?
Beyond the new bill, there are several other measures legislative leadership is considering before they hit the pause button, including:
- A resolution asking the Colorado Supreme Court for clarity on whether they can extend the lawmaking term past May 6, when it is set to end, if they take a break.
- A bill that addresses state rules and regulations, which is already nearing passage
- A resolution that defines when the recess begins and how long it would last
The question for the Colorado Supreme Court is crucial because there is a massive slate of legislation — including some of Democrats’ and Polis’ biggest priorities — either waiting for passage or introduction.
Some Republicans are suggesting a halt to lawmaker is the way to stop the legislation, but Democrats are committed to pressing their agenda forward.
While the legislature’s rules say the General Assembly can pause and continue past its end date when the governor declares an emergency, state Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs, argued this week that doing so would be unconstitutional.
But it’s unlikely the Supreme Court would offer an opinion before lawmakers are forced to take a coronavirus recess. “I don’t think that the answer to that question will be back before we decide (to recess),” Garnett said.
Legislative leadership — with a commitment from the Capitol’s top Republicans not to take political advantage of the situation to limit what bills Democrats can pass — say they don’t plan to wait for the court’s answer because public safety is paramount.
Garnett floated the option of Polis calling a special legislative session after May 6 if the Supreme Court rules that lawmakers can’t continue past that date. “The governor can always call a special session and bring us back in,” he said.
Conor Cahill, a spokesman for Polis, indicated that the governor may do just that.
“At this point, the General Assembly is still conducting business as part of its regular session,” Cahill said in a written statement. “The governor would contemplate a special session if it is necessary to do so following the conclusion of the current regular session.”