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Politics and Government

Colorado governor slashes state spending, outlaws evictions and keeps ski areas closed in series of late-night orders

Gov. Jared Polis said Colorado does not have the money “to carry on the functions of the state government.” He also directed his administration to funnel money toward nursing homes, which have been hard hit by the coronavirus

Gov. Jared Polis speaks to reporters on Wednesday, April 29, 2020, at the Colorado Capitol. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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In a late-night executive order, Gov. Jared Polis declared Colorado does not have the money “to carry on the functions of the state government” amid the coronavirus and immediately slashed $229 million in spending.

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The emergency move to reduce state services — included among a series of other executive orders limiting evictions, boosting the response to coronavirus outbreaks at nursing homes and extending the closures of ski areas — is one of the most significant actions the Democratic governor has taken to address the impact of the coronavirus. And it’s possible more cuts will come from Polis in the weeks ahead.

“The economic disruption associated with (COVID-19) is causing precipitous and significant revenue shortfalls for the state,” the governor’s budget director Lauren Larson wrote in a letter to state lawmakers. “These are challenging times that force difficult financial decisions to maintain a balanced budget.”

When revenues decline so sharply that it will drain half or more of the state’s $800 million-plus reserve fund, Polis is required by law to notify lawmakers and develop a plan to reduce the $30.5 billion budget. 

The governor’s office made the order public after 9:30 p.m. and did not respond to repeated messages from The Colorado Sun seeking explanation. In the letter to lawmakers, Larson said the administration did not rely on “broad across-the-board cuts but rather specific line item reductions that can be made with the least possible impact to state programs and services.”

State Sen. Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat who sits on the legislature’s Joint Budget Committee, says lawmakers were notified of the cuts a day earlier. The budget committee is scheduled to reconvene Monday to address the current budget and the next.

“It’s scary and it demonstrates the magnitude of the revenue declines that we can expect this fiscal year and next fiscal year,” he said.

MORE: The Joint Budget Committee will begin meeting next week to consider recommended spending cuts, but they still may not be enough to balance the budget

The administration highlighted the fact that it does not mandate any immediate layoffs or furloughs of state employees in the next two months but leaves open the possibility in the next fiscal year. “We want to ensure we have a strong, stable state workforce as we manage the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Larson wrote.

The bulk of the spending reductions — $183 million, or 80% — come from Medicaid, the government health insurance program for low-income residents and people with disabilities.

The other cuts in services — which run through June 30, the end of the current fiscal year — affect 16 different agencies, saving big and small sums in a range of areas:

  • A reduction in state spending on private prison beds and programs, which saves $1.4 million
  • The elimination of new $500,000 student debt repayment program for teachers 
  • A $200,000 trim in spending on the child welfare hotline
  • A cumulative $4 million decrease in educational, medical and other services to juvenile offenders in the Division of Youth Services
  • The cancellation of $4.9 million in the Office of Information Technology for a system aimed at helping businesses navigate Colorado’s sales tax system
  • A series of public safety educations, such as $45,000 for the state’s Safe2Tell program, $90,000 for the Colorado Bureau of Investigation division that oversees the sex offender registry and other programs, $80,000 for the state crime lab and $100,000 for the Colorado State Patrol

MORE: Read the list of budget cuts. 

Orders directing money to nursing homes, outlawing evictions

The surprise orders came without warning and arrived as Polis began loosening some restrictions on Coloradans’ movements this week after more than a month under the previous stay-at-home order, Combined with the effect of the virus, the shutdown mandates have crippled the state’s economy

Some of the new orders are aimed at bolstering the state’s response to the coronavirus crisis, while others aim to protect those harmed economically by the fallout. There are also directives geared toward keeping people at home as much as possible and not traveling across Colorado. 

Gov. Jared Polis said Colorado does not have the money “to carry on the functions of the state government.” He also directed his administration to funnel money toward nursing homes, which have been hard hit by the coronavirus

More than 1,400 staff of nursing homes and senior care centers have also been infected with coronavirus. 

The Centennial Healthcare Center in Greeley, where at least 17 residents’ deaths have been tied to the new coronavirus. (Joe St. George, Fox31)

The state’s Health Care Policy and Financing department “must direct the funds to be used by the facilities to provide services that result in better care and higher quality of life for their residents during the COVID-19 emergency,” the order says.

It wasn’t clear from the order how much money would be channeled toward those facilities. 

Polis outlawed evictions for at least 30 days based on the ability of a homeowner or renter to pay their rent or mortgage after saying early on in the coronavirus crisis that he didn’t have the power to do so. Tenant advocates have been pushing him for weeks to take this action.

MORE: Read Gov. Jared Polis’ new executive order on evictions

If a tenant poses an “imminent and serious threat to another individual or causes significant damage to property” they may still, however, be removed from a property.

Landlords also are prohibited from charging late fees or penalties for overdue rent. 

Landlords, under the orders, are also directed to notify their tenants of their federal protections under the $2 trillion federal coronavirus stimulus bill passed last month by Congress. The legislation provided protections for renters if their landlord’s property is backed by a federal mortgage. 

Finally, the order directs the Department of Local Affairs to work with property owners and landlords to create model rent repayment agreements for tenants who cannot cover their rent. 

The orders also extends for 30 days guidance to utilities that they not shut off customers’ water or power if they miss payments. 

The governor also issued an order preventing ski areas from reopening until at least May 23. The extension comes the same day the owner of Wolf Creek ski area in southwest Colorado announced locally-approved plans to allow skiers back onto his slopes as early as this weekend. 

EARLIER: Owner of Wolf Creek ski area wants to reopen this weekend. But first he has a major hoop to jump through.

Arapahoe Basin Ski Area in Summit County has also been hoping to reopen in the coming weeks. Chief Operating Officer Alan Henceroth said he thinks snow conditions will allow A-Basin to stay open until late June. Aspen Skiing Co. also has expressed hope to open its Aspen Highlands ski area before the snow melts.

Polis also extended until May 30 an order allowing county clerks to issue marriage licenses through the internet.

In a new order, he delayed the deadline for unaffiliated candidates to submit the necessary signatures to qualify for the November ballot given the trouble circulating petitions amid the pandemic.

Rising Sun