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Politics and Government

Colorado lawmakers set date for return, hoping the worst of the coronavirus will pass

The suspended legislative session will resume May 18 but legislative budget writers will get started sooner

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis delivers his second State of the State address in the House chambers at the state Capitol on Jan. 9, 2020. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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The General Assembly tentatively plans to resume the legislative session May 18 after a two-month hiatus amid the coronavirus.

The Democratic leadership set the date during a meeting Wednesday at the closed state Capitol but suggested it may change depending on the status of the public health crisis.

“Keep in mind, a lot could change between now and then, and I think it’s important that we remain flexible and pay very close attention to where we are in regards to the risks to public health,” said House Majority Leader Alec Garnett, D-Denver.

The Executive Committee of the Legislative Council, which includes the top-ranking lawmakers from each party, spoke in muffled tones through face masks, sitting at least 6 feet apart at the front of a mostly empty room.

The House and Senate put no end date on the legislative term and continue to refine the agenda for the rest of the session. The same physical distancing practices at the committee meeting are expected to be the norm when lawmakers return.

The statewide stay-at-home order issued by Colorado Gov. Jared Polis runs through at least April 26, but doesn’t apply to the legislative branch. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended the cancellation of gatherings with 50 or more people through May 10.

The legislature temporarily adjourned March 14 as the spread of the COVID-19 disease began to accelerate, and it set a return date of March 30, only to indefinitely extend the break. A subsequent Colorado Supreme Court ruling gave the legislature flexibility to extend the session beyond the original May 6 adjournment date because of the ongoing threats to public health.

Legislative leaders are discussing whether to hold remote hearings, but obstacles remain to make them accessible for lawmakers and inclusive to the public. Furthermore, it would require a legislative rule change by a two-thirds vote, meaning lawmakers would need to return to the Capitol.

The timeline to restart session is guided by the need to finish the state budget, but legislative leaders said they are consulting COVID-19 models to determine whether it’s safe to call back lawmakers.

Garnett said the data shows Colorado will hit peak in late April. “If we haven’t hit that point, and we are continuing to see an increased health risk, thats when I think the executive committee would revisit that date,” he said after the meeting.

A week before the two chambers return, the budget committee plans to regroup the week of May 11 and finalize the $32 billion spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1. 

The must-pass budget remains the largest obstacle. The March economic forecast suggested lawmakers will need to cut spending to address a $1.5 billion decline in state revenue over the next three years related to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

House Speaker KC Becker, D-Boulder, estimates the budget hole is closer to $2 billion or more, and lawmakers have requested an updated fiscal forecast before the Joint Budget Committee gets back to work.

The legislature expects to send the budget to the governor by May 30, if not sooner.

Senate Democratic leader Steve Fenberg said the rest of the agenda “is TBD right now.” The Boulder lawmaker said it’s not clear what legislative action will be needed to address the public health situation, but health care and the economy are the most prominent issues.

Even as leaders set a date to resume, it remains unclear when the session may end. Each lawmaking term is 120 days, and 52 days remain, meaning it could extend into July. All lawmakers can still receive per-diem pay despite the hiatus.

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