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Politics and Government

Colorado legislature shuts down for 2 weeks because of coronavirus

All pending legislation will remain in place until lawmakers return to finish the 120-day lawmaking term

Lawmakers meet in the Colorado House of Representatives on May 1, 2019. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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UPDATE: Just before 12:30 p.m. on Saturday, the legislature passed a resolution to take a recess of two weeks.

The Colorado legislature will temporarily shut down for at least two weeks effective Saturday after leadership at the Capitol decided it is unsafe to continue lawmaking with the new coronavirus spreading rapidly across the state

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“I think all 100 members of this General Assembly want to do their job, we don’t want to go home,” said Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat who sits on the executive committee. “But we also want to make sure people are safe and we are modeling the appropriate behavior that should be happening and take this situation very seriously — because it is very serious.”

The decision was formalized Friday in a resolution by the Executive Committee of the Legislative Council, a group of six top Democrats — including Fenberg — and Republicans in the statehouse. It still has to pass both chambers of the legislature, but is expected to be adopted with ease.

“This is the most appropriate decision for the legislature,” said House Majority Leader Alec Garnett, a Denver Democrat who also sits on the Executive Committee.

The pause in lawmaking had been expected, but it wasn’t clear until Friday afternoon when the Capitol would close and for how long. The decision was made about an hour after Colorado’s first death from the coronavirus was announced, an El Paso County woman in her 80s

All pending legislation will remain in place until lawmakers return on March 30. They may decide to elongate the recess if the coronavirus continues to spread and leadership decides it remains unsafe to resume lawmaking. 

“It’s possible we could extend that,” said House Speaker KC Becker, a Boulder Democrat.

A note on the door of the Colorado Senate Wednesday, March 11, 2020, asking visitors to send emails to lawmakers instead of passing them business cards or notes. “I’m not a health expert,” said Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, a Parker Republican. “But if large groups of people congregating in a confined area increases the chance of spreading it, it kind of seems like something we ought to avoid.” (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, a Parker Republican, stressed that the GOP was not planning to play politics with the legislative pause.

“This is not a political discussion, this is not about trying to burn the clock, to run down the clock,” said Holbert. “… This is about doing what’s right for the people of Colorado. This is about protecting the people.”

Lawmakers will return to the Capitol on Saturday for a rare day of weekend lawmaking to finish passing several measures — including the resolution shutting down the legislature — they say must be completed before they can take a break. It’s likely that the recess will begin about midday. 

The General Assembly cannot adjourn indefinitely. Lawmakers must return to pass the estimated $32 billion state budget by June 30. 

The Joint Budget Committee, the panel that writes the budget, is expected to continue working during the recess. It will receive an economic forecast on Monday a key step toward finishing the budget, which is expected to be ready for introduction when lawmakers return.

The forecast could paint a grim picture of state revenues as the economy slumps because of the virus and the budget committee also could have to set aside money to address the public health emergency. It’s likely that budget writers will spend the next two weeks rewriting their almost-finished document accordingly.

From left: House Majority Leader Alec Garnett, D-Denver, House Speaker KC Becker, D-Denver, Senate President Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, and Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, address the media after drafting a resolution to shutter the legislature on March 13, 2020. (Moe Clark, The Colorado Sun)

Becker told her Democratic colleagues to plan for a dearth of dollars and it’s possible that some priorities could see reduced funding. “Don’t plan on having a lot of money to spend” on legislation, she told them Thursday.

The legislature was originally scheduled to wrap up the 120-day session on May 6. But the recess could push that date back.

The legislature is asking the Colorado Supreme Court for clarity on whether they can extend the lawmaking term beyond that date.

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