Even with the Capitol closed indefinitely and the legislative session in limbo, Colorado lawmakers are working behind the scenes on legislation to address the new coronavirus outbreak.
COVID-19 IN COLORADO
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One of the new priorities includes action to accelerate a pay hike for Colorado National Guard members activated in response to the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Gov. Jared Polis signed legislation Wednesday to increase the minimum pay from the current rate of $1.67 an hour, but it won’t take effect for months.
In response to a Colorado Sun story, Democratic and Republican legislative leaders said they support a move to fast-forward the increase. “That’s something we could do and would want to do,” said House Speaker KC Becker, D-Boulder.
The General Assembly temporarily recessed the legislative session to March 30, but it’s increasingly unlikely the term will actually resume then. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is advising against gatherings of 50 people or more for the next eight weeks and Polis is considering other social distancing mandates.
In a call with reporters Wednesday, Becker said the legislature could “just gavel in and gavel out again” and extend the break. A big factor is pending legal guidance from the Colorado Supreme Court about whether the 120-day session can extend past the scheduled May 6 adjournment date.
“I would say there are any number of possibilities depending on what the Supreme Court says,” Becker said. The main consideration, she continued, is the “critical legislation that we have to get done and how much time we have to get it done in.”
Sen. Chris Holbert, the Republican minority leader, put it more bluntly: “There is a growing amount of uncertainty as to how long this lasts. And a growing likelihood that the governor is going to have to call one or more special sessions” later this year.
MORE: Colorado lawmakers upend the legislative session with decision to adjourn. Here’s what comes next.
In the immediate future, the $32 billion state budget bill is top of mind. An economic forecast presented to lawmakers earlier this week indicates that state tax revenues could fall $426 million short of what is needed to adjust current spending for inflation and population growth.
Much of the legislation proposed this session that includes costs to create new programs now faces an uncertain future in order to balance the budget. The COVID-19 crisis also may demand more state dollars. “Right now, we are in the mode of looking to make a lot of cuts so adding new spending … if it’s not immediately connected to the pandemic, is just not likely to happen,” Becker said.
One area where Democrats don’t want to cut is education. The Democratic majority in the House plans to prioritize continued downpayment of the debt owed to school districts known as the negative factor. But given the unknowns, “we can’t absolutely rule out anything,” Becker said.
MORE: The economic impact of the coronavirus is huge. Now Colorado lawmakers are looking at a budget deficit.
Even Republicans, who support less government spending, acknowledged the challenges ahead. “There is no political spiking of the football that revenue is changing dramatically — that’s a very hard thing and we are all going to have to deal with it,” Holbert said.
The other legislation now being considered in response to the pandemic includes a possible measure to prohibit price gouging and new life for legislation to create a program for paid sick and medical leave for workers.
Other conversations include how to provide immediate relief to businesses, particularly for the retail and restaurant sectors where most of the layoffs are occurring.
In terms of a state stimulus package, state legislative leaders are awaiting federal government action before they respond. “We are waiting to see what the feds do, or don’t do, and then where really we would fill in the gaps,” Becker said. “And if there are legislative fixes that aren’t money, what can we do.”