In an unprecedented move, the Colorado General Assembly temporarily adjourned in the middle of its lawmaking session Saturday to encourage social distancing and help prevent the spread of the new coronavirus amid a national emergency.
House Speaker KC Becker called it “a very solemn” occasion as she introduced the resolution to pause the session for two weeks. “Over the last week, COVID-19 has gone from a concern to an urgent, pervasive and incredibly important issue for all of us in Colorado to address quickly,” the Boulder Democrat said.
In the Senate, Republican leader Chris Holbert added: “There’s no indication that it is here (in the Capitol). But we can’t be so naive to think that it isn’t.”
The temporary stoppage could be extended if public health concerns persist, and top lawmakers acknowledged that questions remain about whether the session will ever restart. Asked about the second half of the lawmaking term, Becker cautioned: “If it happens.”
Colorado lawmakers approved a second resolution to seek legal guidance from the Colorado Supreme Court on whether the stoppage allows the session to extend an additional two weeks past the original May 6 adjournment. It’s not clear if the court will take the question.
In the break, the Democratic leaders are reassessing the path forward to determine the new legislative priorities and how to address an anticipated economic downturn in Colorado from the public health crisis related to COVID-19.
“It moves some things up in the priority list, it moves … things down in the priority list. It adds things to the list. It shuffles our entire budget picture,” Becker said. “So there’s going to be a whole lot of work to get done.”
The break scrambles the Democratic agenda
The 120-day session reached the halfway mark March 7, but much of the major legislation pushed by Gov. Jared Polis and Democratic remains in the works.
The to-do list includes bills to create a public health insurance option and a retirement plan for all workers, as well as measures to expand mental health coverage, address the opioid crisis and add firearm regulations to address gun violence.
Other legislation is still being drafted, most notably a bill to boost transportation spending and address traffic congestion and crumbling roads.
The new items expected to be added to the agenda include legislation to fund the response to the outbreak, buttress unemployment insurance and prohibit price gouging in disaster situations. And Democratic leaders believe the crisis makes the need more urgent for a statewide paid sick leave program.
“We have to go through the bills out there, or the ones that are planned for introduction, and say, ‘What is the importance of these? What do we really need to move forward on?’” Becker said. “I think we also want to see where the public is in a few weeks, and what has really changed in the public’s mind about what’s really important.”
The legislation now on the chopping block includes any bills with big price tags. The legislative budget committee will still meet Monday to hear revenue forecasts that will determine how much the state can spend in the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.
“We are anticipating that this crisis will have quite an effect on the state economy and the state’s budget,” said Sen. Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat and budget writer.
The lawmaking will continue, but largely in private
The Joint Budget Committee’s meeting is open to the public, but Moreno asked those interested to listen online rather than attend in person. The committee hopes to take a series of votes to finalize the budget bill — the only must pass legislation — as soon as next week.
The meeting is a signal that lawmaking will continue in the next two weeks, even though much of it will take place on the sidelines outside the public’s view. The lawmakers and their staff will continue to get paid during the break if they are working.
Only select committees will meet in the next two weeks, but lawmakers made clear they will continue to talk with lobbyists and interested parties in private, all in the hopes that they can advance more quickly when the legislature returns March 30.
Rep. Dylan Roberts, D-Avon, is the sponsor of the measure to create a public health insurance option for the individual market. He said he plans to keep fine-tuning the measure in the days to come. “It’s hard to tell exactly when we officially will be coming back … but I’ll still be working on the bill,” he said. “We are still working on amendments and changes, and so we will do that via conference call or remotely.”
Republican state Sen. Paul Lundeen said he plans to continue tweaking his data privacy bill and consult with people outside the building to inform potential amendments. “The constitution is very clear about what the session looks like, but the work of the legislature is year-round in my opinion,” the Monument lawmaker said.
All this behind-the-scenes lawmaking takes place now, but when it occurs in the Capitol it allows greater access for the public and the media to track the work.
Before they left town, the legislative leaders in both parties said public participation is key to the process. Becker framed the decision to adjourn as a “Hobson’s choice of wanting to preserve public safety but also wanting to be available as legislators.” But the leadership said it is not worried about transparency, pointing to the fact that lawmaking already takes place in between the sessions.
Partisanship and playful banter on the final day before the break
Before leaving town, the legislature approved various bills to send to the governor, including a contested measure to require insurance companies cover the cost of infertility treatment.
The resolution to adjourn won universal approval on a voice vote in both chambers with little discussion, but the second measure to request an opinion from the state Supreme Court about the length of the session led to a partisan dispute.
The question the legislature wants the court to address is whether the constitutional time limit on the session approved by voters in 1988 is 120 consecutive days or calendar days. The session typically runs consecutively, but a legislative rule allows the General Assembly to count calendar days if the governor declares a state public health emergency.
In the final hours, the mood became playful with last-day antics that blended uneasily with concerns about the coronavirus.
A legislative staff member wore disposable gloves as he processed bills, and a term-limited lawmaker joked that it was her final day at the Capitol.